They gave at ‘The Office’ -- twice
IF NBC’s comedy “The Office” feels like nothing else on television, it may be because the actors and writers are so often on the same page. In fact, they’re frequently the same people.
Everybody’s heard of performers who squirrel themselves away in their on-set trailers and pound out the odd script that winds up on the air, typically as a token of favor from the producers. But “The Office” is something else entirely, the rare scripted TV show in which the line between writing and performing is, by design, almost nonexistent. It’s an improv-style approach that could yield some important lessons for those puzzled by the identity crisis and creative drift that generally seem to be afflicting the art of small-screen comedy these days.
A workplace mockumentary set in the Scranton, Pa., branch of fictional paper company Dunder-Mifflin Inc., “The Office” has had some of its most acclaimed episodes written by regular or recurring cast members, some of whom are barely out of college.
Mindy Kaling, who plays the show’s “Indian Valley Girl” Kelly Kapoor, drew on her cultural heritage to write a script earlier this season that had the Dunder-Mifflin crew awkwardly celebrating the Hindu holiday Diwali. Another “Office” twentysomething, B.J. Novak, who plays the laconic young temp Ryan, is a stand-up comic with a Harvard education and writing credits on five episodes. Veteran comedy writer Paul Lieberstein became a performer entirely by accident, developing the bit part of the soft-spoken human-resources manager Toby into a wry portrait of a passive-aggressive player in corporate politics.
Even series star Steve Carell, who plays the endlessly embarrassing boss Michael Scott, has pitched in, writing last season’s finale episode.
Executive producer Greg Daniels, formerly a writer-producer on “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” said the double duty is intentional. He has clauses inserted in the writers’ contracts to cover whatever acting chores may arise. Kaling remembers Daniels mulling over a bit character in one script before suddenly turning to staff writer Gene Stupnitsky and asking, “Have you ever acted before?”
This seat-of-the-pants method serves a creative purpose. “Partly I was just imitating things I loved, like ‘Monty Python’ or ‘Fawlty Towers,’ where the writers and performers are the same people,” Daniels said.
Moreover, because “The Office” is supposed to be a documentary about mid- and low-level corporate grunts, it makes sense for the performances to lack a bit of polish and not to be too fussy.
“The concept of the show is that it’s an ordinary workplace where the people are funny but not particularly glamorous,” Daniels said. If their posture, gestures and speech seem “a little awkward,” all the better.
Daniels is also in some respects following the path of the original BBC version of “The Office,” which co-creator and star Ricky Gervais wrote with his creative partner Stephen Merchant.
The approach garners no complaints from NBC, which has watched ratings for “The Office” climb after a very slow start in March 2005. “It’s definitely unique and advantageous to have so many artists serve in dual roles on one show,” NBC Universal Television Studio President Angela Bromstad wrote in an e-mail. “Clearly, they inhabit these roles fully and completely.”
The 11-member writing staff of NBC’s “Office” gathers for the typical “writers’ room” bull sessions, in which Daniels solicits ideas and assigns scripts to individual writers. Although the basic structure of every episode is mapped out in advance, Daniels leaves plenty of room for improvisation within each scene.
“The actors I hired, I tried to have them all have improvisational backgrounds,” he said. “Improv is a good tool to make it seem more natural.”
At this point, anything that can shake up comedy’s creative formulas is probably a good thing. One of the complaints about sitcoms in general is that the traditional “multi-camera” method, as well as dividing the script into “acts” that depend heavily on a setup-joke-setup-joke pattern, has grown threadbare. But simply making “single-camera” comedies that look more like movies hasn’t necessarily helped either. In addition to interesting characters, new ways of telling stories may help capture the attention of increasingly fickle viewers.
In the case of “The Office,” now-familiar roles such as Kelly’s and Toby’s were originally meant to be bit parts. But the dual roles aren’t always easy on the cast. Lieberstein admits that he still feels a lot more comfortable writing. The internal reaction to early episodes, however, guaranteed him more air time as Toby.
“Kevin Reilly, who’s the president of NBC, was watching dailies and said, ‘He’s funny. More of him.’ And that got around,” said Lieberstein, sounding not entirely thrilled by the development.
People may lament that writing is a solitary pursuit, but Lieberstein has discovered a near-existential loneliness when it comes to acting. “The parts of it that have been hard are finding out what an incredible black hole acting can be. You’re out there and nobody talks to you, and you have no idea how you’re doing.” When he watches himself in dailies, “everything I see, I want to cut in the editing room.”
He also feels intimidated by his more experienced colleagues, including Carell and Rainn Wilson, who plays the nerdy crank Dwight, and John Krasinski, as the ambivalent regular guy Jim (Krasinski hasn’t written -- yet -- but Wilson writes NBC’s “Schrute-Space” blog in character as Dwight). “I still feel out of my element as an actor,” Lieberstein said. “I feel like I can play Toby well, but Toby has a very small wheelhouse.”
Kaling too confesses she’d rather write than act. But her personality and background have helped develop Kelly into a popular supporting character and the sometime love interest of a reluctant Ryan. Her quirks have quickly been injected into Kelly’s persona. That includes “the online shopping, the talking really fast and the elements of boy craziness too, unfortunately,” she said.
Last year, she and her friend Vali Chandrasekaran, who writes for NBC’s “My Name Is Earl,” held a Diwali party for the casts of both shows. That led directly to this season’s “Diwali” episode, which ended with Michael singing a Hindu tribute to the tune of Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song.” “The network was so excited,” she said. “They were like, ‘What the hell is this holiday? I’ve never heard of it.’ ”
Kaling said she understands what Daniels is after, even if his temptation to cast from the ranks of the writing staff has sometimes led to suspicion of “sheer laziness” on his part.
Then she checked herself in mid-interview, recalling the political expediencies of workplace hierarchy that are satirized so expertly on “The Office.”
“Oh, God, now I’m on record as saying my boss is lazy,” she said. “I meant lazy in the best possible way.”
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins’ television blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland. Contact him at channelisland @latimes.com.