For 35 years, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s bittersweet classic ”Teach Your Children” has made listeners and glee clubs alike stop and reflect on their responsibilities to future generations. But today, at a Van Nuys, Calif., television studio, Steve Carell is trying something different as he channels Michael Scott, the deluded boss who runs the fictional paper-supply company at the heart of NBC’s burgeoning hit The Office. He’s using the CSN&Y ditty as a torture device.
In an upcoming episode set during ”Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” Michael has trapped his employees and their children in the conference room as he bangs on a tambourine and bellows: ”So just look at them and si-I-I-I-GH!” His voice climbs to a falsetto so high it sounds like dolphin porn, as Rainn Wilson — who plays Michael’s rigid nuisance-at-arms, Dwight Schrute — strums a guitar. Then the final line, delivered with perfectly insufferable gravitas: ”And know they looooooove you.”
Behold the art of The Office, perfecting workaday moments so hilariously and relatably awkward that it makes viewers both laugh and cringe. After a six-episode run last spring that averaged an audience of only 5.4 million, this remake of Ricky Gervais’ classic BBC mockumentary about a boobish boss seemed destined for downsizing. But thanks to guerrilla marketing, a bunch of iPods, and the fact that its star became one of the hottest names in comedy with last summer’s hit film The 40 Year-Old Virgin, NBC’s The Office has emerged as one of the struggling network’s great comedy hopes. Still, with Carell’s new status as the go-to comedy property in Hollywood, can he really be expected to stay within the confines of a fake paper company for long? ”This sort of [show] only happens once in an actor’s life,” says Carell, who has often told reporters he has no plans to leave the series. ”I’m proud of it and lucky to be working with the people I am.”NBC is being the best boss it can be, rearranging the shooting schedule to allow him time off for films. “He’s really creative and in his prime,” says exec producer Greg Daniels (King of the Hill). “He’s a great racehorse. Let him run in the Preakness and the Belmont.”
When The Office debuted last March, it differed only slightly from its precursor, which was one of England’s most beloved comedy series and a cult favorite here after a BBC America run. The paper company was relocated to Scranton, Pa., but the first episode’s script was a near-verbatim copy of the British pilot. While character names were changed, the archetypes remained the same: Carell’s boorish Michael futilely tries to prove he’s the funniest man — and coolest boss — alive. Dwight is Michael’s quirky acolyte, while Jim (John Krasinski) is the directionless sales rep who torments Dwight (e.g., relocating his desk to the men’s room) when he’s not pining for receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer), who’s engaged to loutish warehouse worker Roy (David Denman). And permanent temp Ryan (B.J. Novak, also a writer on the show) hovers on the periphery as he tries to avoid Michael’s mentoring, which often plays out like a devoted heterosexual man-crush.
Fans and insiders alike who lived through NBC’s disastrous transatlantic transfers of Coupling and Men Behaving Badly dreaded someone tampering with their cherished Britcom. “I tried to get a couple of [writers] to help me with it,” says Daniels. “They were like, ‘Naah, it’s a suicide mission.’” But the skeptics weren’t nearly as big a problem as the uninitiated viewers, who decided to ignore the show on its own merits. The Office’s style and humor — marked by uneasy silences and painful inappropriateness — proved a tough sell, and the cast ended the season assuming their branch would be closed. “It’s not what a U.S. viewing audience is used to,” says Carell. “The tones and rhythms of the show are not very conventional.” Says writer Paul Lieberstein, who also plays HR drone Toby: “There was this feeling that we were doing this for ourselves. We’ve got our little vanity project, we’re going to do it as well as we can, and big hugs and good luck on your next project.”
But last May, NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly surprised everybody by ordering six more episodes for fall 2005. Says Reilly, “There was a lot of talk about Seinfeld and Cheers,” which had slow starts. “People said, ‘We’ve stuck with shows we believed in before, let’s give this a shot.’” Not that they had much choice: Angela Bromstad, president of the NBC Universal Television Studio, admits, “There wasn’t a lot of comedy in development to back it up.” Reilly and Bromstad also couldn’t ignore cheers from execs at NBC’s sister movie studio, Universal, who were so impressed with the dailies from Virgin (which shot after The Office wrapped) that they cast Carell to reprise his scene-stealing anchorman role from the 2003 hit Bruce Almighty for the sequel Evan Almighty. This time, he’s the lead, taking over a franchise from one of film’s most bankable stars. According to Bromstad, “The feature team was saying ‘He’s our next Jim Carrey.’”
When people try to tell Steve Carell he’s comedy’s Next Big Thing, he swats it away as if they were trying to feed him bees. In 1996, as a writer-actor on ABC’s Dana Carvey Show, Carell learned never to assume anything in show business. With writers like Robert Smigel and Charlie Kaufman, and costar Stephen Colbert, the series “seemed to be a comedy brain trust,” he recalls. “It only lasted eight episodes, and that floored me. How could it not work? It was too funny for people not to watch it. I’ve seen how it’s not only a matter of quality.” Moments like that have bred in him such a skeptical, pragmatic view of Hollywood that he is unable to accept his own newfound status, no matter how many projects land on his agent’s desk. “I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he says. “It’s not thinking negatively, but realistically.”