What went into the writing of one of television’s most iconic contemporary classics — The Office?
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1. Finding the Visual Metaphor
Executive Producer and Writer Michael Schur shared the visual metaphor that the writing team worked from while developing the series. “The visual metaphor that [Greg Daniels] gave us for the show at large was like a paved over, concrete, boring looking office parking lot with one little flower peeking up through a crack in the pavement.”
This was a visual metaphor to communicate that the show was a satire of the many boring office spaces and parking lots, and how this little flower of hope and love between Pam and Jim managed to show itself.
2. Hiring Actors that Wrote
Executive Producer, Writer, and Actor B.J. Novak shared what would become a vital element to the cast and writing staff of The Office. “Greg had always envisioned hiring writer-actors. He came from Saturday Night Live… I think he thought there was something organic and fun and sort of playful rebellious spirit of just doing it yourself. Like Monty Python or something.”
3. Going Against the Factory Process
Showrunner Greg Daniels commented further on the dynamic of hiring actors that also wrote, and making sure that the actors and writers were part of the same process, together.
“The show had such a different feel and I wanted it to have such a sincere feel to it. The enemy of that to me is the factory TV process which Hollywood is often guilty of — and I would definitely say I don’t admire too much — because a lot of times in this factory process, the actors are kept apart from the writers. And they distrust each other. And it leads to a certain type of writing where the writers write actor-proof lines which are very joky. Because they don’t trust the actors to deliver them without a set-up and a punchline in the same speech. To me, what was so wonderful about The Office was that behavior was what was funny.”
Series episodes were often written by actors within the cast. And when they weren’t, the writers and the actors understood that they were true collaborators working together.
4. The Blue Sky Period Every Season
Novak details the way the writing staff would start every season. “We would start with what we would call a Blue Sky period, which was my favorite part of every year. For two, three, or four weeks sometimes, if we had a long time, every single day in the writers room was just, ‘What if…?'”
This was their brainstorming process with no regulations. It didn’t matter if the ideas and concepts conflicted with other storylines. It was a free-for-all where writers could openly voice their concepts and ideas for the season to come.
The episode where Michael hits Meredith with his car started out with the pitch, “He runs her over and kills her.”
The showrunner of the series would simply bring up various question marks for certain characters and then let the writers go off into groups and figure them out. If they didn’t have anything for Dwight, they’d go off and brainstorm. If they needed more ensemble moments, they’d go off in groups and come up with intriguing concepts.
5. Using the Actor’s life to Fill Their Character’s Backstory
“For various times where you write something about the character’s backstory, the actor has to provide photos. If you want to do something about when the character was 12 years old, the actor has to provide photos… and [Rainn Wilson] came in with this photo album of himself. He grew up in rural Oregon or something. And he came in and just started talking about all of his uncles and aunts and these kind of farm people. You didn’t want [his] character to be, you know, one-dimensional nerd. Or something like that. So the idea of a farm nerd [was cool].”
This backs up the notion of that unique writer and actor collaboration that was so special with the show.
6. Making the Lead Characters Fit Into Each Other
Michael was a character that had no social skills, but he cared so much about what people thought of him. Dwight didn’t care what people thought of him and had no social skills. And Jim didn’t care what people thought, but actually had wonderful social skills.
“They fit into each other nicely,” Daniels said.
7. Using Steve Carrell’s Movie Stardom to Better the Show
During the first few episodes of the first season, Steve Carrell’s movie The 40 Year-Old Virgin debuted, making him a huge star.
Greg Daniels decided to take what was so likable about Carrell’s character in that movie and apply just a little bit of it to Michael Scott, despite the writers of the show rebelling a bit at first. But it worked. You’ll see a big difference between the first few episodes of the show and everything that came after this slight character shift.
Michael Scott is still the character that has no self-awareness and no social skills. But the writers injected him with little moments where we sympathize with him and that is what took the character, and the show, to a whole different level.
“That is the difference between the show lasting twelve episodes and two hundred.”
8. No “Jokey Jokes”
“I don’t like jokey jokes… what it is is natural dialogue, back-and-forth, and the joke is what a character says to whatever prompt he is given,” Daniels said.
Novak added, “One time I wrote a bunch of jokes because the scene wasn’t working… and [Greg Daniels] said, ‘I don’t know, these all feel like jokes to me.’ And I was like, well, yeah, they’re jokes. That’s what I do. That’s what we do. But for him, comedy was a byproduct of authenticity. I would compare it between the difference of a kid who knows he’s cute, and a kid who doesn’t. A kid who knows he’s cute is not cute. A kid who just says something without realizing he’s cute is hilarious. And that is what he wanted The Office to feel like.”
9. Pam and Jim
“We used to have these enormous debates on the writing staff. None of us had any kind of [romance writing] background. We were all comedy writers and we were trying to figure it out,” Daniels remembered.
The writers took their time with the characters and decided to develop that relationship organically. In the end, it was a vital part of the series. And when Pam and Jim were together, it shifted to other characters and the romances that blossomed. But the writers never treated it in a formulaic way that could be interchangeable between characters and stories.
10. Avoiding Negative Conflict
“You can’t do anyone without conflict. But also, that conflict doesn’t have to be two people ripping on each other. That’s the kind of humor that I never liked personally. I never liked the ‘we’re going to make fun of each other brutally for like 29 minutes, and then the last minute we’re like, let’s be friends.’ That I never liked as a method of comedy delivery system,” Daniels said.
The Office was never that kind of show. The comedy came from a place of satire, love, romance, friendship, and peer relationships.
Watch the whole video for amazing elaboration — complete with footage from the show!
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