Sitcom retooled for longevity, new audience

It wasn’t the ideal situation: Turn a beloved, game-changing British sitcom that ran only 12 episodes (with two specials) into an American network show that could possibly run for years.

Now, 100 episodes later, the U.S. version of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s cubicle-life series “The Office” is an Emmy-winning NBC stalwart on Thursday nights, showing no signs of creative slowdown.

“They’ve made the show their own,” says managing director Howard T. Owens of Reveille, which produces “The Office.” “(Showrunner) Greg Daniels and his writing staff have created a template totally unique to American TV.”

The two versions can be seen as representative of their respective countries, according to Merchant, who believes “there’s a lot to be said” for the virtues of going short as well as for going long.

“Ricky and I did everything ourselves,” Merchant says, “so there’s no way we could have sustained that momentum. And syndication is not an option (in the U.K.), so you can’t invest in a show in the hopes of paying everyone later. We’re these little old ladies running a tea shop in Devon, while the American show has a momentum and ambition and energy. It’s the Henry Ford model, but something special is coming out the other end.”

Like the British “Office,” NBC’s kicked off (in the spring of 2005) with only six episodes. The order was small enough, says Daniels, to let him and his team get the subtly wince-inducing tone of the original right, while forging their own version of the single-camera mockumentary format.

“I was worried about the habits NBC had at the time, coming off a mostly multicamera sensibility,” Daniels says. But the network kept referring to the example of “Seinfeld” as the model for building an offbeat comedy. “The fact that (“Seinfeld”), too, started with little bursts of small orders helped them figure out how to do the show.”

Whereas fans of the British “Office” love laughing at Gervais’ pathetically self-deluded paper company tyrant David Brent, Daniels knew Steve Carell’s Michael Scott needed positive elements for the show to go the distance.

“We started the romance with Jan, gave him moments of intelligence and competence,” says Daniels, who says Carell’s performance in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” helped him see all Michael could be. “It’s the Peter Principle a bit. Michael’s a very good salesman who’s just not a very good manager.”

Also, Gervais and Merchant wrote out all their episodes to carefully hone its off-the-cuff appearance, while Daniels embraced the spirit of looseness in the mockumentary format.

“We can pile the cameramen in the back of the van and just go places,” he says. “I like it when we’re being guerrilla.”

Merchant crossed the Pond to direct an episode last season, and he marveled at the team effort involved.

“I’ve never had more fun than being in the writers’ room and seeing a pool of very talented people throw ideas around,” he says. “They’re working flat-out all the time. It’s not like being stuck in a room with Ricky Gervais wanting to take a nap under his desk because he’s had too many sandwiches for lunch. This was a lot more dynamic and youthful.”

With a cast of more than a dozen adept at improvising, actors who are also writers, and writer-producers who also direct, Daniels has assembled a creative community he likens to a jazz troupe.

“If the spirit moves somebody, they can take a solo, and you won’t feel scared as much,” he says. “The volume is daunting. We did 28 episodes this year, but to know there are so many talented people around you, if you’re not on that day, it’s OK. There’s a lot of depth.”

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