When writer-producer-director Greg Daniels agreed to re-take the reins of The Office as show runner and executive producer, a day-to-day position he gave up after the show’s sixth season, he took over a show that was feeling its age.
The first full season without Steve Carell wasn’t received well by the critics; stars and writers Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak were leaving to work on The Mindy Project; and stars John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and Ed Helms had taken some time to sign on for a ninth season. Oh, and the show’s previous showrunner, Paul Lieberstein (Toby to you and me) was leaving to work on a Dwight Schrute-centric spin-off with one of the other show’s stars, Rainn Wilson, who was scheduled to leave the main show midway through the season.
Suffice it to say, there were a number of challenges Daniels had to face, which were multiplied when he and NBC told reporters last summer that the ninth season will be the show’s last. Daniels recently sat down with Co.Create for a wide-ranging interview about the last season, how he faced all of those challenges, why The Farm spin-off didn’t get picked up, and how tough it is for him to end the long-running show.
Co.Create: What are you feeling now that you’re down to the last few episodes?
Greg Daniels: Well, I’m very concerned with making the cuts right. I can’t influence anything else at this point. The sets are gone and the cast is gone and the crew is gone. So we’re just trying to edit. I’m pretty proud of the third to last one, which is the one hour called "Living the Dream." Then the other two we’re still working on.
The last three episodes are an hour long. At what point when you look at those episodes do you say, “Hey, this could be an hour”?
What happens is when the rough cut comes in and it’s over 40 minutes and it’s all good, then you’re like this should be an hour. Whereas, most of the time the rough cut comes in and it’s 36 minutes and there’s a lot of crap in it. In that case you’re like, “Whew.” But then right now with the finale for example, the rough cut’s 81 minutes and even when you pull out what doesn’t work I think it’s too long for an hour.
Are you going to try to go for a M*A*S*H-like two and a half hours?
No, that’s insane obviously. But I wouldn’t mind an extra 15 minutes [which is what he got—ed.].
When you agreed to come back as showrunner this year, was there a condition that you wouldn’t want to go beyond season nine?
There was a lot of discussion about why to come back. I think the most appealing answer to that was to have a great last season and end it trying to explore some of these things that everybody—cast and writers—was interested in doing. The alternative would have been to have maybe a third or a half of the original cast and then restock it with a lot of new people. The downside to that would be that there wouldn’t be endings to the stories. A number of very important cast members’ stories would have been just sort of cut off in the middle and then you’d have to start others.
You wrapped up Ryan (B.J. Novak) and Kelly’s (Mindy Kaling) stories a little bit. But since the two of them weren’t involved with the show, did that make that tougher?
Yeah. If we had known in advance we probably would have made more of an arc out of where they were. I mean they’re coming back in the finale but the premiere had to kind of exit them very quickly.
When you looked at where the show had left itself in season eight, what did you say to yourself and the writers? Where do we have to change this story in order to put it in the direction of it going towards the end? If James Spader had said, “I’m going to stay,” would James Spader have been part of this story, for instance?
That’s a good question. Well, I talked to all of the cast and they all had a wish list of things to happen to their characters. A lot of times it coincided with something that we as the writers had been thinking about. For example, for Jim and Pam—I felt like we didn’t do arcs enough in the past years that involved them. I thought they were pretty central to the show. When you think about the end of the show, it seems to me that the show would have something to do with Jim and Pam and with Dwight, because those were, to me, the most central characters after Michael (Steve Carell) left. There was lots of discussion about what they’d do. Then we were planning for Dwight to have left in the middle of the season. So, we were kind of counting on Jim and Pam to end the series.
Was Jim and Pam’s marital trouble on their wish list?
Yeah. They wanted to do some of that. I thought it would be good to have more of an arc feeling and more stakes for their relationship.
A lot of people, myself included, thought that they kind of settled into the married couple vibe of just living day to day with their kids.
Yes, they did. They did. I think they still are this season. I mean I thought that in season eight for example, when Andy went to get Erin (Ellie Kemper), it was a successful arc. I liked knowing that this episode is different from the last episode and he’s trying to achieve this and there’s change happening. That’s kind of how we wrote it in the beginning, and I always liked that it wasn’t just a reset button every week.
Besides Pam and Jim, was there anything that you fundamentally wanted to get back to from the earlier years of the show that maybe had been missing at that point?
