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.

The sketch show is also where producer Schur got his start, just a few months after leaving the College. Schur, an English concentrator in Adams House and a graduate of my high school, writes in an e-mail that the Lampoon didn’t prepare him “for anything, really. Perhaps if I had a career as a guy who lounged around drunk in poorly-maintained Flemish castles.” He wrote his thesis on David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” and Pynchon’s “V”: “My thesis was: these two books are awesome and here’s why. (Basically.)”

While the Lampoon-heavy writing staff of “The Simpsons” make generous use of Harvardian allusions (the curator of the Springfield Historical Society is named Hollis Hurlbut), Schur says he doesn’t rely on college for comedy. “I don’t think undergraduate experiences have really tangibly ‘shown up in my writing’ per se,” he writes, “except perhaps in some kind of Proustian/Spinozan collective conscious experience way. Please do not write that I used ‘Proustian/Spinozan collective conscious experience’ in my interview. I don’t really even know what it means, or if it is accurate, and I don’t want Harvard comp lit junior faculty making fun of me.”

As far as television comedy goes, Schur takes a bit of a bleak view: “Comedy is hurting right now on TV, I think. There are twelve ‘Law and Orders’ and fifteen ‘CSI’’s, but no new comedies have really set the world on fire. Hopefully, these things are cyclical, but when you only have 20 minutes to tell a story, it’s hard for new comedies to hook audiences.”

A DIFFERENT TYPE OF SHOW

Schur’s concerns over comedy’s recent travails may partially explain his attraction to “The Office”: the show is part of a new breed of television comedy, an innovative format informed by the same reality genre that is ostensibly usurping its place. It shies away from the usual tropes afflicting sitcoms: ethnic mismatches, didactic moralizing, happy endings. The format falls in the same category as Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Fox’s “Arrested Development,” shows shot in a single-camera, verité style that move away from the theatrical quality of traditional sitcoms.

Daniels was turned onto the show after his agent forwarded tapes of the British series. “I ended up staying up all night watching it after I put it in because it was so compelling and fantastic,” he says. He quickly gained the blessing of original “Office” creators Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and the project was up and running.

Daniels and his creative staff—which also includes writer and actor B.J. Novak ’01, last seen pranking celebrities on MTV’s “Punk’d” and bringing Bob Saget to campus with his undergraduate variety show—put a premium on keeping the qualities that made the British version click.

The network “gave us tremendous leeway,” Schur writes. “Kevin Reilly, the President of NBC, was a big fan of the original, and the last thing he wanted to do was take this brilliantly conceived show and ‘Americanize’ it—laugh track, cheesily good-looking actors, and so on.”

“It wouldn’t have come out well if there had been a big divergence between what the network wanted and what we wanted,” Daniels said. “The fact that people at the network like Kevin Reilly and Carolyn and [NBC President] Jeff Zucker [’86, and a former Crimson president] were interested in doing a faithful version of this is the reason it’s on the air.”

Of course, there are some differences. The BBC benefits from being commercial-free—so Daniels and company were forced to cut the length of the show down about 10 minutes per half-hour. Some jokes are telegraphed to the audience before they occur—marked off by a cough or a smile, little clues that were anathema in the British original.

Perhaps the most obvious disparity is the American actors’ lack of nuance. Carell fails to bring the childlike vulnerability to his boss that made Brent almost human; Carell’s creation is more caricature, and the utter lack of sympathy he evokes in the audience seems to leave out a crucial element of the original series. And the Dwight character lacks the sweetness that made Gareth less than unbearable.

These critiques are admittedly minor, and Daniels tells me these nuances will develop as the series continues. “There’s a bit of a difference in the sense that the British show is like a miniseries,” Daniels says. He hopes the American “Office” has a longer run of several seasons, so the character development, rapid in the BBC version, will “be a little slower for us.”

“We certainly want to infuse our show with all of those character traits and mood-defining emotions,” Schur writes. “At the same time, the British show ran for 12 episodes, total, over two years, so they could afford to really jump right in and develop that heart-wrenching pathos immediately.”

PUDDING AT THE PEACOCK

The way Carolyn Cassidy describes her job—“I’m responsible for managing the network’s interests”—sounds suspiciously like a censor. But she and other crew members insist creative differences were kept to a minimum. “There has not been any content that has been too risqué for the network,” Cassidy says.

Still, I can’t imagine last week’s “Diversity Day” episode (written by Novak) went over without a hitch. In the episode, the office holds a diversity awareness training session following an “inappropriate incident”—namely, Scott’s re-enactment of a certain Chris Rock routine about different types of black people. “What’s the problem? Is it because I am white and Chris is black?” Scott asks, an innocent, incredulous smile on his face.

The day culminates in Scott’s own hastily constructed seminar, in which workers are given ethnic identities (attached to their foreheads on notecards) and asked to treat each other accordingly. “Stir the melting pot!” Scott yells, before welcoming an Indian co-worker to “my convenience store. Do you want a coo-ookie?” He summarily gets slapped.

“When the character says something that’s outrageous, you have to have another character to refute it or make a joke out of it,” Cassidy says, explaining how the ethnic jokes make it past the censors. “It’s so clear when Michael’s behavior is inappropriate. We actually didn’t have any standards problems with that.”

Cassidy, the daughter of a local television producer, cut her teeth in the entertainment biz at the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, where she co-produced “I Get No Kick From Campaign,” the troupe’s 1999 musical production.

“The Pudding was four years of practice for this job,” she says.

She moved out to Los Angeles right after graduation, finding low-level assistant work at CBS. But she soon jumped ship to the Peacock network, where she was promoted to an executive three years ago.

Cassidy is now a director of current series, a position that makes her privy to what NBC is planning next. She says the Peacock—which suffered the most from the demise of the sitcom, losing heavy-hitters like “Friends” and “Frasier”—may be heading toward the new style of comedy heralded by “The Office.”

“We are encouraged to produce more television shows like [“The Office”], that have awkward pauses and have edgy humor,” Cassidy says, citing “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Scrubs” as precursors to the current crop of Peacock offerings. “Frankly about half of the shows we have in development now are single-camera.”

Which means there may still be hope for the beloved sitcom. As David Brent says, “A good idea is a good idea forever.”

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.edu.