We go behind the scenes of NBC's word-of-mouth comedy
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.”
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.
Fans and insiders alike who lived through NBC’s disastrous transatlantic transfers of Coupling and Men Behaving Badly dreaded someone tampering with their cherished Britcom. “I tried to get a couple of [writers] to help me with it,” says Daniels. “They were like, ‘Naah, it’s a suicide mission.'” But the skeptics weren’t nearly as big a problem as the uninitiated viewers, who decided to ignore the show on its own merits. The Office‘s style and humor — marked by uneasy silences and painful inappropriateness — proved a tough sell, and the cast ended the season assuming their branch would be closed. “It’s not what a U.S. viewing audience is used to,” says Carell. “The tones and rhythms of the show are not very conventional.” Says writer Paul Lieberstein, who also plays HR drone Toby: “There was this feeling that we were doing this for ourselves. We’ve got our little vanity project, we’re going to do it as well as we can, and big hugs and good luck on your next project.”
But last May, NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly surprised everybody by ordering six more episodes for fall 2005. Says Reilly, “There was a lot of talk about Seinfeld and Cheers,” which had slow starts. “People said, ‘We’ve stuck with shows we believed in before, let’s give this a shot.'” Not that they had much choice: Angela Bromstad, president of the NBC Universal Television Studio, admits, “There wasn’t a lot of comedy in development to back it up.” Reilly and Bromstad also couldn’t ignore cheers from execs at NBC’s sister movie studio, Universal, who were so impressed with the dailies from Virgin (which shot after The Office wrapped) that they cast Carell to reprise his scene-stealing anchorman role from the 2003 hit Bruce Almighty for the sequel Evan Almighty. This time, he’s the lead, taking over a franchise from one of film’s most bankable stars. According to Bromstad, “The feature team was saying ‘He’s our next Jim Carrey.'”
When people try to tell Steve Carell he’s comedy’s Next Big Thing, he swats it away as if they were trying to feed him bees. In 1996, as a writer-actor on ABC’s Dana Carvey Show, Carell learned never to assume anything in show business. With writers like Robert Smigel and Charlie Kaufman, and costar Stephen Colbert, the series “seemed to be a comedy brain trust,” he recalls. “It only lasted eight episodes, and that floored me. How could it not work? It was too funny for people not to watch it. I’ve seen how it’s not only a matter of quality.” Moments like that have bred in him such a skeptical, pragmatic view of Hollywood that he is unable to accept his own newfound status, no matter how many projects land on his agent’s desk. “I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he says. “It’s not thinking negatively, but realistically.”
[pagebreak]Carell’s main goal? “To make enough money for my family to eat and potentially go to college.” (He has two kids, Elisabeth, 4, and John, 1, with wife and former Daily Show correspondent Nancy Walls.) His schedule is unrelenting — he’s been going straight from the Office set to record dialogue for the animated animal adventure Over the Hedge (which opens May 19); during his nonexistent breaks, he wrote the Office finale and will finish shooting the season on weekends while working on Almighty, which starts production next month. “I refuse to complain,” says Carell of his workload. “You hope and dream for so long that you’ll actually become employed, and when you do, the last thing you want to do is whine about it.” His modesty is antithetical to his cocky onscreen persona, and totally refreshing…and it also sounds like utter crap. Given that he commands an estimated $5–8 million per film, it’s safe to assume his kids will be able to afford the cafeteria meal plan. But try as one might, you just can’t seem to find Carell’s inner bastard. “There’s no underbelly there,” says Wilson. “He’s the most normal guy. On the set, he’ll be talking about his kids, and they’ll say, ‘Roll camera,’ and he turns into this wild animal creature, yelling ‘Come on, Pam!'” The actor himself winces at sounding like a “walking cliché with my aw-shucks attitude.”
