Breeding “The Office”
Contemplating The Office while writing it up for a Netflix Series of the Week, I was struck by its phenomenal bloodlines. While a bad or mediocre show can be the result of random accident (or a series of meetings with studio executives, which is pretty much the same thing), the best shows tend to come from lengthy breeding. And even a cursory look at the convergence of forces that resulted in The Office pretty neatly makes that case.
I’m not claiming my evidence is exhaustive. These were just some facts I stumbled upon while digging into the show’s history. There could be major gaps in my argument—I might be missing some major connections. But it doesn’t matter, because what little I’ve been able to put together, mostly out of sheer luck, is impressive on its own.
In the beginning was Spinal Tap—and in particular a DP named Peter Smokler, the former documentarian who pretty much singlehandedly created the mockumentary style that began with Tap, spread into TV with The Larry Sanders Show, and went solidly mainstream with The Office.
(The photo in my organizational chart/family tree shows Smokler holding up his legendary poor man’s Steadicam—otherwise known as rollerblades. Seems like money was always tight on the Sanders show.)
Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders broke so much new ground it would take a whole series of posts just to list its achievements. But one of its greatest contributions was giving comedy-nerd Judd Apatow—who would rewrite the American-comedy rule book—his first big break.
Sanders was also a training ground for a whole series of directors who would spread the faux-documentary style. One of the most accomplished was Ken Kwapis, who later did episodes of both Freaks and Geeks and The Office.
Joel Hodgson’s The TV Wheel always gets treated as a footnote (and is rarely seen) but when you consider its influence, it’s a hell of a big footnote. His somewhat clumsy attempt to regain his reputation after being ousted from MST3K, it’s a pretty funny stab at reinventing sketch comedy.
Two of its writers were Apatow and Paul Feig. Feig also performed on the show (which only lasted one episode), nailing it as the sleazy magic-catalog pitchman in the almost perfect “Pumpernickel.”
Feig and Apatow were the guiding forces behind yet another groundbreaking—and at the time unappreciated—series, Freaks and Geeks, which launched the careers of Apatow stock-company members Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen. It also featured a series of cameos by Hodgson as the uncoolest hipster ever.
Of all the directors who did episodes of The Office—and there were some pretty big names, including Harold Ramis, Joss Whedon, and J.J. Abrams—Feig probably had the biggest impact.
Geeks’ inspired casting was largely the work of Allison Jones, who did a similarly brilliant job on Arrested Development and on Apatow’s breakout film, The 40 Year Old Virgin. Her deft touch gathering ensembles got her The Office gig.
And Virgin was Steve Carell’s breakout film too, of course, which happened pretty much simultaneously with the debut of The Office.
Ricky Gervais’ original British Office series was obviously the basis of the American off-shoot, and Greg Daniels, who would produce, write, and direct episodes of the series, was mainly responsible for developing it for American TV. But if you want an explanation for why The Office is so distinct from Gervais’ series, and why it blew almost everything on TV out of the water, I don’t think you have to look any farther than the pedigree outlined here.
To study The Office is to cross paths with pretty much everything that’s been great in American comedy over the past 30 years. And that was no random accident.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and