The Pequod Review:
Andy Greene's The Office is an oral history of the TV show that draws on interviews from cast members, producers, writers and directors to explain its enormous success. It is superior to most other oral histories because of the extensive number of sources — Greene includes nearly everyone involved in the show, and Steve Carell and Ricky Gervais feature prominently — as well as the intelligence with which Greene has organized the excerpts. He truly captures how and why the show was different, starting at the time of casting:
Ken Kwapis: What made this casting process unique was that we never brought the actors to the network to audition in front of executives. That's the key difference. The usual way broadcast network shows are cast is that you narrow it down to a handful of candidates, and you basically parade them in front of the executives and have them read scenes. Sometimes in a small room full of executives who are sometimes watching, sometimes checking their devices.
Allison Jones: Reading in front of network executives is torture for everybody, including the poor actors. This is the first time we ever did it like this. We said to the executives, "Because of the nature of the show, reading live in the room is not gonna show you anything."
Ken Kwapis: That wouldn't have worked with these characters and the kind of comedy that Greg had written because a lot of it is behavioral. It's not jokey. A lot of it is small things that are observed and that wouldn't play. You're not playing to the rafters. And so all credit to Greg, he convinced the network that the proper way to cast these parts was to put people on tape in improvised sessions in the location itself. Sometimes we worked with the scenes from the pilot, but sometimes we set up improv sessions. But they were done on location in the place we were going to shoot, in a somewhat dressed bullpen.
It is mostly forgotten now just how much The Office struggled in its first season, as its initially strong ratings declined significantly over the course of the year. But Greene shows how three factors were crucial to the show's later success. First of all, Kevin Reilly (NBC's president of primetime development) almost single-handedly saved the show from cancellation after season one as he overruled most of his fellow NBC colleagues and brought it back for a second year. Then, Steve Carell experienced a sudden ascent to stardom with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a hugely popular film that gave the show an important marketing boost as well as stronger executive support at NBC. Lastly, starting in season two, Steve Carell found a way to strike a more sympathetic note in Michael Scott's character, which would become key to future plot lines:
Paul Feig: We shot the scene at the very end where they give him the yogurt lid at the awards presentation as a medal. They're basically making fun of him. It was supposed to be just kind of like he's taking it seriously, and he thinks it's great, and everybody else is laughing behind his back. But Steve made this decision that as they're playing the national anthem [he would] tear up. His eyes got read and started watering. Suddenly it was like, "Oh my God, this poor guy." He was so vulnerable and you see how desperate for anything good to happen to him and any kind of approval or validation. I remember I was like, "Oh my God. This is great! Let's do it again, really go with it!" Then Greg was really excited and was like, "That's it, that's it!" That was the turning point. I was like, "Oh, we can actually make Michael a nut, and overbearing, and ridiculous, and all these things, but we can find moments where he's vulnerable and human." As Greg and all the writers started to analyze, it was like, "Okay, let's give him a victory every once in awhile." I remember Greg saying, "We can have it where he is actually smart a couple of times."
This is an intelligent and insightful history, essential reading for fans of the show.