Entertainment

This Oral History of 'The Office' Is Perfect If You've Already Seen the Show 100 Times

Andy Greene's new book shares all the funny behind-the-scenes moments from the cast and crew of 'The Office.'

the office
NBC

It’s been 15 years since the UK hit The Office hopped the pond for a stateside spin, debuting on NBC on March 24, 2005. The US version of The Office almost didn’t make it past its first rocky season, which is wild considering it's become one of the most frequently memed sitcoms and consistently one of the most streamed shows on Netflix. With nine seasons and an endless amount of replay value, it's likely one a lot of people's go-to shows as we hunker down while social distancing. 

If merely watching has started to make you feel a little insane, Andy Greene, senior writer at Rolling Stone, has written an oral history, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, which is a true inside look into the production of the show. The project took Greene exactly one year, from July 2018 to July 2019, to complete, interviewing everyone from Steve Carell to showrunner Greg Daniels to co-creator of the original UK The Office, Ricky Gervais. With all the right voices in tow, the book becomes like the ultimate bonus feature or director’s commentary. We got a chance to speak to Greene about everything from his favorite episodes to the formula for a successful sitcom.

Thrillist: What do you think made The Office the hit it is today?
Andy Greene:
A lot of it comes down to the amazing team that Greg Daniels and casting director Allison Jones put together. Daniels recruited fresh talent like Mindy Kaling, B.J. Novak, Michael Schur, Lee Eisenberg, and Gene Stupnitsky that had never written for a sitcom before. They broke free from the hokey, cheesy shows of the era and made something totally fresh and relatable. Jones put together this amazing cast that were also largely unknown. Steve Carell was the most famous one and he was a former The Daily Show correspondent that kept getting cast on failing sitcoms. 

This giant cast of writers and performers, many of whom have gone onto amazing careers in Hollywood,  made a show that somehow felt grounded even though many elements of it were absurd. Viewers could relate to the boredom and frustration of life at a dead-end job. They could relate to dealing with a moronic boss and irritating co-workers all day. It felt like real life in a way no other sitcom of the era did. Most important, it was really, really funny. 

From reading the book, about all the unexpected peaks and pitfalls, it makes me think that the best hits happen organically. Do you think it's possible for a network to predict the success of a show?
Greene:
It's very hard for networks to predict hits. That's why they have this crazy system where they produce this giant number of costly pilots every single year. Many don't even air a single time and others are cancelled after just one or two broadcasts. It's basically this giant bonfire of money. The hope is to get a single blockbuster like Friends or Seinfeld, but often it produces nothing of any value. The streaming platforms have a better system where they hire talented people and let them work freely. The results speak for themselves. 

Naturally, there's always going to be talk about a reboot. In the book, you close it with such discussion. How do you think The Office would be different if it were made in 2020?
Greene:
When [executive producer] Ben Silverman shopped around The Office, there was just the four major networks and a handful of cable companies to pitch. There wasn't even YouTube, let alone streaming like we know it today. If he was pitching The Office today, it would probably land on a streaming platform. They wouldn't have been afraid to cast someone edgier like Bob Odenkirk as the lead in that context. They also wouldn't have had to churn out upwards of 26 episodes a year. That's a crazy number when you think about it. Working at that pace burned out the writers and many key ones left after just a few seasons. It burned the cast out. It meant there were some bad episodes even in the best seasons. On Hulu, they could do 10 a year and maybe go 18 months between seasons. It would have been a very, very different show. 

If they make a reboot now, however, I think it would probably be terrible. You can't recreate that magic. You'll never get those writers all in a room together again, let alone that cast back onto the set. And even if you somehow did, what would it be? Michael Scott is now happily married to Holly and he has children. His dreams came true. He no longer needs the workers at the office to be his surrogate family. Without that, you simply do not have a show. They proved that in Season 8 and 9. As writer Owen Ellickson told me, Michael Scott was a "load-bearing" character. You remove him and the entire show falls down.

I'm sure they will be tempted to bring it back at some point, but I think they should leave it alone. You cannot go home again, and you can't recreate the magic of those early seasons.

the office, dinner party
Still from "The Dinner Party" | NBC

I love this quote by Ricky Gervais, when Greg Daniels spoke to him about how the US pilot tested poorly: "Anything to do with innovation suffers on the test score because people go, 'That's not what I expected.'" Care to riff on that? I feel like it encapsulates so much about the creative process.
Greene:
A big reason the show worked is because they were not afraid to be bold and different. A show about the mundane, often sad lives of ordinary people at a struggling paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania sounds like the worst idea for a sitcom you can possibly imagine. That was supposed to work on a major network at a time when shows had to attract millions of viewers to survive? But they stuck to it. They didn't add in a laugh track. They didn't populate it with models. They were determined to live or die by their vision of the show. That led to many difficult days early on, but the end result is a groundbreaking sitcom we all love today. They were killed in the ratings by shows like Two and a Half men, but who is watching that today? Virtue was rewarded. It just took time. 

What do you think would have happened if Will Farrell took Steve Carrell's place for good? Might the series have continued for more seasons?
Greene:
That was never really an option. Farrell had a huge movie career at the time and basically offered to step in for a few weeks as a favor. It gave the viewers incentive to keep watching after Carell left so they could adjust to the Dunder Mifflin world without him. If he did somehow stick around, I don't think his character would have worked out long term. He was too crazy and cruel.  That's funny for a few episodes, but you don't want to keep spending time with someone like that. 
If you had to synthesize its success into a formula, what would look like?
Greene: Any formula would be simple: Hire a great showrunner with a proven track record like Greg Daniels, give him the freedom to hire the team he feels he needs to succeed, and don't be afraid to create something totally new and different. So many shows of the era were horrid Friends knockoffs. They were about beautiful young people living in New York. Nobody could relate to them and the laugh track going off every 20 seconds sounded like nails on a chalkboard to many. The Office flipped that tired formula totally on its head and that is a big reason we're still all watching it today.

What are some of your favorite episodes? 
Greene:
Too many to count, but “The Dinner Party” is very special to me. Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky and wrote it and they are masters of cringe comedy. The whole thing is this deranged version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the tension just builds and builds. Every tiny detail is perfect. 

I also love “Business School” from season three. It has this wonderfully absurd storyline about Dwight thinking that Jim has become a vampire, including a poignant storyline about nobody going to Pam's art show, and this hilarious storyline about Michael speaking at Ryan's business school. It's a master class in comedy and storytelling that I can watch over and over and still laugh.

The show, like most other popular TV series, has spawned countless hilarious memes. What are some of your favorites?
Greene: I love the Pam "yep!" It works in so many contexts. 

This [one] gets a lot of good use and I just love every tiny glimpse we get of the pre-show The Office when Michael was a young salesman and Ed Truck was in charge.

If I was insane enough to write The Office fan fiction, it might take place in this time period. 

Do you think The Office could have successfully crossed into film territory, having its own theater release?
Greene:
The show is inherently small scale and I think it would have been very hard to scale it up into a movie. That said, a pivotal episode like “Niagara” or the Michael Scott Paper Company arc could have been movies, I suppose. I just don't feel it would have worked. Movies need to be grandiose and The Office worked best when it was small and relatable.

Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Michael J Seidlinger is a contributor to Thrillist.