Tonally, yeah. I think that I wanted to have a tone of alternating comedy with seriousness, I guess. Then one of the things that we all as writers felt was that Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) was funnier as a bit of a dick. We took his character down a few notches. We went back to perhaps an earlier version of his character. Part of it was that he was going to be gone for like 10 episodes in the middle of the season. So, it was clear that he couldn’t headline the show as he had in season eight because he was missing for the middle. Part of it was, What do we do if he’s not going to be here for the middle of the season? We have to figure out something for Erin to do. But we also liked the Andy that was capable of more foolishness.
Bringing in Clark Duke and Jake Lacy, is that something that was a little risky to do in the last season?
Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bringing in some new blood. I mean Ed Helms was new blood in season three and Ellie Kemper was new blood in season five. You know, that seems like just good producing to me to do that. I think Clark and Jake have been really fun to have. I also think from the storytelling standpoint the theme of this year was set in the premiere and it was the kind of realization on the part of Dwight and Jim that they’d been there a long time. That’s sort of a prod for them to get their lives onto the next stage. By having these guys who everybody was seeing as the new Jim and the new Dwight—the point of that was just to kind of get them to think about how long they’ve been in the same job.
How hard is it to service all these characters knowing that you’re getting closer to the end and you’re running out of episodes?
It’s hard! Yeah. It’s totally hard. I mean that’s the whole point. The only reason it’s hard is because we have so many good characters, and people, I believe, who have been following the show for a long time want to find out what happens to all the characters. So, you don’t want to leave anybody out.
Other writers have said that when you know that you have an end point it seems like the writing comes together more easily. How did that work out for you and your staff knowing that you’re writing towards an ending?
Well, I mean it remains to be seen because we haven’t aired the last [two] yet. People may be furious. From our perspective, from the perspective of everybody who worked on the show, the ending led to very good episodes and led to significant things happening. I wrote Steve Carell’s last episode. I think it was a really good episode but there’s always a tension between what’s good for the series and what’s good for an episode, because the more closure you put on an episode, the more significant-feeling it is. But then if you have to go back next week, suddenly you have fewer tools to work with. So it was a great episode to say goodbye to Steve Carell, but then you also had to say goodbye to Steve Carell, which kind of sucked. But when you’re talking about the very ending of the show you don’t have to save anything.
When you know that you’re writing towards Rainn leaving in the middle of the season to do The Farm spin-off and then NBC passes on the pilot, does it throw your plan for the rest of the season into chaos?
Not really. They were aware of the show’s needs, so they made that decision early enough so that we could roll with it. It’s not like we entered the season with everything written. I mean the thing that I think was the toughest part was for Catherine Tate. There was going to be this zone where Rainn had left and Ed Helms was doing The Hangover and we had talked to Catherine about the character of Nellie kind of filling the gap and being the driver of comedy A-stories in that period. Then when The Farm didn’t go, Rainn kind of came back and filled that role. So I think we kind of wasted a brilliant comedian this year a little bit with Catherine Tate.
The story line about Angela (Angela Kinsey) and Oscar (Oscar Nuñez), that had been boiling for a couple of years. Was that already in the works for that to boil over this year?
That’s something that I believe I thought about at the end of season eight and was one of the things I was excited about coming back to run the show for. That was really funny. There’s a lot of twists and turns to that that we didn’t actually get around to. You’ll see more of that in the coming episodes.
Any speculation why NBC didn’t pick up The Farm?
Well, I think that they were…let’s see. What’s the right word? I think that when The Voice was behind some of their new shows, it made the new shows look a lot stronger than perhaps they were when The Voice was not there. So I don’t know if they felt the need for it as much as they perhaps should have. I thought it came out very well.
It feels like with Darryl (Craig Robinson), we’re still finding his ending. Is he one of those guys where you’ve been pushing his ending a little bit towards the last three episodes?
He’s got a big one, the one that I’m editing today actually, the second to the last one.
Do you feel confident that we’ll be able to get a resolution for everybody’s stories in?
Even Creed (Creed Bratton)?
Yes, even Creed.
Although it would be more funny if Creed just kind of floated away.
No. It’s a very specific ending for Creed.
That’s what I’m most looking forward to, I think.
Yeah. I love Creed.
When in the writing process, did the decision to reveal the documentary crew happen? Why did you guys decide that Pam confiding in the sound guy was going to be our first real interface with that crew?
Well, that was something that came up in season five, I think. It was a pitch. I think Mindy was the first or one of the first champions of it. The idea was to introduce some romantic triangle with Jim when they were such soul mates that you had to say "How could she possibly be interested in somebody else?" You think to yourself, well, I wouldn’t believe it if I just was introduced to the character. You had to see it happening from scratch. What if that character had been secretly there the entire time and predated the relationship with Jim and had been a shoulder that she cried on for years? It just seemed very intriguing. But we also were, like, if we break the fourth wall in season five, it feels like that might be the last season for the show. So we kept putting that off. Ultimately, I didn’t think it was about actually going there. They never did anything. It was just to introduce worry in the audience, which I think happened. I mean there are people who in season eight were like, "They’re so boring. They just hang out together and there’s no angst. We used to love the angst with their relationship." You’re going to get it coming and going.
