As “The Office” readies to close for good on May 16, Zap2it talked with showrunner Greg Daniels — the man who adapted Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant‘s BBC comedy for American audiences — about everything under the Dunder Mifflin sun.
Part 1 of our nearly hour-long chat focused on the show’s beginnings and the baby steps the show took with Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam’s (Jenna Fischer) relationship. PB&J took a big step forward in the Season 2 finale, “Casino Night,” but at the start of Season 3, Jim is working at another branch, purposely going against every sitcom expectation. We pick up the conversation with Jim in Stamford.
Zap2it: Was the plan always to incorporate characters from Stamford back into the Scranton branch?
Greg Daniels: The plan was to have a merger, that the two branches would merge and that Michael [Steve Carell], in a series of funny episodes, would alienate or fire or cause to quit all the other characters. But Ed Helms was so funny that we were like, “Oh no, he’s got to stay.” So we converted him into a series regular role pretty quickly. The beginning of that thing was also when [executive producer and future head of NBC] Ben Silverman looked at it and said we could do a spinoff. The Stamford branch could be a spinoff. But we of course were already committed to the storyline of firing all of them.
Incidentally, this is apropos of nothing, but when my wife and I watch “Nashville,” we only ever refer to Chip Esten as “Josh Porter.”
[Laughs] That’s funny. Do you do the same thing with the woman from “Heroes”? Do you call her by her previous character name?
No — we use her actual name. Occasionally we call Connie Britton “Mrs. Coach,” but that’s it.
We have an editor, our main editor and the guy who directed our second-to-last episode, Dave Rogers, only refers to the cast by their character names. Off camera, too.
You stepped out as showrunner at the end of Season 5 to do “Parks and Recreation,” correct?
It was a gradual sort of thing. Jen Celotta and Paul Lieberstein were EPs for Season 5, and “Parks” started in midseason [that year]. Around that time they started doing more and more stuff. I was co-showrunning it Season 6 with Paul, then he was the sole showrunner and I was more of an avuncular presence in Seasons 7 and 8.
So you never completely stepped away from it.
No — I went to all the table reads. Season 6 was very difficult because I was doing the same job on “Parks.” I was so busy that I would sit in the back seat of my car under a blanket with a little portable DVD player watching edits. I had an assistant driving me everywhere. I could watch one cut from my home to work, and another cut from work to home. There was just no scrap of time that wasn’t being used for something.
Can you talk about how the idea of an “Office” spinoff evolved into “Parks and Rec”?
Like I say, Ben looked at the Stamford branch and said we should do a spinoff. I was reluctant to do a spinoff because I was worried it would hurt “The Office.” He was pretty insistent that we do something, so I made a deal with him to do a new show of some kind — not necessarily a spinoff, but a new show. At the time, [“Office” writer-producer and portrayer of Mose Schrute] Mike Schur was coming to the end of his contract, and he was kind of itching to do his own thing. So I said, Do you want to do a new show with me? So we came up with a bunch of different ideas, and he pitched one of them to Amy Poehler, who really liked it. Then we were like, We should do that because she’s fantastic. But it turned out that idea was not a spinoff idea. It was an idea for another mockumentary, but not a spinoff.
“Parks and Rec” has never — it’s shot the same way, but it hasn’t really acknowledged that it’s a documentary.
It’s less docu. It’s not as rigorous.
Have you ever thought of it as another PBS crew decided to do a similar project in Pawnee?
Well, I called the pilot “The Office: An American Workplace,” and I always felt — and there’s a line in the finale that got cut — but I always felt that there’s a crew doing a series called “An American Workplace” and they have other shows. They have “The Warehouse: An American Workplace.” They have “The Oil Rig: An American Workplace.” At one point I was thinking that’s how I’ll do a spinoff — I’ll just do another “American Workplace” segment.
