After seven years, fine-tuning script a familiar task
It’s the table read for the hourlong season finale of “The Office,” and Rainn Wilson is sitting on Will Arnett’s lap. Not because of space considerations, though with some 40 cast members, writers, producers and other members of the crew crammed into a small bungalow at Chandler Valley Center Studios, seating is at a premium.
Arnett is one of many guest stars featured in the seventh-season capper, and he’s the only one who schlepped to Van Nuys to participate in the table read. So he deserves some extra attention, especially among friends.
“I know Will just got a pilot yesterday and I hope it comes out terrible,” showrunner Paul Lieberstein says. “I’d really like to see more of him on ‘The Office.’ ” (No such luck. NBC picked up Arnett’s show, “Up All Night,” for the fall.)
Lieberstein wrote the season finale, and once everyone gathers, two rows deep, around the rectangular conference table, the reading begins. Since “The Office” isn’t filmed in front of a studio audience, this is the best and only opportunity the writers have to hear the episode read from start to finish and gauge how it plays.
Of course, this crowd is a little biased, retaining and expressing a love and appreciation for the series that’s palpable even after 152 episodes. Lieberstein’s 75-page script provokes big laughs in the right places, particularly when Kathy Bates and Creed Bratton are delivering the lines. (“Those two kill,” says writer-actor Mindy Kaling. “They always have the highest batting average of any cast members at the table read.”)
The problem is the script is a good 10 pages too long, even with the show’s extended run time.
This kind of humor surplus is a commonplace for “The Office,” and it leads to painful edits after the table read ends.
“Every year we say this is going to stop, and I’m going to say it again next year,” says B.J. Novak, another “Office” cast member who writes for the program. “If you watch most of our shows, there’s way too many scenes. One thing I like about the finale is the very long group scene at the end that’s just observational and conversational.”
The conversation among the “Office” characters in the episode revolves around which one of them should succeed Michael Scott as Dunder Mifflin manager.
Figuring out life without Michael (and series star Steve Carell) is the question keeping Lieberstein “up at night.” The finale, titled “Search Committee,” put off answering that dilemma until next season.
During the read, Lieberstein listens carefully, trying to sense whether the story is working.
Since he’s also reading the scene descriptions as well as his own lines as Toby, his attention is often divided. With an hourlong episode, the process proves doubly exhausting. If the story’s right, he says he shifts his focus to the jokes, though with a single-cam show such as “The Office,” the absence of laughter at the read isn’t necessarily indicative of failure.
“A joke can be funny based on how it’s shot or what comes before it,” Wilson says. “With a multicamera show, it’s pretty much just joke, joke, joke.”
That knowledge doesn’t make it any less stressful for an episode’s principal writer.
“I’m as nervous now as when I wrote my first episode seven years ago,” says Kaling, who has written 19 for the series. “I almost don’t even trust my opinion of my own scripts at a table read. It’s like listening to your own voice on an answering machine. You’re like, ‘Oh my God. How do I have any friends?’ ”
Novak happened to write the first-season episode that followed the “Office” pilot, so the table read took place in a conference room at NBC headquarters.
The criticisms were minor, but Novak remembers they felt like a “knife to the heart.” Now, after writing 13 shows for the series, he listens closely for laughs.
“Sometimes I disagree with people who say, ‘It got a lot of laughs, but here were the problems,’ ” Novak says. “After this long, everyone knows the show really well and cares about it for the right reasons. You don’t give a real, whole-hearted laugh for something that is funny but doesn’t quite work for the character. And if something falls flat, it’s because it felt wrong, not simply because it was a bad joke.”
The changes made on “Search Committee” from table read to broadcast ended up being superficial. A few lines of dialogue were tweaked for the sake of realism. Some characters’ motivations were more clearly stated. But the episode, which, like the rest of the show’s seventh season, had been plotted out nearly a year ago according to Novak, remained relatively unchanged.
If the show’s creative staff has already planned next season in a similar fashion, Lieberstein isn’t letting on. One thing’s certain: The next time this group convenes for a table read, things won’t be quite the same.
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