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‘The Office’s’ Greg Daniels: Grilled

”I was just hoping to get a seat at the big table for subtle, weird, awkward humor.“

Greg Daniels is one of the most powerful figures in the TV comedy business. The former "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons" writer is behind one of NBC’s most important comedy hopes (Amy Poehler’s "Parks and Recreation") and its biggest scripted hit ("The Office," which just launched in five-days-a-week syndication to local stations covering 98 percent of the country).

Daniels talked with TheWrap’s Josef Adalian about how "The Office" went from struggling to smash hit, why he doesn’t like product placement and whether he thinks his show could live on with a totally new cast.

"The Office" is such a hit now, it’s easy to forget how close the show came to dying at birth. Was there a moment during that first season where you thought, "OK, we’re toast."
I knew we had a lot of unusual features for an NBC comedy at the time, like no laugh track, the concept of the documentary, a pretty flawed main character, etc. — so I had prepared the executives for the reality that we weren’t going to be a hit out of the starting gate. The mid-level NBC and GE executives loved the show, though, and related to the absurdity of corporate life and supported us internally. 
When did the tide turn? Was it iTunes? "The 40 Year Old Virgin"? Or just NBC being patient and letting viewers find the show?
The tide turned a little bit each week of season two it felt like. The success of "40 Year Old Virgin" made everyone at NBC aware that having Steve Carell under contract was a big asset.  We made changes in his character and the tone of the show, which started with our premiere, "The Dundies."

People loved the "Office Olympics" episode, and the Halloween episode, and the Christmas episode, and the Internet fan groups started to pop. iTunes was great and then the "Booze Cruise" episode heated up the romance between Pam and Jim, and that grew all the way to the season finale, "Casino Night," with highlights like "The Injury" getting big ratings along the way.

So it was thanks to NBC being patient, but it felt like a bunch of things all happening one after the other.
Creatively, it took a little time to figure out this new format, right? Was there a "eureka" episode for you — one where you thought, "OK, now I know what this show is"?

"The Dundies," probably. Even though all the scripts after the pilot were original, we were still writing the show like an American version of the English show in season one.  In between season one and two we made the changes that gave it its own voice.

Given Steve’s success, it would have been easy for "The Office" to become "The Michael Scott Show." How did you avoid the star trap so many shows fall into?
We avoided the star trap because Steve avoided the star trap. He set the tone from the top and has always acted with incredible generosity, modesty and professionalism. 

How do you think "The Office" has influenced other comedies on the air right now?
I actually don’t have a lot of time to watch other shows, so you would be a better judge. When Ben (Silverman) and I brought the show to NBC, I was just hoping to get a seat at the big table for subtle, weird, awkward humor.

Let’s talk about the Jim and Pam romance. It might be one of the most realistic TV couplings ever. Did you ever think of "The Office"  as a love story? Because for some fans, that’s what it is …
Of course.  We were very conscious from the beginning of trying to tell a great romance with Pam and Jim. Since they were soulmates, when they finally did get together, I didn’t want to tell typical soap opera stories of straying and jealousy.

Part of the seriousness with which we took this love story came from the reaction of the fans on the Internet, as they dissected every nuance after the show. I had several great conversations with Stephen Merchant about the Victorian nature of the Tim/Dawn love story and how it worked with the documentary format. But the show is not only a love story. The genius of the format we inherited was that the love story was in the background, so the predominant feeling of the episodes was the comedy. 

You helped usher in a new era in product placement on TV. Fans don’t seem to mind. But do you ever wish you didn’t have to deal with it?
We really were not in the forefront of product placement at all. It was a big thing on reality shows, and something that Ben had a lot of experience with, but we only tried to make it work a few times on the show — and we had mostly bad experiences with it.

As a mock-documentary we take a very real tone, which means that we like to reference real products or businesses instead of making up "Joka-cola," but we generally just get a simple release from the companies. It is too hard to make a great show with a client looking over your shoulder with a lot of stipulations that have nothing to do with the characters or the story. 

How long would you like "The Office" to continue in its current incarnation? Could you see the show continuing with a mostly new cast, a la "ER"?
Mindy Kaling very early on made the comparison to "ER,"  and I think it would be possible to keep bringing new characters in. Ed Helms’s Andy Bernard was introduced in season three, for example, and Ellie Kemper came on last year. In our premiere, we introduced three summer interns just for the episode, but by the end of it I was curious to see more of them. 

But it is hard to imagine the show without Steve and the current cast at its core. We are still several years away from having to think about it, and I have a good idea for a series finale episode, too.

If Hank Hill and Michael Scott were to sit down for a beer, what would the conversation be like?
Well, Hank is nowhere near as deluded as Michael, even though there are a lot of tonal similarities between the shows. I would be more interested in Michael’s conversation with Peggy Hill, or Dwight Schrute giving Dale Gribble a tour of Schrute Farm.

Any chance of a "Parks and Recreation"/"Office" crossover? And how are things on the new show?
Things are great on the new show.  Mike and I tinkered with things after our six-episode season one, and the reaction has been extremely positive. The show gets better and better every episode, which is tough for me as the pilot co-writer and director to admit. When we cast Rashida Jones on "Parks and Recreation," though, I think we closed the door on a fictional crossover between the two worlds.