He’s dodging an even bigger cliché, the wild funnyman who has — oooh! — a dark side. “I have no demons,” he says. “I’m as boring a person as you’ll meet. There’s absolutely no depth to me at all.” This, however, may be crap, judging by his performances. As broad as they may get, they remain sweetly empathetic, from his clueless attraction to Catherine Keener in Virgin to the joy Michael gets when someone in the office treats him like a friend. “He’s always human,” says writer-director Peter Hedges (Pieces of April), who cast Carell in the upcoming comedy Dan in Real Life. “He’s the rare actor who can make you laugh and break your heart, sometimes within seconds.”
Audiences witnessed that talent last summer when Virgin took in $110 million at the box office. At that point, NBC hadn’t earmarked much marketing money for The Office‘s return, instead putting the hype behind its new Jason Lee comedy, My Name Is Earl. So rather than plastering Carell’s face on billboards (an approach that certainly worked for his movie), NBC targeted his new, Virgin-birthed young audience by setting him up with college newspapers, and most of the cast launched MySpace and NBC.com blogs. (Adding to the show’s clock-punching verisimilitude, the set’s computers have Internet access so the actors can blog — as well as send e-mails and pay bills — when they’re supposed to be “working” in the background.)
The results were immediate. Viewership leaped to 7.7 million last fall, prompting NBC to order a full season. The tipping point came on Dec. 6, when the show was made available on iTunes (the same day the iPod-centric “Christmas Party” episode aired): It immediately took up several slots on iTunes’ top 10 TV downloads, often outpacing ABC’s megahits Lost and Desperate Housewives. “The core buyer of the iPod lines up nicely with the core viewer of The Office,” says Reilly, who’s heard much anecdotal evidence of young converts who first saw the show on a friend’s iPod. Novak is more succinct: “It’s visual word of mouth.” A couple million of those new fans followed The Office when NBC moved it to Thursdays in January, and now the comedy averages 9.1 million viewers a week.
With 22 episodes having aired, the American version has already outlasted the 14-episode original. (Producers have wooed the U.K. folks back to work: Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant will write an episode for season 3.) But with longevity come new creative challenges: specifically, what to do about will they/won’t they lovebirds Jim and Pam, whose mutually unfulfilled crush is as compelling and addictive to watch as Ross and Rachel’s courtship. Daniels remembers sound-mixing an episode in which Jim squanders his chance to kiss Pam on a booze cruise. “I’d seen it many, many times, but I was yelling, ‘Do it, you idiot! Kiss her!'” (And he wrote that episode.) Says Krasinski, “People come up to me and say, ‘I really appreciate [those scenes], I was in the same situation.’ People aren’t coming to our show for some feel-good relationship. It’s real and delicate.” But how long can they flirt, especially when Pam already has a wedding date? Daniels says he’s not sure what will happen to the couple (or, more likely, he just isn’t telling), but adds that the show’s documentary format relieves the pressure for sweeps-stunt smooches. “If you worked in an office and there were two people having a romance, you wouldn’t see all of it, just your vantage point. If that relationship peters out, there are other things happening in the office.” Pressed for a prediction, Fischer waxes romantic that perhaps Jim isn’t Mr. Right, just the guy who shows Pam her fiancé is Mr. Wrong. “The truth is,” she admits, “I want them together. The Pam in me is pretty sure she wants to marry Jim someday.”
When The Office returns from its Olympics hiatus March 2, episodes will feature a mandatory staff skating-rink field trip to celebrate Michael’s birthday, Dwight getting public-speaking advice from his boss when he has to accept an award for Salesman of the Year, and Michael’s disastrous attempts at professional conflict resolution. Mundane topics, for sure, but they’ll likely spin into the absurd directions that have earned this show — and Carell — some very high-profile fans. On the red carpet of the Golden Globes last month, Carell passed Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee, who saw him, spread his arms, and said, “My hero!” The comedian, who won a Best Actor award that night, is still in shock: “That this renowned director even knows who I am, let alone blurts out something like that…” he says, playing down the encounter. “You have to enjoy a moment like that, and realize how silly and unreal it is.” In other words: Aw, shucks.