How Harvard Remade ‘The Office’

Whither the American sitcom?

With the death of “Seinfeld” and the birth of “Survivor,” the turn of the millennium became a turn of the screw for television comedy. An influx of reality shows and big-budget action dramas sent traditional, punchline-driven programs straight into the Nielsen basement. Last year saw the cast of “Friends” drink their final cup of Central Perk—the end of an era.

And so out went the old—but where is the new? Thanks in part to a small group of Harvard graduates, it may already be screening on a tube near you. On March 24, NBC debuted its adaptation of “The Office,” the revered BBC comedy series that swept onto the airwaves in 2001 to a rush of awards and critical acclaim.

The American version is the brainchild of Gregory M. Daniels ’85, a Crimson and Lampoon alum who has also written some of the best television comedy of the last 15 years. Daniels has penned classic episodes of “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld,” and “King of the Hill,” which he also co-created. With this new project, he again finds himself at the forefront of American comedy.

“I thought it was the best thing I’d seen in a long time,” Daniels says, “but I was skeptical that a network would do a version that I would want to watch.” Indeed. “The Office” is brilliant, but it is so, so not American. Silence, sadness, and subtlety set the show apart—three elements rarely glimpsed on the domestic prime-time sitcom lineup.

The original British version, which ran for only 12 episodes and a feature-length special, was a faux-reality series following the daily life of a prim paper mill in Slough, England. Viewers expecting a by-the-numbers experience were pleasantly surprised—shocked, even—to find themselves laughing hysterically at the jaw-dropping antics of David Brent (played by co-creator Ricky Gervais), the regional manager who spends his time obliviously horrifying everyone around him.

Brent leaves a wheelchair-bound worker in the stairwell during a fire drill (“We’ll come back for her later”) and makes his secretary cry in a practical joke gone awry. He’s joined by office sycophant Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook), who sticks to the rules and sells himself to the ladies: “I am caring, and sensitive. Isn’t ‘Schindler’s List’ a brilliant film?” The show was a nuanced, naturalistic firecracker of a comedy, where the best punchlines were awkward pauses and the disbelieving looks of co-workers faced with a boss from hell.

All of which left its American adapters with a lofty task. “I honestly believe it is the greatest show that has ever existed on television,” writes producer Michael H. Schur ’97, former president of the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. “The entire American ‘Office’ staff were huge huge huge fans—and we realized, early on, that the only way to approach our daunting job, was to just forget that the original existed. We tried simply to work from the idea, and the characters, and build something new.”

FROM SLOUGH TO SCRANTON

The writers have created something new, and this blend, in its own quirky way, often works. The American “Office” stars Steve Carell as Michael Scott, a David Brent-type who shares some of his British counterpart’s obnoxious traits. He’s sniveling, insensitive, and wholly unsympathetic, whether he’s telling a Hispanic co-worker that “Mexican” is a derogatory term or insulting his secretary’s looks. He’s joined by Jim and Pam (the equivalents of Tim and Dawn from the BBC version) and Dwight Schrute, the Gareth counterpart played by Rainn Wilson of “Six Feet Under.” Like its namesake, the series is shot like a reality show, with no laugh track and occasional cuts to “confessional” interviews with the characters (à la “The Real World”).

“It feels like a different type of sitcom,” says NBC Director of Current Programming Carolyn Cassidy ’99, the network executive in charge of the show. “It’s different from the muliti-camera sitcom, the old cliche of fat-husband-and-skinny-wife show.”

Not surprisingly, the show has at its creative helm one of the minds behind the best quirky sitcoms of the 1990s. Daniels is an Emmy Award-winning writer who penned the classic “Parking Space” episode of “Seinfeld,” co-created “King of the Hill,” and served as co-executive producer of “The Simpsons” in its mid-90s heyday. He wrote two Halloween Specials along with the priceless “Homer Badman,” in which Simpson père is accused of sexual harassment after peeling a gummi Venus de Milo off the backside of his babysitter. After speaking on the phone with Daniels, it occurred to me that his influence may have done more to shape our generation’s comic sensibility than any other writer. Trippy.

Daniels is articulate and well-spoken, and he was even kind enough to crack a few jokes. At Harvard he lived in the Quad and wrote television reviews for The Crimson and comedy for the Lampoon. The humor magazine “was filled with funny people and there was definitely a sense of how to make a comedy piece,” Daniels says. “So it was good training.”

Though he says he enjoyed his time in Cambridge, Daniels admits he had his share of academic mishaps. He set out to prove in his history and literature senior thesis that Graham Greene was an existentialist. “I got three quarters of the way into the thesis and found that I was wrong,” he says.

He was also unhappy with his first concentration, literature: “All we did was read Roland Barthes for all of sophomore year. I then found out how Roland Barthes died. He was run over by a laundry truck because he didn’t look both ways while crossing the street. I decided, I’m not going to have to study his stuff anymore.”

After graduation, Daniels was accepted to New York University’s law school, but deferred for a year while trying to make it in comedy. He and a writing partner started off at HBO’s parody series “Not Necessarily the News,” and Daniels soon graduated to “Saturday Night Live,” a common source of employment for Lampoon alums.