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 Seinfeld.
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.”