But it would be an awfully bleak ending if Pam and Jim ended up cheating on each other.
Wouldn’t that be awful?
That would be the most depressing sitcom ending ever.
Yeah. I mean just giving interviews trying to tip that maybe that was what was happening. I don’t know. I expected people to have a little more faith, I guess.
Did people actually buy into maybe that that was going to go somewhere?
Who knows? I mean I thought it was cool. You don’t expect, at a moment of extreme crisis, for that to happen. The one thing that I feel like with the show is that you have to take creative risks or you’re just kind of making this factory-processed cheese food or something. So whatever.
Even in season nine, you have to take creative risks?
I don’t know. That was my theory. Listen, I stand by this season. I think it’s a great season. If people hate it, then they can write me horrible letters or something.
The first allusion to how long the documentary crew had been hanging around was when Michael Scott left and he said, “Can you tell me when you guys are finally going to release this?”
I used to always hear people go, “How many years are they going to film that documentary? Don’t they have enough footage?” But to me what makes the show so unique was really committing to the concept that it was a documentary and that the interviews were actually interviews and they weren’t just a storytelling device and the characters were aware that they were being filmed. The whole point of the spy shots were to remind you that it was a documentary. To me it’s completely bound up in the DNA of the show.
Was the intention from day one always that whenever you end the show the documentary’s going to be released?
Well, no. Pretty early on, when I wasn’t sure when the show was going to end, I had an ending that involved a reality show—a post-reality-show analysis-type episode. There’s a part of that that’s happening in the finale.
Parks and Rec is the same format, but there’s no assumption that there’s a documentary film crew there?
Well, I’ll say that in the beginning there was. It was the same format, and there was a documentary film crew there. I think that part has been downplayed a little bit and there’s probably some moments where you have to say, “Hey, that’s a crane shot. Hey, where’d that come from.” They were in their home. I mean I think it’s still a mockumentary.
When you look back and you look at those early days of the show and people comparing it to Ricky Gervais’ original, what was your thought process back then compared to what it is now? How do you think the show has evolved from those early days?
Well, I mean I think we were way more conscious of the British show back then. In the very beginning, it was trying to be faithful to it and then early on it was trying to be different from it or to be independent of it or to make some course corrections to it for TV and the U.S. But I think after a few years or probably even less, we weren’t thinking about it that much. On a daily basis, you’re working with Steve Carell, you’re not working with Ricky Gervais. You try a line and you can’t be writing for David Brent. You have to be writing for Michael Scott because Steve is Michael Scott. So pretty quickly I wasn’t thinking about it other than trying not to imitate it exactly.
But it took a season or two to get out of that.
Well, I mean it depends on what you’re talking about. For example, the pilot was very important for me to try and be faithful to the tone of the original, because I thought the worst case scenario would be to have something that came out with a really shticky, different tone. So the pilot was very much trying to do that. But then pretty quickly it was like that was that. Now that we actually got picked up we probably will only have this one season, so let’s try and hit the greatest Americanized version of this as possible, which was kind of like the same type of characters but all new stories and learning how to write for the cast and having fun. You have to understand what a treat it was to be able to work on the show.
You were involved in King of the Hill, which ran for many years. When a long-running show ends, what feelings come up for you?
Well actually I had a similar kind of beginning experience with King of the Hill in that I was the show runner for the first five years or four years or something. I don’t remember exactly. Then I came back to run the show in season seven. So I did have something similar to that. But then I wasn’t really around because The Office started. I wasn’t around at all for the end of King of the Hill. So I kind of hopped onto a new project and rode that. There’s a lot to recommend both versions. It’s like if you get to hop onto something new, then you don’t have to deal with goodbyes or anything negative. You just get excited about something new and you let somebody else worry about ending it. I felt like a huge responsibility towards the cast here. I love The Office format so much that I wanted to close it out. Also, it was different. I felt like I never really got to do that to King of the Hill. I had my idea of what the series finale of King of the Hill would be, but that’s not what the actual series finale was.
Final thoughts before you go?
I mean, I would say if I had the opportunity to address the fans of the show, I would just thank them for being such committed and interested fans who really got every detail out. It was a pleasure to write the show for them, because they paid such close attention to everything.