The Office: Revisiting season 2's ill-fated Secret Santa
Ain’t no party like a The Office Christmas party, cause a The Office Christmas party has another big moment in the developing Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) relationship, Michael (Steve Carell) ruining the gift exchange, and the introduction of “Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration.”
Powered by Carell’s newfound movie star status, the “revamp” of Michael Scott, a soon-to-be iconic TV couple, and being freed from comparisons to the original series, the NBC comedy went from an amusing adaptation to the best comedy on television in its second season. Among the standout episodes from the Emmy-winning season was the first of The Office‘s annual Christmas installments. The tale of two gifts, “Christmas Party” features Jim preparing to declare his feelings to Pam via a teapot, only to have his worst nightmare come true when it ends up in Dwight’s (Rainn Wilson) hands instead.
With the Christmas episode season once again upon us, EW talked to writer Michael Schur — who scored an Emmy nomination for the episode and whose post-Office credits include creating Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place — about how they randomly picked the teapot, its surprise return in the final season, and the historic introduction of Bob Vance (Bobby Ray Schafer).
As a result of only having a six-episode first season, “Christmas Party” served as the show’s inaugural Christmas episode, which aired only two years after the British series wrapped with a two-part Christmas special.
MICHAEL SCHUR: I really liked holiday episodes; I just remember watching them and feeling like it was fun when all the shows did their Christmas and holiday specials. Paul Feig directed “Halloween” and it went really well. It was really funny, and it was like, “Oh, this feels like something.” It felt like the holiday episode applied to this show and this office and this group of people… it felt like it was a rich vein. So the office Christmas party was an obvious move and I just got lucky that it happened to be my turn in the rotation when that assignment came up.
By that point, the only episode of our show that was the same as the British one was the pilot. So the only way it influenced us was that we were like, “We can’t do anything related to their Christmas special.” Even if we wanted to do something similar, we wouldn’t have been able to because it was so much about wrapping up their series, so it didn’t really have any effect on us, besides us wanting to not even accidentally touch on any of the same stuff — except for the stuff that people drink too much, but that is a universal theme [laughs].
After years of his hopes being dashed, Jim finally draws Pam for Secret Santa. He decides to buy her a teapot and fill it with some inside joke gifts, as well as a note revealing his true feelings for her.
SCHUR: We had come up with this plot point where there was a random lottery… and, by the way, this is the only part that overlaps with the British Office, because there was a thing where Tim (Martin Freeman) actually trades for Dawn (Lucy Davis) in order to be able to buy her an art set. And so we didn’t do that where he manipulates it, we just say that Jim got lucky and got Pam. [Creator] Greg [Daniels] was like, “Oh, what should happen is that he should get her a very specific present, something he knows she likes from all his observing of her behavior in the office and the time they’ve spent together — but it should have a bonus present inside it.” We didn’t know what it was, but Greg was pitching it to the network and he said, “He’s going to buy Pam some sort of present that is something he knows she likes… like a teapot.” He literally just came up with it on the spur of the moment. He was just thinking of something that could have some other thing inside of it. So then, we were like, “Okay, what should it really be?” And it kept being like, “Well, I feel like teapot is the right move. He’s watched her, he knows that she likes to drink tea, so why not just a teapot?” It was literally just the thing that came into Greg’s head when he was pitching it to the studio, which is kind of amazing if you think about how perfect it is.
It was such an interesting little moment because the idea was he puts a bunch of stuff in there, like his high school yearbook picture, which she had made fun of him for. We sort of invented backstories for each of the objects he’d place in there, little memories and moments they shared that she would react to. Then, I believe Greg had the idea that he’d write her a note and that we wouldn’t see what was in the note. But the idea was that the note was going to kind of push the envelope a bit in terms of him telling her how he felt. And in the moment that she had gotten the teapot back, what was going to happen was she was going to be so happy with it and was going to be so delighted by all the shared memories that he was going to secretly grab the note and pocket it in an emotionally smart way, where he realized, “This is good. This a good step forward for us, I don’t want to ruin it.” So it’s a weirdly delicate story, it’s a very subtle story for that show, which told really subtle stories sometimes.
Amid a rough patch in their marriage, the letter would return more than seven years later in the series’ penultimate episode with Jim telling Pam, “Everything you’ll ever need to know is in that note.” Viewers will never know what he wrote, but it did exactly what it needed to.
