When word emerged that Greg Daniels and NBC would be attempting an American reboot of the hit British comedy The Office, it was met with a singularly reigning sentiment: “It’ll never work.” The track record for that kind of faithful retelling hadn’t exactly been great. In fact, the network was already dealing with the disastrous results of Coupling, which lasted four whole episodes before getting yanked off the air. But what Daniels and his team recognized was an opportunity to create television that strayed from a template popularized by network juggernaut Friends—shows about sexy singles living it up in the big city. This was a chance to try something fresh, even if it was a retelling, with characters that resembled people the average viewer encountered on a daily basis. With sharp observational wit and cringe-inducing antics, The Office not only became one of the best workplace comedies, but one of the most culturally beloved sitcoms of a generation.
Writer Andy Greene puts one of the most resonant sitcoms in American comedy under a microscope in his in-depth oral history, The Office: The Untold Story Of The Greatest Sitcom Of The 2000s. Even for the most insatiable fan, this rendering provides some of the most surprising revelations via an award-winning (and still quite passionate) cast and crew. Here are a few tidbits from the over 400-page oral history, courtesy of Scranton’s finest.
After losing their shared radio gig at British startup radio station XFM in August of 1998, budding comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant began working on a TV show inspired by a training course that Merchant once took at the BBC. Trading observations from their experiences in different offices, the duo formulated a demo called Seedy Boss, which featured an “early, crude version” of Gervais’ tentpole character, David Brent, and various archetypal characters. Ash Atalla, a producer on the original Office, says the demo went viral within the comedy community: “Seedy Boss was passed around in comedy circles. There was a bit of a buzz growing around it. And a few producers and directors started circling. And then we set up a meeting with Jon Plowman at the BBC to see about turning it into a series.”
We would never recommend showing up to a job interview with a bad attitude or trashing the company to your potential boss. However, such behavior was apparently instrumental in Leslie David Baker and John Krasinski landing the parts of Stanley Hudson and Jim Halpert, respectively. On his way from another audition in Culver City, Baker’s commute was made difficult by, as he describes it, “old people driving slow, children darting in the street, locusts falling from the heavens, whatever could slow [him] down.” By the time he arrived to his Office callback, he was disheveled and grouchy. “I guarantee you that helped his audition, because he was funny and he was cantankerous and that was the character,” said casting director Allison Jones.
As for Krasinski, when the auditions were paused for a five-minute lunch, he was approached by a man with a salad who asked if he felt nervous. Krasinski responded honestly, saying he was more nervous for the production itself, because the Americanized translations were, more often than not, “such garbage,” and that he hoped they didn’t screw it up. “I’ll try my best,” replied the man, who happened to be creator Greg Daniels. By the time auditions resumed, the creative team was already laughing at Krasinski’s faux pas, which, according to the actor, warmed up the room and made for a better audience.
As Daniels and Jones continued to round out their cast, one person sat just under their noses: Jones’ assistant, Phyllis Smith, whose job was to read the off-camera lines to whoever was auditioning. According to Jones, director Ken Kwapis suggested allowing Smith to get ready for the part of Phyllis after two days of testing. Jones quickly took to the idea: “She had a Midwestern and completely regular feel in kind of a pure way... She just looked like a person who’d work at a paper company for twenty-five years.”
4. The season-four cringe-fest “Dinner Party” almost took an even darker turn
There is no shortage of off-color humor and awkward, pointed glares in the series stand-out “Dinner Party,” one of the most uncomfortable social gatherings in pop culture history. Watching Michael Scott and Jan Levinson’s deeply toxic relationship splinter and crack over ossobuco is equal parts delightful and painful, and that was largely due to writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky and their perfect balance of hilarity and the more serious elements of an irreparable rift in the workplace couple’s long-term relationship. While it ended with a broken flat-screen TV and a busted Dundies trophy—certified tragedies on their own—it nearly included a much more serious turn for the worse.
“Most scripts get rewritten, and I think this was the only one ever done that didn’t,” said Stupnitsky of the story’s success at the table read. “The only thing that was changed was that in our first draft Jan hits the neighbor’s dog and kills it on purpose.” Eisenberg adds, “We decided that maybe that was going too far.”
Each element of Dunder Mifflin’s seating arrangement comes with a thoroughly reasoned explanation, but Jim and Pam’s perpendicular setup is especially heart-warming. As described by Kwapis: “The idea that Pam is always facing Jim, but Jim is turned slightly away from Pam, so that it takes... this sounds very small, but it’s important... he has to make a choice to turn to look at her.”