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They gave at `The Office' -- twice

November 27, 2006|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

IF NBC's comedy "The Office" feels like nothing else on television, it may be because the actors and writers are so often on the same page. In fact, they're frequently the same people.

Everybody's heard of performers who squirrel themselves away in their on-set trailers and pound out the odd script that winds up on the air, typically as a token of favor from the producers. But "The Office" is something else entirely, the rare scripted TV show in which the line between writing and performing is, by design, almost nonexistent. It's an improv-style approach that could yield some important lessons for those puzzled by the identity crisis and creative drift that generally seem to be afflicting the art of small-screen comedy these days.

A workplace mockumentary set in the Scranton, Pa., branch of fictional paper company Dunder-Mifflin Inc., "The Office" has had some of its most acclaimed episodes written by regular or recurring cast members, some of whom are barely out of college.

Mindy Kaling, who plays the show's "Indian Valley Girl" Kelly Kapoor, drew on her cultural heritage to write a script earlier this season that had the Dunder-Mifflin crew awkwardly celebrating the Hindu holiday Diwali. Another "Office" twentysomething, B.J. Novak, who plays the laconic young temp Ryan, is a stand-up comic with a Harvard education and writing credits on five episodes. Veteran comedy writer Paul Lieberstein became a performer entirely by accident, developing the bit part of the soft-spoken human-resources manager Toby into a wry portrait of a passive-aggressive player in corporate politics.

Even series star Steve Carell, who plays the endlessly embarrassing boss Michael Scott, has pitched in, writing last season's finale episode.

Executive producer Greg Daniels, formerly a writer-producer on "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," said the double duty is intentional. He has clauses inserted in the writers' contracts to cover whatever acting chores may arise. Kaling remembers Daniels mulling over a bit character in one script before suddenly turning to staff writer Gene Stupnitsky and asking, "Have you ever acted before?"

This seat-of-the-pants method serves a creative purpose. "Partly I was just imitating things I loved, like 'Monty Python' or 'Fawlty Towers,' where the writers and performers are the same people," Daniels said.

Moreover, because "The Office" is supposed to be a documentary about mid- and low-level corporate grunts, it makes sense for the performances to lack a bit of polish and not to be too fussy.

"The concept of the show is that it's an ordinary workplace where the people are funny but not particularly glamorous," Daniels said. If their posture, gestures and speech seem "a little awkward," all the better.

Daniels is also in some respects following the path of the original BBC version of "The Office," which co-creator and star Ricky Gervais wrote with his creative partner Stephen Merchant.

The approach garners no complaints from NBC, which has watched ratings for "The Office" climb after a very slow start in March 2005. "It's definitely unique and advantageous to have so many artists serve in dual roles on one show," NBC Universal Television Studio President Angela Bromstad wrote in an e-mail. "Clearly, they inhabit these roles fully and completely."

The 11-member writing staff of NBC's "Office" gathers for the typical "writers' room" bull sessions, in which Daniels solicits ideas and assigns scripts to individual writers. Although the basic structure of every episode is mapped out in advance, Daniels leaves plenty of room for improvisation within each scene.

"The actors I hired, I tried to have them all have improvisational backgrounds," he said. "Improv is a good tool to make it seem more natural."

At this point, anything that can shake up comedy's creative formulas is probably a good thing. One of the complaints about sitcoms in general is that the traditional "multi-camera" method, as well as dividing the script into "acts" that depend heavily on a setup-joke-setup-joke pattern, has grown threadbare. But simply making "single-camera" comedies that look more like movies hasn't necessarily helped either. In addition to interesting characters, new ways of telling stories may help capture the attention of increasingly fickle viewers.

In the case of "The Office," now-familiar roles such as Kelly's and Toby's were originally meant to be bit parts. But the dual roles aren't always easy on the cast. Lieberstein admits that he still feels a lot more comfortable writing. The internal reaction to early episodes, however, guaranteed him more air time as Toby.

"Kevin Reilly, who's the president of NBC, was watching dailies and said, 'He's funny. More of him.' And that got around," said Lieberstein, sounding not entirely thrilled by the development.

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