A single-camera, mockumentary-style comedy following the employees of a paper company in Scranton, Pa.? When the American adaptation of the critically beloved British series The Office debuted on NBC in March 2005, it was a far stretch from the network's glossy, multi-camera powerhouses, like Friends and Will & Grace. Nine seasons and countless "that's what she saids" later, the Scranton party will stop on Thursday, May 16 at 9/8c on NBC.
TVGuide.com spoke to stars Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute), Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly-Halpert), Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin), Oscar Nunez (Oscar Martinez), Kate Flannery (Meredith Palmer), Ellie Kemper (Erin Hannon), Jake Lacy (Pete Campbell), producer and director Ken Kwapis, and executive producers Greg Daniels, Ben Silverman and Mike Schur about The Office's long, strange trip from British underground hit to America's favorite workplace. This is the first in a four-part series. Check out Part 2 and Part 3.
The U.K. version of The Office was created by Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, who also starred as the horrible office manager David Brent. The series had yet to make its way across the pond when TV producer Ben Silverman caught the original during a trip to London.
Ben Silverman: I was immediately going, "What is this show? Was it real? Was it a docu-soap? Are they literally making a show about an office?" After about five minutes, I realized what it was and I immediately wanted to track it down.
Silverman set up a meeting with Gervais in London and bought the American rights. He later brought Gervais and Merchant over to America to meet with potential writers, one of which included The Simpsons and King of the Hill scribe Greg Daniels.
Greg Daniels: I just thought it was wonderful, but I didn't meet them at first with the idea that I would adapt it. I met with them pretending that I would, but really just to meet them because I was so impressed and I wanted to figure out how they did it.
Kevin Reilly had an early interest in the project when he was at FX. Reilly then became the head of NBC Entertainment in 2004, and wanted to bring the project with him.
Daniels: I remember being very scared of bringing it to NBC because it didn't feel like it belonged there so I remember really testing Kevin. He would say he really loved the show, and I would say, "Well, alright, I'm not going to change the pilot, OK? You're OK with bringing this tone to NBC?"
With the help of pilot director Ken Kwapis (The Larry Sanders Show, Freaks and Geeks) casting began. There was Jim, the charming everyman, Pam, the shy receptionist, and oddball Assistant (to the) Regional Manager, Dwight.
Silverman: I think we saw John Krasinski on a tape in New York. He was this fresh face right out of Brown. He really struck us immediately as someone bringing a lot of depth and emotion.
Ken Kwapis: I remember when Jenna Fischer came to audition. She was sitting in the waiting room and she looked so shy and so unlike an actress that at first I wondered if she was here mistakenly. That maybe she thought she was here to get a receptionist job.
Rainn Wilson: I auditioned for both Dwight and Michael, and my Michael audition was just the worst. I just did the most derivative imitation of Ricky Gervais — it was just awful. I hope it never sees the light of day. But I did a really good Dwight audition and I just knew from the beginning, this part has to be mine. I knew exactly how to play the role.
And then there was Dunder Mifflin's fearless leader and the documentary's narrator, Michael Scott, described as "a legend in his own mind who thinks he is a comic genius, fountain of business wisdom and his employees' cool friend." Steve Carell, then known for his work on The Daily Show, was an early favorite.
Silverman: Stacey Snider, who was a friend of mine and running the Universal movie studio at the time, asked me if I had seen Bruce Almighty and she said you should check out Steve Carell. I thought he was just awesome and I really pushed him on Greg.
Daniels: It took us a couple of weeks to get the deal done for [casting director Allison Jones] and in the meantime, Steve had signed on to another show called Come to Papa. We were upset but we started the process of looking at everybody.
Bob Odenkirk was briefly cast in the role.
Daniels: About three months later, they had done enough work on Come to Papa where NBC felt it was safe that we could cast Steve in second position because that other show wouldn't make it. It worked out well because we had three months of seeing who was out there and when Steve came in and did the screen test, he was really the best. ... Steve was able to do all the comedy that everybody else did, but there was also a humanity to him that came through whereas I think a lot of other performers came out very mean.
The actors who made the final cut were invited to three days of screen tests where every possible combination was tested in an office-like space. Instead of network tests, the actors engaged in improv exercises.
Wilson: I never did improv, really. I was more of a traditional actor from a theater school, but they had me improvise a ton. I remember one with Jenna. I leaned in way too close and told her if that if she ever had problems with Roy that I was available to talk and I knew a lot about women because I had a girlfriend who was stationed in the Army. ... Jenna just sat there with this pained expression on her face the whole time and she didn't say a word and I thought, "That is extraordinarily brave."
Kwapis: We couldn't have convinced the network of the style of the show had we paraded the actors in front of a group of executives. We were not only auditioning the actors, we were auditioning the style of the show.
But five lead characters does not a real office make, and the producers began hiring Dunder Mifflin's accountants, sales people and human resources reps.
Angela Kinsey: I initially went in for the role of Pam. And then I was told later that I did not get the role of Pam, but they thought I was in the world of the show. ... What I was told was, she wasn't in the BBC version and she sat over in accounting and she was a woman that might say, "I would never say anything bad about them, but... "
Oscar Nunez: All the fellows that were reading for anything other than the starring roles, we read for the part of Stanley. They didn't have material for Oscar and those other characters.
