Now entering Scranton.
When Steve Carell told Paul Rudd that he was auditioning for the American version of “The Office,” based on the British comedy starring Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Rudd advised him, “Ugh, don’t do it. Bad, bad move. I mean, it’s never going to be as good [as the British version].”
This secret gets spilled in the new book, “Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of ‘The Office’” (out Nov. 16) by Brian Baumgartner (who played Kevin) and Ben Silverman, an executive producer. In the book, the cast and crew of the mockumentary, which originally aired from 2005-2013 (and is now streaming on Peacock), dish about how the show began as a scrappy underdog with little support from its network — including regular messages that it was getting the axe — low ratings and mass skepticism.
Although “The Office” is a phenomenon today, enjoying pop culture ubiquity, countless memes and a continued life in streaming that rivals “Friends,” (it was the most-streamed show of 2020, with 57 billion minutes watched, Nielson reported), its journey was hard-scrabbled.
Throughout Season 1, which snared fewer than 5 million viewers per week — dismal for network TV at the time — an NBC executive frequently came to the set to inform everyone that the current episode would be the end of the series. “He was like, ‘This will be the last one … It’s just not getting the ratings and the network doesn’t get it.’ He said that every week of the first season,’” star John Krasinski recalled in the book.
“NBC didn’t give enough of a sh-t to even pay attention to it,” Silverman said, adding that when he begged then-network president Jeff Zucker to renew the show for Season 2, “I was thrown out of his office.”
Producers also reveal that before they homed in on Carell, the short list for actors considered for Michael Scott included Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Louis C.K. and Bob Odenkirk.
As for the rest of “The Office” cast, they sought unknowns to such a degree that Phyllis Smith (who played Phyllis) was not an actor at the time but a real receptionist, while actress Jenna Fischer was on the brink of quitting showbiz before landing the role of Pam Beesly, half of the show’s iconic central couple.
When Fischer came in to audition, director Ken Kwapis said in the book, “All the other candidates were being super chatty and friendly and gregarious. And Jenna was very quiet. She put out such a wallflower vibe that I actually started wondering if she was there by mistake, that she was actually there to interview for the receptionist job.”
John Krasinski, meanwhile, who starred as Pam’s longtime love Jim Halpert, had a major foot-in-mouth moment during his own audition. When a man asked if he was nervous, Krasinski recalled responding, “I’m terrified for the person creating this show because, I mean, I just feel like Americans have such a track record of taking brilliant shows and ruining them.”
That man turned out to be creator Greg Daniels, who liked Kraskinski’s honesty, but Krasinski said, “I definitely did the green vomit face … And then I called my manager and said, ‘I’m going to leave now, there’s no way I can go into that room!’ ”
After landing the role, Kraskinsi took a field trip to Scranton, Pa., out of “pure nerd-dom” he said. “I was twenty-three and at that time, in my life, my only experiences were being in college and just sorta letting life happen. So, I was excitable like a puppy.”
While there, he took camera footage of the Scranton sign, which became the show’s famous opening credits sequence. When Daniels asked Krasinski if he would sell that footage for the show to use, Krasinski initially offered it for free before selling it for $1,000.
“So dumb, so dumb,” Krasinski said. “That could have been the greatest investment of my life!”
Where a typical network show gets 22 episodes per season (sometimes half that number if it’s new), NBC ordered just a measly six episodes from “The Office.”
“The message was pretty clear,” said Fischer. “’We’re only picking you up for five more [beyond the pilot] because we don’t totally believe in this show or you.’”
TV exec Kevin Reilly was the only person at NBC championing “The Office” at the time, and fighting to get it renewed for Season 2 was “brutal,” he said in the book. “It was one of the toughest things in my career. I’d realized … odds are I’m going to get fired.”
The real game changers were the 2005 comedy “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” which made Steve Carell a star at exactly the right time, and, oddly enough, Apple, which featured “The Office” in the iTunes store, leading to a surge of interest among young people.
“Apple treated us better than our network,” said Silverman. “They got behind the show and treated it as their own.”
In addition to the show’s unlikely journey, the book also goes into the actors’ perspectives on their characters. For instance, when writers suggested a storyline in which Jim cheats on Pam, Krasinski said, “That’s the only time I remember putting my foot down … I remember saying things that I never thought I’d say before, like, ‘I’m not going to shoot it!’”
There are also behind-the-scenes details, including the fact that Fisher would chat with fans on MySpace on her computer during filming; how the show navigated disruptions such as the 2007 writer’s strike and Steve Carell’s exit; and the show’s popularity among young people today, such as self-proclaimed superfan Billie Eilish.
“We teetered on the brink of cancellation so many times … if one thing doesn’t go well, if ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’ made twelve million fewer dollars, I think we’re cancelled,” said writer/producer Mike Schur, who also played Dwight’s cousin Mose Schrute. “It is wild to think about how many things lined up at exactly the right moment.”