Greg Daniels, co-creator of King of The Hill, former writer for Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Saturday Night Live, was the man tasked with adapting the hit UK series The Office for NBC. It became a daunting prospect once American audiences fell in love with the original via BBC America, and after the failure of the American adaptation of Coupling. But after a rocky start, the American version of The Office came into its own and has become one of the few bright spots on NBC's lineup, earning critical acclaim and solid if not stellar ratings.
I spoke with Daniels at the Banff World Television Festival, where he would later conduct a Master Class session to a group of industry professionals.
What do you hope to share with people at the festival?
Well I don't know. I'm supposed to do a Master Class, although it's only one hour. I'm hoping people will ask more craft type questions, because that's the most interesting to me, to go back and forth with other writers on the craft issues, and I'm hoping people won't be asking questions like "how do you get an agent?"
The Office seems to use the web really well to engage with fans. Do you think that's important to building an audience, too?
I think it is very important to building our specific audience. The audience we have may have a lot to do with all of our web efforts. We have a tech-savvy, younger audience. I love to do stuff for the web. I think the cool thing about the web right now is that the production standards are lower. To me that makes it like late night TV where the group that's watching is extremely pure and comedy interested, and is there for the ideas and the writing for the most part, not so much for the splashy Hollywood execution of everything. So if you have a good idea you can do really weird, funny stuff and put it on the web.
I thought our webisodes were pretty good, but they still were too much like little slices of the show. What I'd like to see us to do is take the more minor characters, see the very edges of the world we've set up on the show, to see how it continues i all different directions outside of the main characters. There are certain practical considerations about how to pay the people, how to avoid the guilds – well, not avoid them, but unfortunately right now there is no contract that covers them. Hopefully after the next contract there will be some standard payments that goes to the guilds. But I hope they're still cheap and disposable, because I think that will be the creative part.
You have a 30 episode pickup for the coming season, which seems like a lot of work, and then you do this web stuff on top of it.
The way the show is produced is very informal compared to a normal show because it's a faux documentary. So the lighting shouldn't be perfect, and it's OK if there's a boom in the shot. The actors really like that because it allows them to improv. Every hour of production we spend 50 minutes shooting and 5 minutes lighting, as opposed to most other Hollywood productions that spend 40 minutes an hour lighting and 20 minutes shooting or whatever. So we end up generating a ton of stuff, especially when you consider all the actors are improv-oriented and we have such a large cast, so we have a lot of extra stuff. So we've put a lot of stuff up on the web as deleted scenes which is really fun. To me, the show should be about 28 minutes, that's it's natural length, and we don't have 28 minutes to air the show at that length, so I have all this extra stuff. That's why it's on the web, not for any strategic reason. But we'll see with the 30 episodes if we have the energy to do all that extra stuff or not.
The thing is, you have to come up with a story, and then you come up with subplots. By the time you're done, it's much harder to get it down to time than it is to generate the material. The show has a certain shape and you come to expect there's a certain number of twists and turns you expect in the story, and surprises, and some of the other cast that you've come to like have to get their moments. And the cast keeps growing. We've added Craig Robinson and Ed Helms and Creed Bratton just recently. That's another three fantastic performers who are now regulars.
There's a lot of different layers and tones in the show, with the Jim and Pam romance, and the crazy boss, and all that. It must be hard to mesh that all into one.
It is hard, but I think it's good. I think different people are interested in different aspects. Some areas of the web that are so Jim and Pam centred that they don't even mention Steve (Carell), and there's others that say "enough already with the romance, we want more comedy." So we need to balance the different aspects. Which is why sometimes I get irritated by the promos, because sometimes they have a strategy. They'll decide to hit the Jim and Pam romance, and it looks like there isn't a lot of humour in the episode when they pull out the violins for the promos. All the episodes have about the same proportion but it's mostly humour. And the romance is in there too but I think the romance is less effective when it's more than half of the screen time.
I've heard that criticism about the promos, that it makes it look like not even a romantic comedy, but a romantic drama.
Yeah, nothing I can do about that. They take the comedy audience for drama and try to get other people to come in for these big romantic moment
It's a good hook though.
It is a good hook. I love the romance myself. It's just almost embarrassing when you see the promos for 30 Rock and Scrubs and there's all these good gags in there, and then there's ours and it's all "I loooove you." And I'm like, OK, that was a good moment, but we had guys in inflatable sumo suits also.
You seem to like to end the season on those big emotional cliffhangers with Jim and Pam.
Well his was a little different this year. I think people expected the end of the "Beach Games" episode, that felt like the end of the season to them, and then we had this hour-long finale. I was trying to change it up a little. We do tend to consider that the emotional stories need something that goes from season to season.
A lot of your actors are writer/performers – was that your choice?
Yeah, that was my choice. I'm a big fan of Monty Python, and the original English show, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant wrote and directed it and Ricky starred in it, and also I worked in Saturday Night Live and there's a lot of writer/performers. It just feel like the best comedy needs consensus between the writers and performers at the same time, and you don't want them to be split into two camps that don't understand each others' points of view. Which I have also observed, or heard stories of on lousy shows. That's a Hollywood factory instinct to break people up and have them do only one role but the real creativity is in making stuff and not being bound by what role they are.
How do you work with them as the head writer?
Well, there are some that are primarily writers but also perform, at least that's how I look at them, and then there's others like Steve, who is obviously primarily the star of the show but also has a lot of creativity in the writing area that he uses when he's improving, and he has a history of being a respected writer on The Daily Show. It's good for him to do drafts of our shows so he sees our problems.
Do you have a traditional writers room?
We do. I run it the way I ran King of the Hill. I don't like to have a room that's larger than six at any given time so I like to break it up into two rooms, or three depending on how many writers are around. They each have a different task. We meet as a big group to discuss direction and psychology and the broader questions, but we don't try to grind through the scripts in a group of 10. I think that's a good rule for all meetings, for
Do you have experience in office jobs other than writing?
I have almost no experience in any job other than being a TV writer but I had summer jobs and jobs when I wasn't employed, like I was a paralegal. My dad was a business man his whole career and my brothers are in business so I get a lot of good stories from them.
You must be a magnet now for people coming up to you and saying "Let me tell you what my boss did …"
Oh yeah, completely.
Do you take stories from that?
It depends. I don't know what the protocol is. If people are talking and they haven't said "I think this would be a good episode," if they're just talking about stories in their lives, then to me that's OK research. But if someone has already framed it as an Office episode then I don't want to hear it. We want to come up with our own. And I never listen to professional writers pitches for episodes. I'd feel I'd have to buy them if we used the idea which is unfair to our writing staff, who are coming up with millions of ideas on their own. I don't want to say hey, you know that idea you just spent two weeks coming up with? I just heard it on a train; I can't use it.
Can you give me any hints on what's happening next season?
A lot of it has to do with Ryan being the new boss. He's got a plan for Dunder Mifflin Infinity which has to do with the web.
Is Melora Hardin coming back?
I'm hoping we will see her come back. I think she's coming back.
Can you tell me what's happening with Jim and Pam? I'm not big into spoilers, though …
Well, nah, I probably shouldn't. I don't understand the urge for spoilers. Who would want to know what happens? I don't get it. And the fans are so clever. It's like these interrogation techniques the fans have learned from the CIA or something. They'll ask all these different questions of all the different cast members and then assemble the pieces together and say wait a minute, there's an implication here. It's fantastic.
Look for more on Greg Daniels from the Banff World Television Festival – but no more on future Jim-Pam developments – soon.