Silverman: Those people we thought should come from the real world too, which was pretty new. Like Phyllis [Smith] was literally the casting person's assistant. The cast didn't look like the Friends cast. They looked like real people and I think that really worked for the show.
Mike Schur: The show was about extreme close-ups and there was a very distinct lack of vanity that everybody had to have in order to make the show work because the cameras were handheld and they would get right in people's faces. .. You couldn't have a movie star who needed be to be lit perfectly.
The cast was hardly the only thing that stood out from the rest of NBC's must-see comedy lineup. Reality show vets like cinematographer Randall Einhorn (Survivor) were brought on to help craft the show's mockumentary format.
Kwapis: Our first production meeting, when the crew sat down, I said there was a lot of things that I'm going to encourage you to do that on any other show, you'd get fired for. If you get to [a shot] too late, it's fine. If the boom operator misses a cue, that's fine.
Wilson: Ricky Gervais and Stephen came to an early rehearsal and a read-through of the script and Ricky gave some great advice. He was like, "This is not a sitcom. You're not playing Kramer. This is a documentary and there are cameras being brought in on very real people. He's kind of an outrageous character, but he's got to be real." That really helped a lot — not thinking of it as a performance as much as captured behavior on the camera.
Kinsey: The cameras were there, but it felt very loose and organic. We never, ever had marks on the ground, so we walked freely, wherever we wanted, and it allowed a lot of spontaneity, and sort of improvised moments, even in the background.
Eventually 22 different versions of the pilot episode were made.
Daniels: A lot of Kevin's notes were him saying, "Listen, this is NBC. It's not HBO." I wanted to leave in certain shots that are in the main titles, like the water cooler bubbling, and he kept saying, "You don't have to sell that it's boring. We get it."
Kate Flannery: It was so real. And no one was really doing that on TV. You didn't see characters with overhead bad fluorescent lighting and bored looks on their face. It was so brave.
Kwapis: After seeing the first cut of the pilot, I was cringing during parts of it in a way that I thought was really wonderful. That, to me, felt new for a broadcast television show — that you were actually uncomfortable watching it.
In May 2004, NBC ordered six episodes and set the show for a midseason premiere.
Daniels: We got the minimum amount of a pickup that you could get. ... We were saying things like, "This isn't going to test well. You have to think of this like Seinfeld. You have to give people a chance to figure out this new rhythm and these characters." The only problem is every other project, no matter what they had, was [being compared] their show to Seinfeld even if you had the broadest, silliest piece of junk. So they turned it around on us and they said Seinfeld only got four episodes in the first season, so we'll give you six and you'll be a lot like Seinfeld [Laughs].
Nunez: I did not quit my job, but I was very excited about being picked up for six episodes.
Fortunately, the show had supporters.
Daniels: I went to the upfronts in New York, and a lot of the middle management at NBC came up to me and told me how much they loved the show and how true it was to their lives. I didn't make them identify exactly who the Michael Scott at NBC was, but there clearly was someone there.
Of all the Season 1 episodes, only the pilot was a direct adaptation of the British show.
Daniels: The goal was: Let's see the American version of the show. Let's write our own scripts all by ourselves. I had done a lot of thinking about the differences between England and America, and Howard Klein, one of the executive producers, and Ben and I had gone to England very early on and spent a weekend with Ricky and Stephen trying to absorb what English life was like. ... I was developing a sense of what the American version would be and it seemed that race would be much more important in the American version, so "Diversity Day" was the first episode to [we made] American.
Schur: Greg just felt very strongly that in order for the show to have its own identity and to break away, it needed to, essentially, Americanize very quickly and we needed to find American issues like health care. The "Alliance" episode was based on the fact that Survivor was the biggest deal in the world at the time.
Daniels: I remember talking to some of the writers from Coupling and they said, "Well, we used the British scripts for the first six episodes because we liked them and then we were going to start on the American scripts with Episode 7, but we were canceled before we got to Episode 7."
The series finally premiered on Thursday, March 24 to 11.2 million viewers. But when the comedy moved to Tuesdays, viewership dropped dramatically and the Season 1 finale netted just 4.8 million.
Kinsey: I thought that was it, really. They'd made a little thing that said our names. Literally, it was just a piece of paper they'd laminated, and I ripped it off my trailer door. I was like, well, that's that.
Jenna Fischer: In our first season, I argued that Jim and Pam should kiss outside of the Dundie Awards because I didn't think we were going to get picked up. I thought we should shoot an alternate ending where they kiss so that if our show got canceled, people would get some kind of closure to that relationship. Greg Daniels said, "No, I think if we shoot an alternate ending that resolves things. It will jinx us. We need to leave them hanging at the network."
Daniels: I met with Kevin and I pitched him what I would do for Season 2. I was like, "I think we can make the Michael Scott character more three-dimensional." It was basically a list of things I had on an envelope, like having him give really good advice to somebody, having him show competence in his job, having the employees rally around him and all those moments became episodes (Season 2's "Booze Cruise," "The Client" and "The Dundies," respectively). ... You had to do that in order to get to over 100 episodes because you need to see a lot of different sides of a person. If David Brent in England had gone 100 episodes, you would have eventually seen a lot of different sides to that character.
Silverman: They picked it up for 22 episodes. They then called and said it would just be 13. They then called and said it's going to six episodes, plus seven scripts. So that's not a lot of faith.
Schur: Kevin Reilly basically wagered his entire career as a network executive on the show.
(Additional reporting by Liz Raftery)