What 'The Office' taught me about writing comedy
Can you believe that Dunder Mifflin is turning ten years old today? The U.S. adaptation of The Office premiered on March 24th, 2005, and all Ricky Gervais and Martin Freeman fans waited with bated breath to see if Greg Daniels could deliver the same dry, uncomfortable honesty that the U.K. series brought to television so effortlessly. Though the first episode was almost an exact recreation of the U.K. pilot, in the episodes that followed, it became clear that Steve Carell, John Krasinski, and Rainn Wilson were up for the challenge of creating something new and ready to bring their own unique strengths to already lovable characters. Michael Scott wasn’t an exact replica of David Brent. Dwight wasn’t Gareth. Jim wasn’t Tim. Each character was brought to life with a slightly different, but equally effective, comedic approach, and it was so refreshing to see.
Although the pilot aired in 2005, it wasn’t until the series came to Netflix that I finally began catching up on the lives of Dunder Mifflin employees. I binged on this show for months, and became instantly obsessed. And although I credit Saturday Night Live with bestowing me with a love of comedy, it wasn’t until The Office that I thought, “Yeah, I could do that!” This was my kind of comedy, and I instantly began to dream of writing for television, a dream that I will never shake until it is realized. For me, The Office was Comedy 101, and you’d better brace yourself, because I’m sharing my notes.
Observe the people around you
The most glorious thing about The Office (whether you’re watching the U.S. or U.K. series) is that it is relatable. We have all had a boring job that we maybe didn’t love, but that we stuck around for because it paid our bills and entertained us between sleeps. We have all worked with a stickler like Angela, a know-it-all like Oscar, a dreamy jokester like Jim, or a nerd/farmer/martial artist hybrid like Dwight (okay, maybe Dwight is one in a million). If you have the itch to write, but you don’t know where to begin, just look around. What kinds of quirks do regular people have? How do they respond to everyday challenges? How do they spend their free time? These observations will let you build a foundation for relatable characters, who can then evolve in any direction you choose. You can always add a little bit of crazy later on. Just take Jan, for instance. We started out totally empathizing with Jan Levinson-Gould. We saw her as a weary supervisor, becoming increasingly exhausted with Michael Scott’s constant shenanigans, and we understood her pain. Over the course of her stint on the show, however, Jan transformed into one of the weirdest and most hilarious characters of all. But Jan’s arc was built on a convincing reality. Taking inspiration from the real world will allow you to relate to your audience. This is invaluable, and could mean the difference between likable characters and lovable characters.
Make your characters layered
Not only should characters be built on a foundation of reality, but they should also have multiple, even conflicting, layers. Michael Scott is the perfect example. It would be easy to hate Michael, especially in the first season, but slowly but surely, his true colors are revealed (and don’t call him Shirley). At heart, Michael Scott is a warm and caring, damaged individual. Everyone knows the moment they fell in love with Michael Scott. For me, it was the episode in which Pam is disappointed that no one from the office came to her art show. As she is packing up her pieces, Michael shows up and raves about them. “These could be tracings!” This is the very moment that my heart melted into a big ol’ puddle. Michael is insensitive and a little dense, but he cares like no one else. The most successful main characters are those who can be both loved and hated. The best protagonists are flawed, and the best antagonists are compellingly human (you can understand exactly where, why, or how they went wrong).
Characters also need to go through a journey, which is another aspect of truth Greg Daniels brought to The Office. Tempting though it would be to leave Dwight or Ryan or Pam as they were in the early seasons of the show, they have all evolved considerably through the years, because that is how life works. People don’t often stay the same for years and years. And even though Jim and Pam were arguably less likable in the final season than they were in the first, the audience appreciates a genuine, true representation of how real humans change.
If it’s broke, feel free to fix it
One of the most admirable things a writer can do is to try something different, to shake things up. The Office was always taking new risks with their characters, and they weren’t afraid to change something if it just didn’t work. Take Andy (the ‘Nard Dog), for instance. Andrew Bernard started his journey as an ass-kissing transfer from Stanford with a vicious temper. And that worked for a little while, but no one can deny how adorably lovable Ed Helms (the actor responsible for bringing the “Boner Champ” to life) is, and it was only a matter of time before the writers experimented with that. We started rooting for Andy, which was a beautiful, unexpected thing. Daniels and his writing super-team did an amazing job staying receptive to viewers and adjusting storylines and character arcs wherever needed. This kind of flexibility is as rare as it is crucial, and The Office writers seemed always willing to set egos aside for the good of the show.
Don’t be afraid to collaborate
Greg Daniels, head writer for The Office, did a legendary job assembling a top-notch writing staff to bring Scranton, Pennsylvania to television. As Mindy Kaling writes in her (brilliant) book, Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns, Daniels hired her after seeing her play, Matt and Ben, which Kaling had written with her best friend, Brenda Withers. He spotted her talent and wit from within an audience, and he made a swift move to hire her to write on the show. Daniels brought together a handful of comedy aces, including B.J. Novak (ever heard of him?) and Paul Lieberstein (yes, the guy who plays the dreaded Toby Flenderson), and let them each bring their own strengths to the table. Not only did these brilliant comedians collaborate in the writer’s room, but a lot of them also had characters in the show. This is almost always a sure-fire way to create a hilarious show. When writers work for each other and with each other, the jokes are executed beautifully, and the show adopts a family-feel that is irreplaceable.
If you don’t fit the mold, create your own
When The Office debuted in 2005, it was the only comedy of its kind. The U.S. hadn’t yet experienced this kind of writing on a network like NBC, and many speculated it would never make it. But wouldn’t you know it, viewers were totally receptive to something new and different. Soon other shows followed suit, like Parks and Recreation, which was co-created by Greg Daniels and had a similar, dry mockumentary feel.
From The Office, I learned that comedy doesn’t have to be all punch lines and elaborate misunderstandings. When we think of what entertains us in real life, the normal and mundane day to day can be fascinating and funny, too. I re-watch The Office at least once a year, thanks to Netflix, and it has become a part of my own creative process to study this excellent show. So from the bottom of my heart, I say unto Dunder Mifflin, the people-person’s paper people, Happy 10th Birthday!