'The Office': Exec producer Greg Daniels on the departure of Steve Carell and tonight's farewell episode, 'Goodbye, Michael' -- EXCLUSIVE
One year ago, Steve Carell announced that he would be leaving The Office, leaving us more than enough time to properly send off our favo– Holy crap, he’s taking off tonight and we haven’t even set up our tear jars! Ready or not, Michael Scott will utter his final foot-in-mouth and walk out of Dunder Mifflin’s doors for the last time in “Goodbye, Michael.” The special 50-minute episode (which airs at 9 p.m. on NBC) was written by Office executive producer Greg Daniels, who spoke exclusively to EW about tonight’s landmark episode and bidding farewell to Carell.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What can viewers expect from Michael’s goodbye episode?
GREG DANIELS: It’s basically him settling his affairs and saying his last goodbyes to everybody. And he has gifts for them. It’s about how he deals with his own feelings. There’s lots of little references to the history of the show that the super fans are going to really enjoy. A tiny mystery story — which I’m not sure anyone’s going to catch and will come out a few episodes from now — is being set up here … There’s other stories: Andy [Ed Helms] and Deangelo [Will Ferrell] are trying to hold together Michael’s clients who are starting to bail, and they’re driving around calling on the clients. And the party-planning committee is trying to figure out the best cake and the best way to send him off. All the former chairmen are reuniting to give Michael a good send-off.
Were there more tears or laughs on the set while shooting his final scenes?
I think there were both. But it wasn’t so much tears as it was just this weird sense of “Oh my god, this is his last this thing, this is his last that thing.” I kind of felt like a priest who was sitting with him as he ate his last meal. (Laughs) But the actors were very emotional. You know the concept of breaking? An actor bursts out laughing and drops his character. They kept doing it here because they’d suddenly get really sad that they weren’t going to work with him next week. They were sadder than their characters were supposed to be. They broke, but going to “sad”… I got choked up writing his last moment with Dwight [Rainn Wilson] in a Coffee Bean… [But] by the time I was at the set, I had worked through a lot of it. I was just concerned about keeping it funny.
Did you guys give Steve a piece of the office or something as a goodbye gift?
He’s a hockey player so one of the things we gave him was a hockey jersey with his number on the call sheet on it — it was one — which was retired. The way they retire a guy’s number. We made a little ceremony out of it.
What was the biggest challenge for you in making this episode?
The time. I wrote it as a half-hour and in the scenes with Will Ferrell, he was being very improvisational and funny and you didn’t want to cut that. And then the stuff with Michael was all about him getting his goodbyes with everybody, so you didn’t really want to cut out some of the people. And it needed to be able to breathe, because he was having these goodbyes. So it ended up being really long. As I was trying to cut it, I was like, “This isn’t going to be good if I cut it to a normal length.” I talked to NBC and they were very cool about [making the episode a non-traditional length], even though it was awkward from a business standpoint. [NBC Entertainment Chairman] Bob Greenblatt was like, “You do whatever is best.” They really wanted to give Steve the proper goodbye.
Do you have a favorite Michael Scott moment?
There are Michael Scott moments, which are character choices, but there are also Steve’s reads. Usually the things that I’m the biggest fan of are these weird reads that he does — just the way he’s interacting with other people. They’re often things on the show that if you were to extend the cut two frames, the other person just bursts out laughing. One thing I was watching recently which I just loved was in “The Client.” He was bragging to the camera about this relationship he’s developed with Jan [Melora Hardin]. She starts backing away from it on camera and he gets very flustered and embarrassed, and he hides under his desk and the camera goes to find him under his desk. (Laughs) In this week’s episode, his talking [to the camera] about a gift that he made for Oscar [Oscar Nunez] is one of his best.
What will you remember about working with Steve?
