Staffers Thrive Under 'Office' ManagerGreg Daniels mixes humor and attention to detail on the Emmy-winning NBC sitcom 11/24/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern
After years of crafting lines for the likes of
Homer Simpson and Hank Hill, the patriarchs on Fox's The
Simpsons and King of the Hill, Greg Daniels is
glad to be working with flesh-and-blood people again. As executive producer for
The Office, an adaptation of the BBC comedy he developed
for NBC, Daniels finds that animated characters just don't have the
spontaneity of real-live actors.
“It's so much fun to do live action,” Daniels says. “Actors are
such a fun group. Their creativity comes out in the improvisation.”
Despite that creativity, The Office has followed a
somewhat rocky path since its debut in 2005. Like its British inspiration, the
show is a documentary-style portrait of a woefully mismanaged paper company.
Its offbeat, often painfully uncomfortable sense of humor didn't initially
connect with viewers.
But thanks in part to NBC's decision to offer the first season on
iTunes, The Office has found a devoted audience and is now
in its third season. Along with My Name Is Earl, another
single-camera sitcom, the show has been the foundation for the network's
attempt to rebuild its Thursday comedy lineup since
Friends and Frasier ended their runs.
Heading West with Conan
Although Daniels has spent his entire career in writers' rooms, he has
an intuitive grasp of office life, with its ennui, politics and occasional
flickers of romance. While he can breathe easier now that he's helming a hit,
he says he never really doubted the program: “I always thought we were doing
a really good show.”
Most writers would be happy to work on one hit in their careers, but
Daniels has been on several. He was just out of college when he headed west
with a pal from the Harvard Lampoon, future Late
Night host Conan O'Brien.
The two shared a '77 Isuzu Opel and an apartment with no furniture
(O'Brien says they sat on stacks of the L.A. Times), and
eventually a snug workspace at HBO comedy Not Necessarily the
News. They were delighted when a three-week contract turned into
another three-week contract, then another—before they were hired for nine
more weeks. “We were like, 'Yeah! We made it!'” Daniels recalls.
Next was Saturday Night Live, where Daniels created
“Mr. Short-Term Memory” (played by Tom Hanks), won his first Emmy, met his
future wife (she was SNL creator Lorne Michaels'
assistant) and got on-air as a guest in a sketch called “The Naked Talk
Show.” He later wrote “The Parking Space” episode on
After becoming co-executive producer at The
Simpsons, he partnered with Mike Judge to create King of
the Hill, which kicks off its 11th season in January.
A Pythonesque team at “The Office”
At The Office, Daniels oversees a creative team in
which several cast members, including Steve Carell and B.J. Novak, double as
writers and producers. “What's so cool about [British comedy troupe] Monty
Python is that the writers and actors are the same people,” Daniels says.
“It's been my observation that, on a bad show, the writers and performers
are two angry camps that don't communicate.”
Daniels' wife, Lifetime TV President Susanne Daniels, marvels at her
husband's eye—and ear—for minutiae. She recalls how he talked with kids
at a Texas school to shade young Bobby Hill's character on
Hill and picked the brain of her friend's husband, a
paper salesman, for The Office. “Greg gives new meaning
to the words 'attention to detail,'” she says. “He really wants his
shows to mix comedy and authenticity.”
Indeed, that mix helped earn the show the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy
last summer. And when Daniels climbed onstage to accept the award, it was his
old friend O'Brien who presented it to him.
O'Brien says the moment was poignant for both of them. “What flashed
through my mind was, Here I am, in a tux, hosting my second Emmys, and Greg is
a really successful showrunner,” he says. “All I could think about was us
jump-starting that Isuzu Opel to go out and buy more L.A.
Times to put our feet on while watching TV.”