SCHUR: It became such an iconic thing, especially when in the final season, well after I was gone, it came back to put the final detail in Jim and Pam’s relationship. But at the time, we obviously didn’t know. Again, I was long gone. I left in season 5 to work on Parks and Recreation with Greg, and when I saw them bring the note at the end of season 9, it made total sense to me. It was like, “Of course.” At this point now, they’re married and have children and are going through a strain in their relationship, and the thing that would remind them of how deep their bond is is to show her this note he wrote to her all those years ago, and to say, “This is what you’ve always meant to me.” It ended up being a perfect call back for a relationship you had watched for nine years.
Despite a $20 limit, Michael uses the bonus that he got in part for firing Devon (Devon Abner) to buy Ryan (B.J. Novak) a video iPod. But when he gets an oven mitt from Phyllis (Phyllis Smith), he throws the party into chaos by turning Secret Santa into Yankee Swap.
SCHUR: The obvious reason to do it is that Jim has Pam and he’s so happy. When you see him in his talking head at the beginning of the episode, where he’s telling the camera that he got Pam, the concept was obvious, which was that nothing can go well for Jim [laughs]. There’s always going to be a foul-up in his plan to slowly advance his relationship with Pam. Everyone else has pretty much phoned it in. The only person who cares is Jim, which means the Yankee Swap being foisted upon him would be sort of maximally painful for him. And then the only question we had is why it would happen. Why would you go from a regular Secret Santa gift exchange to a Yankee Swap? When we broke the story, that was the thing that was originally unsatisfying. Then, I remember someone pitching that maybe the reason the Yankee Swap happens is that Michael gets a really crummy gift. And then, he’s like, “Okay, I want to get rid of this gift, so I’m going to unilaterally institute Yankee Swap like a dictator.” And as soon as we had that, the whole story clicked into place.
Yankee Swap results in Pam getting the iPod and Dwight being in possession of the teapot. Jim tries to trade with Dwight by offering a lucky Shamrock keychain. “A real man makes his own luck,” Dwight responds, quoting Billy Zane’s Titanic character (thankfully, Pam would end up swapping the iPod for the teapot).
SCHUR: Oftentimes, when someone has asked me what’s my favorite joke that I ever wrote for that show, that is the one I very frequently quote. It’s very clear in Dwight’s mind that Billy Zane is the kind of hero of that movie. In his mind, Titanic is the story of an honorable, wealthy man who was done wrong by two scoundrels [laughs].
To make up for ruining the Christmas party, Michael buys 15 bottles of vodka, which results in alcohol-fueled antics, such as Kelly (Mindy Kaling) randomly kissing Dwight, much to the dismay of Angela (Angela Kinsey). The kiss would never be addressed again on the series.
SCHUR: The sort of emotional story of the episode is Michael wants it to be a crazy party. He says he wants it to be like a “Playboy mansion party,” although, I’m not sure that he even understands what that means. But the idea was this was part of the revamp of Michael Scott, to say yes, he’s a boob and an idiot, but he’s those things in service of genuinely wanting his employees to have a good time. So what happens if there’s a kind of fun office party? Weird stuff happens sometimes. People loosen up, and obviously, this can be a bad thing as recent national events have pointed out, but fun, random things can happen at office parties. And that story was more about Dwight and Angela, which we had been aiming at being an item a little bit in subtle ways, so the idea was that Kelly kisses Dwight, and then, Dwight rejects her advances and you just cut to Angela outside angrily smashing Christmas bulbs against a wall. Michael’s version of the party was coming true. I don’t remember any serious plans to have Dwight and Kelly be an item, it was more about Angela and Dwight.
The memorable episode is capped by the epic debut of Bob Vance and his unforgettable introduction.
SCHUR: We needed the name of a business to put on the office directory marquee and that you would occasionally see the door of when you went out to the elevator. Greg just wrote, “Vance Refrigeration” as a random name. Then, Phyllis was going to introduce people to her boyfriend and he was going to be the guy who owned Vance Refrigeration. And we really liked the idea that Phyllis had a paramour who was sort of like a sturdy, hearty, age-appropriate, small business owner who just loved Phyllis, and that the two of them were going to have this long romance. Bob Vance was just the name that seemed funniest and the whole thing was based on the idea that he would always say his name and where he worked. I don’t remember where that came from. That’s the whole scene, it’s just, “Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration. Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration. Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration,” and then Ryan says, “What do you do for a living, Bob?” [laughs]. The episode had the beginning of Bob Vance and it also had a big appearance by Todd Packer [David Koechner], because we felt like in order for Michael to truly feel like his party had been a success, Todd Packer had to show up. That was the really only thing that would make him feel like, “I did it. I threw a party good enough that Todd Packer would appear.”
The mockumentary-style sitcom chronicles a group of typical office employees working 9-5 at the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.