He taught me a lot about improv… When you see him roll with stuff that happens that’s not what he expected, that was very inspirational. If you’re kind of a control freak like I was coming from animation [Daniels was a co-executive producer of The Simpsons and co-created King of the Hill], where every single thing is controlled, it was very cool to see that he had this attitude of “Yeah, that’s not what we thought it was going to be, but it’s going to be good.” A time that really struck me was when we were producing the first Dundies episode, which was the season 2 premiere. We had all these problems because the location fell through in the middle of shooting, and there was all this weird stuff going down with the Chili’s restaurant and I was panicked. I could just see everything falling apart. And he maintained his creativity under amazing stress and kept pitching all these alternative things, until we found one that worked and kind of saved it. I was like, “Wow, that’s cool. That guy is comfortable in a level of chaos that I am not.”
What were his specific suggestions?
It wasn’t even his scene. He became a producer of the show, and this was definitely one of the reasons. We had written in a thing where Pam gets so drunk at the Dundees that she throws up, and halfway through shooting it, Chili’s was like, “We wouldn’t serve somebody to that amount of drunkenness. We are a very responsible company.” So we had her just fall off her stool instead of vomiting, which I think is better. And then we invented the character of the Chili’s manager, and he said she was banned for life from Chili’s for sneaking drinks or something. Both of [Carell’s ideas] were really good … And then he ended up writing “Casino Night” and “Survivor Man.” He’s directed some great episodes — he directed “Garage Sale,” where he gets engaged to Holly. He’s very versatile. Another thing about him is the professionalism. He was always on time. They kept records of when somebody’s five minutes late and I think he was always on time. When he left, I interviewed a lot of the crew for a toast, and they were always saying he would let them go ahead of him in line and he never abused anything about his position. He was the humblest and most friendly professional person.
He’s been very quiet about his departure.
He’s very modest. He really wants the show to continue after he’s gone. Part of it is because he’s very fond of everybody who works there. And one of the reasons I think we can go on is that he really made it an ensemble. He always encouraged the other members of the cast to have more lines and be in scenes. He was very generous as a performer. Whenever we were on stage for anything, he always stood in the back.
What does his loss mean for the show? And how did you decide to move on without him?
A lot of it had to do with the strength of the other cast. Part of that was from Steve’s encouraging it, being a generous person. But also, if you were to just look at our cast without Steve — and didn’t know that Steve had been on the show — you would say, “Oh my god, what a super cast! How did they ever get all those people together in one show?” So often we’ve had really funny stuff that hasn’t been able to be squeezed into the show because we do an A-plot, B-plot kind of thing, so the idea of being able to allow some of these great actors who are stars of other movies have A plots is good. Obviously it’s going to be difficult because he’s pretty irreplaceable, but I think people are optimistic. This is kind of the situation we were in when we started, because a lot of people were like, “How could you possibly do the show without Ricky Gervais?” These guys had built this toy — the British Office — and they played with it for 12 episodes and a special, and then they stopped playing with it. I was like, “Hey, I want to play with that! There’s a lot of fun left in that toy.” The writing staff and the other actors are feeling a little bit the same way now: “This is only season 7; it’s not like we’re in season 22. We want to tell stories with this toy and play with it.”
It doesn’t sound like there were serious talks of ending the show when Steve left.
I think we said, “What should we do?” If we hadn’t thought of some good ideas, we might have gone that route. But it wasn’t like anybody wanted to end it. Everybody’s really enjoying it, and I think Steve felt terrible about leaving because he was worried that it might mean the end of the show. He didn’t want to be responsible for that. One of the nice things is, the week after his last episode, you can see what you think. It’s not like this is the end of the season. Everybody should tune in and make their minds up.
Is that why you’re sending off Michael a few weeks before the season finale?
We didn’t want all this worry over the summer, like “Will the show survive?” We figured, “Let’s get that out of the way before we go to the summer and have them be thinking about the story lines over the summer, not that question.”… Every single episode between now and the season finale has some big moves in it.
Is it your hope that Steve will return as a guest down the road?
Obviously he’d be welcome at any time, but I don’t think we ever thought he was coming back. So we pretty much wrapped up everything. I don’t know if he would or not. It’s certainly possible.
Any hints about the ending of tonight’s episode?
The decision to have him be strangled by the Scranton Strangler is probably going to be unpopular.
The mockumentary-style sitcom chronicles a group of typical office employees working 9-5 at the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.