But the thing with “Parks” is, one of the things we realized early on is — the character Rashida [Jones, Ann Perkins on “Parks and Rec”] was playing was living with her boyfriend in her house, and it’s much weirder to use these spy shots in a person’s home than it is in a public place. So that might be one of the reasons why it’s a little bit less docu. And just to be different — we didn’t want to be too imitative. We had a few different techniques. The talking heads are shot differently, and we didn’t use any blinds because that was so associated with “The Office.” We had to find other things, like the windows with the chicken wires in them.
Amy Ryan was initially cast just for a handful of episodes as Holly, correct?
That was actually — I love Amy Ryan, but that was motivated by Paul. Paul was the big Amy Ryan person, and it came from our writing staff loving “The Wire” so much.
Was it with an eye toward “this is going to be the love of Michael’s life”?
It was. As I recall, the point of the character was it would be someone as goofy as Michael, and they would kind of bond on that. That’s how, when they first met each other, they had sort of a flirtatious interaction that was like he had found a female version of his own mind.
You wrote “Goodbye, Michael” — was it something you’d had in mind for a while, or did it come through the normal process of breaking stories?
I felt an obligation, kind of, about the characters because I imagined them so intensely, and I really wanted to be present on the big moments. I wasn’t running the show at the time, but I wrote the wedding episode [“Niagara”] with Mindy [Kaling] because I really wanted to be involved in that. When Jim and Pam had children, I was on the set all the time [laugh
s]. There were certain big moments I wanted to participate in, so I really wanted to kind of see Steve out.
But then we broke this long arc to see him off the show. It started with Holly coming back, and he ended up being engaged to her — they were amazing episodes. I kept watching all these amazing pieces of story be taken for these other guys’ episodes, and I was getting more and more panicky about it [laughs]. I was like, “Whoa — he could have proposed in the last episode. That would be pretty memorable.” So when it came down to writing it, it didn’t feel like there was a lot left. They had all just sung “Rent” to him, they’d had the last Dundie awards, they all knew he was leaving. Holly wasn’t around because she had already moved on and he was engaged. But it was good in a way, because it allowed him to have a goodbye scene with each of the characters where there wasn’t a lot of story. I put in a little bit of story to keep it moving, but it was mostly moments he would have with different characters.
[A lot] of the episodes would have a nice scene toward the end where Michael would have a moment with another character. For example, there was one where he had people for a “Glee” viewing party and he has a great scene with Erin [Ellie Kemper] at the end where he gives her some good advice. Or “Booze Cruise,” where he’s up on the bridge handcuffed with plastic handcuffs and he has a great scene with Jim. This episode turned out to be all those type of scenes, strung one after another, because they were like the endings of his relationships with these different characters. It turned out there was enough stuff to write about.
After Steve left, how hard was it to find the center of the show without Michael?
It was hard, because the other characters were not conceived — the investment hadn’t been made in them over the years to be the lead. Our choices were pretty much Andy Bernard [Helms] and Dwight Schrute [Rainn Wilson] at the time. They were both kind of the same character in the sense that Andy was invented to be like a Dwight-ish kind of fellow that Jim dealt with in Stamford. So they both had less than lead-type character traits often. But that was the same case with Michael. He didn’t have all the lead character traits in the beginning either. So we figured, All right, we’re going to have to build some of these things into the guys, and I think we all kind of treated it like an exciting thing.
There were so many talented people. And because Steve had been the A story for seven years, there were all these guys who wanted more screen time. So just to be able to say Ed can have way more pages and Rainn can have all these pages, and Craig Robinson can have more pages. We were all incredibly bummed Steve wasn’t around, but we didn’t want to close up shop. And I don’t think Steve wanted to either — it’s like when you’re at a nice, fun dinner party and you have to leave early, your nightmare is that everyone will go “Oh well, I guess we ought to go now,” and you’re the ruiner. He didn’t want to be that.
Once you knew this was the final season and you could start to reveal the documentary crew, how did you figure out how much you could show?
You know how you pointed out there are other mockumentaries, but they aren’t quite as docu as ours? I felt like we had the opportunity to be the only one that would do this, and because of that maybe we should do it.
