The Office- The best comedy of the 21st century so far?
Updated: Aug 9, 2020
The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History
by Andy Greene 2020
Four of five stars ****
Comedy is not easy, so when a great comedy comes along, it's important to recognize what made it great. I've read two books on landmark comedies- Live From New York, which details the story of Saturday Night Live from the people who lived it, and the Daily Show Book, from the Comedy Central writers and stars who launched that juggernaut of comedy. Now there is an oral history of NBC's the Office by Andy Greene that gives it the treatment it richly deserves, following the most revolutionary sitcom of the 21st century from its humble beginnings to today.
The Office was revolutionary for four reasons-
There was no laugh track, a crutch that sitcoms had used to decades to tell the audience when to laugh.
It used normal looking actors and not model-quality stars to create a realistic depiction of a workplace. Women didn't wear much makeup, and the large casting ensemble included a wide variety of ages and body types.
The Office introduced the mockumentary style of comedy to US audiences, allowing characters to use "talking head" segments to express their feelings to the camera privately, and letting the camera linger over embarrassing situations to milk the comedy out of realistic events.
They used cameramen from the show Survivor to take realistic shots of each of the actors as if they were really being shot for a documentary.
Greene's book faithfully follows the show from its beginnings in the United Kingdom under Ricky Gervais to its eventual US update. The UK version had the same basic setup as the US version, with a clueless boss, two lovelorn workers, and a jerk lieutenant. It only lasted two years in the UK and was cancelled in 2003
But luckily, US producer Greg Daniels stumbled upon the UK version and asked Gervais, who created and controlled the show, if he could bring the show to the US. The book uses interviews from all the people involved to paint a detailed look at how the US version got off the ground in 2005, from casting, to creating a pilot and to finding a network to take them on.
Steve Carrell was a relative unknown when he was first cast, and the rest of the actors were all total unknowns. Bob Odenkirk and Paul Giamatti were both considered for the role of Michael Scott before they finally settled on Carrell, and many have said since that Carrell made that show the success that it was.
The Office was almost not picked up as a pilot, as several networks passed on it, and NBC gave it a short 6 episode run that almost was the end of the show. After the first season, most of the cast and crew had no idea it would ever be renewed. The head executives at NBC didn't care for the show and didn't get its awkward humor. Three things saved the show from oblivion:
- Steve Carrell had a movie come out in 2005 called the 40 Year Old Virgin that became a box office blockbuster. His starpower got the network's attention.
- Apple began streaming shows on its Ipod devices, and the Office was the most popular tv show for Apple.
- Young viewers greatly appreciated The Office and it's kind of comedy, and NBC executives renewed the show mostly on the strength of their loyalty.
The book goes into lengthy detail on several "key" episodes like Beach Day, Diversity Day, and Casino Night where important events changed the direction of the show. In addition it goes season by season reviewing the important cast and writing changes and what was going on behind the scenes. This kind of insight is great at giving us a feel for how things developed now that we can see it all in hindsight.
In addition to the season and episode recaps, the book takes deep dives into what it was like to write for the show, how the physical office was created on a set far away from the studios, and how the many background players like Kevin, Phyllis, and Creed saw their place in the Office hierarchy.
There is an entire chapter devoted to Steve Carrell, and his character Michael Scott. Everybody that dealt with Carrell had nothing but good things to say about him- he was professional, funny, smart, kind and devoted to the show. They all say he was snubbed when he was overlooked for an Emmy award, and he was the glue that held that show together. This later proves shocking when the book details how Carrell was not asked back by NBC after season 7, leaving the show permanently. Carrell became the biggest star on the Office, and filming had to accommodate his movie schedule. It still boggles the mind that NBC couldn't figure something out, though it's possible that Carrell was ready to move on by then. Without Michael Scott, the show suffered a predictable decline.
Seasons 8 and 9 are detailed in the book along with attempts to breathe new life into the franchise with James Spader, Will Ferrell, and Katherine Tate. There seems to be a wall into which most sitcoms run around the 7th or 8th season when the stories are harder to come by and the characters get stale. Rarely does a comedy last more than 10 seasons and that can be said of The Office. Shortly into the 9th season, the entire cast was told it would be the last one.
Knowing that the 9th season would be the last allowed the writers to plan accordingly, and it's noticeable looking backward that they had a plan. The book spends almost an entire chapter discussing the finale episode, which covers the showing of the fake documentary that they had been filming all that time. It also includes Dwight's wedding and the biggest secret of the finale, that Steve Carrell would be back for a cameo appearance. The testimonials that both cast and crew relate in that final episode are both touching and impressive. Greg Daniels succeeded in not only producing a hit, groundbreaking television show, but in creating a tight-knit family of actors and writers who for the most part got along famously and hated to see the show end.
The final two chapters surprisingly cover events since the shows' finale in 2013. The Office has exploded in popularity since it left the air, mostly thanks to the platform Netflix. The show is the most popular streamed show on Netflix and has attracted an entirely new audience of young people who binge the entire 9 seasons repeatedly. This has promoted growth of Office memorabilia, podcasts ("Office Ladies"), Office-themed trivia nights and board games, and meet-and-greet conventions for former stars of the show. This kind of devotion is normally reserved for science fiction franchises, but The Office has broken new ground even after its demise.
The last chapter talks about a possible rumored reboot of the show, which looks inevitable. The concept and writing of the show were so good that it's surprising that more comedies aren't using it today. After The Office aired, two huge hits followed that used the same mockumentary format- Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family. As I write this today sitcoms have mostly reverted to their laugh track roots, and NBC announced its 2020 schedule with only two comedies on its entire roster.
There was one attempt to spin-off The Office, (the failed pilot, "The Farm") and many missed opportunities by NBC. A reboot could include some original cast members or perhaps a younger generation, but all agree that the participation of Greg Daniels is essential if anything is to happen, and he's not talking much about it now.
In all, this book is a blast, especially for fans of the show or those who've always wanted to see how comedy is made. If you get the audiobook, they hired voice actors to read the parts of all the dozens of contributors, which gives it a certain authenticity, even if they don't exactly sound like the real people.