Peacock finds punchline

'Office' staples NBC back to the laff track

As they try to revive the flagging sitcom, network execs ought to swipe a few things from “The Office.”

As most of this season’s new risk-taking, genre-bending shows fall by the wayside (and aren’t expected to get promoted into next season), the Steve Carell starrer has defied the odds.

The NBC workplace laffer isn’t a mega-hit — yet. But as buzz (and ratings) continue to build, “The Office” is on its way.

Take a memo: The steady rise of “The Office” can be attributed to several factors including network patience; the producers and net’s willingness to evolve the show; its stellar ensemble; the fact that it’s inspired by, but not just a reworking of, an overseas format; and the unique ways the Peacock and its studio have marketed the skein.

It’s clearly paid off. Ratings for “The Office” are up nearly 75% vs. its first season, putting it among TV’s top 5 comedies. On Apple’s iTunes Music Store, episodes of the show regularly pop up among the top 10 TV downloads, while sales of the show’s first season DVD collection are climbing — nearly nine months after it was released.

Inside NBC Universal all these signs of momentum have given rise to faint whispers that the show could be the network’s new “Seinfeld” — a slow-starting critical fave that mushrooms into a monster hit.

“When I bump into regular viewers, they tell me how much they love this show,” says NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly. “This is appointment television for them.”

It’s worth noting that “The Office” isn’t the biggest new comedy hit on NBC — that honor goes to the show’s lead-in, “My Name Is Earl.”

But webheads impatient to find the next hit comedy could learn a thing or two from “The Office,” given that its path was far less clear cut.

Patience pays.

Reilly knew from the start that “The Office” would take time to catch on, wisely lowering expectations for a show he knew would be a tough sell.

“I kept underselling the idea that we’d be a success right out of the box,” creator Greg Daniels says of his initial pitch to Reilly. “We’re a character comedy, and viewers need time to learn who the characters are.”

Indeed, the early numbers for “The Office” were distressing. When NBC went to set its fall schedule last May, some of his Peacock colleagues thought he was nuts to bring the show back.

“I credit Kevin Reilly with having the guts to stick by creative he believed in and finding a time period where it would have a chance to grow,” says ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson.

“Office” exec producer Ben Silverman, who first brought the format to NBC, says networks must abandon “the opening weekend mentality of motion pictures that’s invaded television in the last 10 years.

“You have to allow shows to breathe and connect with an audience.”

Even Reilly admits that NBC’s ratings drought helped make it easier to bring the show back. “If there’s any advantage to being up against the wall, it’s that you can say, ‘Screw it, let’s go with it,’ ” he says.

Be open to an evolving show.

“The Office” that aired this season is a different series from what viewers saw in March and April 2005. Cast and basic premise were the same, but the tone was different.

“The first season we were so concerned with not betraying the English show, it was probably a little too close to the English show — a little colder and satiric,” Daniels says.

Skein took on a more American sensibility in season two, while star Carell grew into his role as boss Michael Scott. Daniels even added a tiny glimmer of heart, much like his previous creation, “King of the Hill.”

“The natural characteristics of the people start to come through,” Daniels says. “Steve Carell is not a mean person; he’s got a certain amount of warmth that’s a part of him.”

Ensemble casts are a good thing.

Young dramas such as “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy”– not to mention the long-running “ER” — have flourished in part because of their supersized casts. “The Office” has emulated the big-is- better-model by expanding beyond a core group of four characters, fleshing out roles that started out as background characters.

That doesn’t mean networks should start ordering shows with lots of no-names or no central comedic presence. ABC’s “Sons & Daughters,” for example, has a top-notch ensemble but lacks anyone who could be tagged a “star.”

“You still need a rudder, a Steve Carell at the center,” Reilly cautions.

Overseas formats should serve as inspiration, not blueprints.

Daniels says it was a challenge to create “The Office” at the same time the U.K. version was airing — and developing a rabid fan base — on BBC America. Other successful translations — such as “All in the Family” and “Three’s Company” — never had to deal with that direct comparison.

The more recent track record of U.K.-to-U.S. imports wasn’t great: A year before “The Office” debuted, NBC struck out with “Coupling,” another Silverman-produced adaptation of another Blighty comedy hit.

While NBC’s “Coupling” adapted multiple episodes of the U.K. original, the new “Office” went off on its own after the pilot.

“The biggest takeaway was, the ‘Coupling’ guys were canceled before the network aired any of their original scripts,” Daniels says. “They did a number of rewrites directly from the British show, and never got to show the original ones.

“The nice thing about ‘Coupling,’ it lowered expectations for ‘The Office’ down to zero,” he says.

Networks need to think beyond the box.

Having a good show critics love isn’t enough to get viewers to watch — just ask the producers of “Arrested Development.” NBC has wisely built buzz around “The Office” with a number of unconventional marketing initiatives.

College newspapers were targeted by NBC’s press department. The show’s writers and actors created online blogs for their fictional characters. Ten minutes of footage was posted to MySpace.com even before the pilot debuted.

“The promotion had to come from more of a grassroots position, because it wasn’t the top priority at the network,” says NBC U TV Studios prexy Angela Bromstad.

All the free media exposure generated by the Peacock’s deal with Apple certainly didn’t hurt, nor did Carell’s sudden star status, thanks to the success of last summer’s feature “The 40- Year-Old Virgin.”

The next few months promise to be a critical period for “The Office.”

Skein has momentum coming out of its second season, but it’s not yet a breakout hit. If it’s smart, NBC will use the summer to expose “The Office” to as many new viewers as possible.

Already, plans are underway for an Internet-based spinoff featuring some of the show’s supporting players as a way to keep it in the public eye during repeats.

Exposing “The Office” will be particularly important if NBC decides to move the show to 9 p.m. Thursdays, the same timeslot that once housed “Seinfeld” and “Cheers.”

“We feel this is the comedy of this era,” Bromstad says. “This is one of those shows that defines a time, the way I believe all great comedies do. ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ ‘Cheers,’ ‘Seinfeld’ — this is in that league.”

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