You’d be hard-pressed to find a more beloved comedy series than The Office. Fans are endlessly watching reruns now that they’re playing on Comedy Central all the time, and they’ve also watched the series over and over again as one of the most popular library titles on Netflix. But The Office wasn’t always a hit. In fact, the first season of the series was mostly seen as a failure, and the show was nearly doomed from the beginning. So how did the show survive seemingly insurmountable odds?
The Office producer Michael Schur, who also played Dwight Schrute’s oddball cousin Mose on the series, has gone on to create such hit shows as Parks and Recreation and The Good Place. But initially, he was just a writer finding his own way in network television, and he observed how the series was able to survive past a first season that would have gotten most shows canceled.
For those who might not be familiar, The Office started off as a bit of an experiment. Only six episodes were ordered for the first season as kind of an experiment to see if audiences in the United States would latch on to the bleak, dry comedy style without a laugh track that was already a hit in the United Kingdom thanks to original series creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Because of that, the series is very raw, and it’s nearly a carbon copy of the first season from the show’s run across the pond.
Thankfully, gears shifted behind the scenes for the show’s second season, one of the best seasons of any comedy series in the history of television, and The Office was able to more clearly define and differentiate itself from the original United Kingdom series. But the path to get there wasn’t easy, as Michael Schur explained three key reasons why the show survived in a recent interview with Vox’s podcast I Think You’re Interesting with Todd VanDerWerff. It provides fascinating insight into how we almost didn’t get one of the most influential and beloved comedy series of all time.
A Bold Network Executive
The first thing that helped The Office survive longer than it otherwise might have was NBC executive Kevin Reilly, who was in charge of the network at the time. It’s not customary for executives to stake their reputation on a show the way that Reilly did for The Office, but he had a fierce passion for the series and really wanted to see it succeed. Schur said:
“That show was developed by Kevin Reilly, who was running NBC at the time. He had come from FX, and he loved the British show, and he was very passionate about The Office. So he gave [creator] Greg [Daniels] the chance to basically do it the way he wanted and basically cast it the way he wanted. He was very invested in the show. We made six episodes that first season, and no one liked it.
Ordinarily, 99 times out of 100, or maybe even 999 times out of 1,000, that show is canceled. It’s a six-episode experiment, and this is back, by the way, when sitcoms — when anything — could get big ratings on network TV. So that show is gonna get canceled. We all knew it was going to get canceled.”
Morale on the set was low, so much that the cast was pretty somber during the last week of shooting and even star Steve Carell could smell the blood in the water but still tried to look on the bright side by acknowledging that they at least got to make six episodes of this show that truly was something different on US television at the time. But Schur explained how Kevin Reilly turned things around:
“So, definitely going to get canceled — except that Kevin Reilly kind of stakes his reputation as an executive [on it]. And says to his bosses at NBC, “I believe in this show. I think it can work. Please, please, please give me another chance. Give us another season.”
They give him what was announced in the press as 13. It was not. It was six. We were given six more for season two, but they announced it was 13, because if they had announced it as six, everyone would have smelled blood and said, “Well, it’s doomed.”
So that’s thing No. 1. A network executive does something which network executives are not known to do, which is stick his neck out.”
Steve Carell Becomes a Movie Star
Another key piece of The Office surviving on life support was the sudden burst of fame that Steve Carell had after the release of The 40-Year Old Virgin. At the time the first season of The Office came out, Steve Carell wasn’t a household name. Sure, he appeared in Bruce Almighty and was a fan favorite character as Brick Tamland in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, but it wasn’t until he led The 40-Year Old Virgin that he was truly a star. Coincidentally enough, that happened after the first season of The Office and it became the key to getting a second season. Schur explained:
“Over that off-season, after those six episodes aired that nobody liked, Steve Carell became a gigantic movie star. Just totally coincidentally, 40-Year-Old Virgin comes out, and the world goes, “Oh my God, look at this guy. Look how funny he is, and look how kind he is, and look how talented he is.” And NBC goes, “Well, we have this giant movie star under contract…”
And, look, things one and two are related here. They partially gave us the second season because they had Steve under contract. So. Network executive sticks his neck out. The guy who’s the main character becomes a movie star.”
The Office was airing at a time when TV wasn’t in the new golden age that it’s enjoying now. There weren’t tons of movie stars doing streaming shows or even cable shows at this time. TV was seen as a back-up if a movie career didn’t work out. So having a newly popular movie star on a network television series was a huge plus for NBC. However, in order to make Steve Carell into the Michael Scott that fans would eventually come to love, despite his endlessly frustrating flaws and embarrassing qualities, some changes needed to be made behind the scenes. But no one was happy about it.
Making Michael Scott Likeable
Any fan of The Office can tell you how embarrassing and terrible of a person Steve Carell’s character, Dunder-Mifflin manager Michael Scott, can be. But he also has redeeming qualities that make him a loveable moron with a big heart. But turning Michael Scott into that character was something that the writing staff was vehemently against when creator Greg Daniels wanted to make the change before heading into the second season:
“The guy who created the show [Greg Daniels] is a first-ballot hall of fame TV brain. And he says, ‘Well, let’s look at thing No. 2, and let’s think about how we should take that information and use it for the show. And the way we should is by saying, that guy, that character he’s playing in that movie, is so sympathetic and so kind and so lovely. We need to take 20 percent of that energy and put it into Michael Scott’
And the writers — his own writers, me included! — rebelled and said, ‘You’re going to ruin it. The thing that Ricky [Gervais] and Steve [Merchant made] is perfect, and how dare you, and the whole point is it’s supposed to be bleak, and Michael Scott, like David Brent, is a terrible person.’ And Greg patiently listened to all of us, and heard us all out, and said, ‘No, you dummies, I’m going to do it this way, and we’re going to add just a tiny little glimmer of hope to the end of every episode.’
And he did. And that is the difference between that show lasting 12 episodes and lasting 200.”
It just goes to show you that at the end of the day, it’s not as easy as simply having a good idea or script for a show to succeed. There are all these moving pieces and even strokes of dumb luck that make a TV show successful. Schur also said:
“I say all of this as a way of saying, it’s not one thing. It’s a great cast. It’s a very, very smart person making good decisions. And then it’s just stuff that you have no control over. It’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin coming out.
So sometimes, it’s talented people and a talented group of people who have a sort of mind-meld, and then it’s just really good luck. A lot of it is stuff you have no control over that you have to just hope happens to you. With almost every show I’ve been involved in, that has been the case.”
The success of The Office ended up giving us the spiritual sister series Parks and Recreation, also created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur. Funnily enough, that series also had a bit of a struggle after the first season before it truly found itself in season two. But that’s a story for another time.
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