The other part that I liked about it was that — and we didn’t really go too far down this road — but when you think about the fact that Jim and Pam are such soulmates, it’s really hard to imagine there would be any other human being who would be a threat to their relationship. But if you imagine that there was somebody off camera the entire time who predates Jim [and Pam being together] and who has been watching and listening to Pam for longer than Jim has, then you start to go, Oh. That could be interesting. That could be an actual person where — it just reminds you there’s a part of their lives you don’t see, because they edit it out.
Introducing that as a potential seemed to me to be very exciting because it dealt with the problem of how would you believe she would ever meet somebody in Season 9 who could be more important to her than her husband. Of course we didn’t really want to go there as like, that’s where the story was going to go, but we wanted to have the potential to go there.
You did scare an awful lot of people, though.
I know — it’s so funny. I mean, it’s not funny, but — I think they’re happy now, because there’s a happy ending. But there was so much anxiety over it. That’s the nature of an Act 2 break, is that something bad is threatening to happen, and hopefully that’s what makes the ending feel better.
And if Jim is not there to stop a guy who was threatening Pam and then hears about the sound guy intervening, he’s going to assume things …
It just seemed like it was kind of interesting. One of the really fun things about John and Jenna is that they don’t just wait for the script pages and just do the scene. They’re really interested in what’s going to happen, and we have these really long discussions of the psychology and the motivation of everybody, and they weigh in a lot and use things from their lives. I’m sure at some point the assistant directors are going nuts, because we’ll stop and huddle and go off to talk about all this stuff. But it was very exciting to be part of that discussion.
As for the finale, we know it’s several months later and Dwight and Angela are getting married …
It’s like a year later. I haven’t seen all the promos, but it’s a year later, and Dwight and Angela are getting married, and people are also in town for a reunion panel. A lot of them don’t work there anymore.
As a result of the documentary airing, or just naturally moving on?
Different things — the passage of time, and the fact that Dwight is the boss.
How do Kelly and Ryan [B.J. Novak] re-enter the picture?
Those two events bring people back to the world. Yeah, they have a very funny storyline. It’s really great to see them again in the show. I missed them a lot this year.
There was a report last week that Steve does in fact have a cameo in the finale. Do you want to say anything about that?
The amount of attention on this is insane, I think. I don’t really see the point of this much speculation as to what the story line is going to be. I don’t see how that necessarily improves the viewing experience, so I’m not going to address it.
Are you pretty much the last person left on set?
It’s ridiculous. It’s so lonely here.
What was your thought when you finished work on the finale?
It just hit me. I had a little bit of superiority over the other people, because we wrapped, and the actors were all very upset, and I was like, “I’m still coming to work tomorrow to do post.” Locking it was an intense, very accelerated schedule, because the last three episodes were all one hour long. That doubled all the mixing and the post requirements, but we had the same number of weeks to do it. The editors are people who I hang out with more intensely than anybody. It’s just me in this tiny little windowless room with one or two of them for hours and hours. So this is the last tearful goodbye.
Do you have any special plans for watching the finale?
The cast who are in L.A. are going to get together with the writers and editors and watch it. In Season 1 and somewhat in 2, we used to mee
t at each other’s houses to watch every week, so we’re going to kind of re-create that feel.
Were you involved in putting together the retrospective that airs before the finale?
No. That was the news department. I was interviewed, but we didn’t have a hand in it.
So if anyone secretly had an ax to grind, you’ll find out Thursday?
Well, that would be upsetting, but I don’t think so. One of the really nice things about the show, and I’m not exactly sure what to attribute it to — it might be the fact that we were all on this little lot in Van Nuys with no other showbiz productions anywhere near us. We were very contained in our little place. But the cast and crew is remarkably friendly after nine years, and tight. So that’s definitely one of the pluses of the show. And then we just had that trip to Scranton, which was amazing. We have a very nice fan base — not a lot of drunken, shouting people.
The series finale of “The Office” airs at 9 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC.