Everything you wanted to know about ''The Office'' -- American idiot Steve Carell and company bring NBC's word-of-mouth hit to painfully hilarious new heights

By Josh Wolk
Updated February 17, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

For 35 years, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s bittersweet classic ”Teach Your Children” has made listeners and glee clubs alike stop and reflect on their responsibilities to future generations. But today, at a Van Nuys, Calif., television studio, Steve Carell is trying something different as he channels Michael Scott, the deluded boss who runs the fictional paper-supply company at the heart of NBC’s burgeoning hit The Office. He’s using the CSN&Y ditty as a torture device.

In an upcoming episode set during ”Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” Michael has trapped his employees and their children in the conference room as he bangs on a tambourine and bellows: ”So just look at them and si-I-I-I-GH!” His voice climbs to a falsetto so high it sounds like dolphin porn, as Rainn Wilson — who plays Michael’s rigid nuisance-at-arms, Dwight Schrute — strums a guitar. Then the final line, delivered with perfectly insufferable gravitas: ”And know they looooooove you.” Between takes, Carell explains that they rehearsed the duet for about three minutes. ”The more we practice, the better we’ll get, and I don’t want to get too good,” he says. ”I don’t want it to look like we’re trying to be bad. I just want us to be bad.”

Behold the art of The Office, perfecting workaday moments so hilariously and relatably awkward that it makes viewers both laugh and cringe. After a six-episode run last spring that averaged an audience of only 5.4 million, this remake of Ricky Gervais’ classic BBC mockumentary about a boobish boss seemed destined for downsizing. But thanks to guerrilla marketing, a bunch of iPods, and the fact that its star became one of the hottest names in comedy with last summer’s hit film The 40 Year-Old Virgin, NBC’s The Office has emerged as one of the struggling network’s great comedy hopes. Still, with Carell’s new status as the go-to comedy property in Hollywood, can he really be expected to stay within the confines of a fake paper company for long? ”This sort of [show] only happens once in an actor’s life,” says Carell, who has often told reporters he has no plans to leave the series. ”I’m proud of it and lucky to be working with the people I am.” NBC is being the best boss it can be, rearranging the shooting schedule to allow him time off for films. ”He’s really creative and in his prime,” says exec producer Greg Daniels (King of the Hill). ”He’s a great racehorse. Let him run in the Preakness and the Belmont.”

When The Office debuted last March, it differed only slightly from its precursor, which was one of England’s most beloved comedy series and a cult favorite here after a BBC America run. The paper company was relocated to Scranton, Pa., but the first episode’s script was a near-verbatim copy of the British pilot. While character names were changed, the archetypes remained the same: Carell’s boorish Michael futilely tries to prove he’s the funniest man — and coolest boss — alive. Dwight is Michael’s quirky acolyte, while Jim (John Krasinski) is the directionless sales rep who torments Dwight (e.g., relocating his desk to the men’s room) when he’s not pining for receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer), who’s engaged to loutish warehouse worker Roy (David Denman). And permanent temp Ryan (B.J. Novak, also a writer on the show) hovers on the periphery as he tries to avoid Michael’s mentoring, which often plays out like a devoted heterosexual man-crush.