What can innovators learn from a sitcom? In the case of The Office, quite a lot.
In 2020, seven years after it ended, The Office was the most streamed TV show in the U.S. Americans watched a combined 57 billion minutes (that’s more than 108,000 years) of the series. Many of those viewers were far too young to have ever worked in an office themselves.
What is it about The Office that inspires such enduring interest? That’s what cast member Brian Baumgartner (“Kevin Malone”) has been exploring in his podcast The Office Deep Dive. Baumgartner’s interviews with actors, producers and others involved in the show provide a detailed history of how this remake of a British series went on to change TV forever and build perhaps the most loyal following of any show in American history.
Listening to the podcast, we couldn’t help but view The Office as a disruptive innovation. It radically altered the TV landscape, spawned imitators (including versions in 10 other countries), and has remained influential long after production ended. (NBC reportedly is ready to green-light a reboot or reunion, sight-unseen, if the creators agree.) And though it’s not a product, The Office’s backstory provides useful insights into what it takes to bring a disruptive innovation to market in any industry.
First, a little background. The original, British The Office debuted in 2001 to low ratings but critical buzz. Tapes soon were circulating among comedians and actors in the U.S. who loved the “mockumentary” style, cringe-inducing humor and complete disregard for the longstanding sitcom formula (sharp one-liners and a live studio audience).
Ben Silverman, the then-30-year-old head of an American production company, saw the transformational potential of the concept and cut a deal with the creators to bring the show to the U.S. He hired Greg Daniels, a writer and producer who’d worked on The Simpsons and King of the Hill, as showrunner and together they began the task of adapting the series for Americans, whose favorite comedies at the time included Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond and Will & Grace.
Only NBC showed any interest in the show, and even that was tepid. Many of the actors, writers and producers assumed it would never get past the pilot stage; it was just too different from anything else on TV. But Silverman and Daniels had a plan. And in that plan, as described on the podcast, lay the lessons that all innovators can learn from. The following is based on the roughly two dozen episodes available as of this writing, and some additional research.
Start with a clear vision
Silverman and Daniels knew from the start that while the American adaptation could borrow the form and structure of the U.K. version, it would need its own voice. They believed that American audiences would tire quickly of a boss character as boorish and mean as Ricky Gervais’s character in the British series. This led to the casting of Steve Carrell, who could convey the desperation to be loved that makes Michael Scott so irritating but also sympathetic. By the third episode (“Office Olympics”), we see Michael’s vulnerability.
As Daniels puts it, the show needed “truth and beauty.” This carried the series through nine seasons, more than 200 episodes, to its literal final moment, when Jenna Fischer (“Pam”) says to the documentary crew, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” This concept aligns with the overall purpose of Industrial Design.
Listen to input
Fischer says that Daniels “truly believed that no one knew our characters more than we [actors] did. He cared about our opinions.” Fischer and John Krasinski (“Jim”) were deeply involved in discussions of the arc of Jim and Pam’s relationship. Other actors and writers say that Daniels asked everyone questions about their previous, non-entertainment work experiences, and that many of their stories ended up in the show. For example: Michael procrastinating all day when he needs to sign a stack of paperwork, forcing the staff to stay late and finish the work for him.
Rainn Wilson (“Dwight Schrute”) gave Dwight the strange amalgam of interests (perhaps best expressed by Jim in the line “bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica”) that made him so much more vivid and memorable than the typical character who is meant to be the butt of jokes. Writer Brent Forrester adds that Wilson “loved” and “celebrated” Dwight, giving him the supreme confidence that makes him even funnier — and more relatable when he’s disappointed.
Editor Claire Scanlon says that Daniels allowed her to deviate from the script when assembling footage for an episode, if she saw opportunities to improve the storytelling. The Office was more of a true team effort than perhaps any scripted comedy that came before, and most since. That’s how it was able to stay true to the vision even as the ensemble of characters grew and behind-the-scenes roles changed.
This is the biggest reason why this podcast resonates at Nottingham Spirk. In our Vertical Innovation process, we build teams according to what each project requires, and every team member — from Insights, Design and Engineering — collaborates from start to finish. Everyone’s input is considered at every stage.
Build and organize your team for the project’s specific needs
Daniels wanted a cast of unknowns and little-knowns, and was adamant that they not be too attractive. He wanted the show to feel “real” and approachable to his audience. He didn’t care about resumes; the actors chosen came from improv, stand-up and serious theater. (“I was doing the darkest of dark drama,” Baumgartner says.) Phyllis Smith (“Phyllis Vance”) was the casting director’s assistant; Daniels liked the way she read lines with the real actors who were auditioning.
Silverman brought in a director of photography with no scripted TV experience but an extensive background in reality shows like Survivor and The Bachelor. This was all in service to the vision, the conceit that the show was a documentary about a real office. Truth and beauty.
But the single most consequential decision was to mingle the writing staff and cast, which was unheard of in sitcoms at the time. (This “boundary crossing” is similar to the Marvel Method.) Three actors (playing Kelly, Ryan and Toby) were also writer/producers, which meant they were on the set and could watch the other actors develop their characters and react to each other, then incorporate it into the scripts. Daniels wanted the show’s humor to be grounded as much in reactions — eye rolls, smirks, glances to the camera — as in dialogue. Forrester refers to this as “behavior over banter,” and it’s been imitated extensively since (Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Trailer Park Boys, What We Do In the Shadows).
Be prepared to keep fighting
Innovation teams need what we call an Executive Sponsor, a champion in the C-suite who can do the blocking and tackling behind the scenes. Silverman played that role for The Office. When NBC ordered five more episodes after the pilot — well below the typical 13 to 20-something — the message, Silverman says, was, “we’re only doing this because you’re torturing us to do it.”
During that six-episode first season, ratings declined each week. Silverman says he “literally walked the hallways of NBC” to appeal to execs to trust him and Daniels. He says he was thrown out of a meeting about a 9-11 documentary for bringing up The Office. His persistence paid off, however. NBC agreed to a second season, albeit just six more episodes and for half the previous budget. But it was enough to keep the project alive until its fortunes began to change.
Use every tool, seize every opportunity
Fischer and a few other actors created accounts on MySpace, the biggest social media site at the time, to interact with the small but fervent fan base. She and others also paid close attention to the few fan blogs that sprung up, to see what was resonating with them. This is all standard today, but then it was novel and innovative at the time.
Fans may remember the “Christmas Party” episode from season 2, which involved an Apple iPod. This was the result of a product placement deal that Apple made with NBC. Silverman didn’t realize at the time what a game-changer this would be. Apple “got behind the show,” he says, pre-loading that episode on its Video iPod and decorating its new retail stores with images of characters. Krasinski recalls being stopped on the street in New York City by a guy who was watching the show on his iPod at that moment.
Ratings slowly improved, and NBC ordered more and more episodes for a total of 22 in season 2. That season earned five Primetime Emmy nominations, and a win for Outstanding Comedy Series. The Office had arrived.
“An office is a place where dreams come true”
“Telling this story,” Silverman says in his podcast interview, “just reminds me how many millions of elements have to come together to create anything meaningful or successful.”
The Office launched so many careers and is so ingrained in pop culture that it’s easy to forget that when it debuted, it was radical and not well received. It survived, and then thrived, because the few who believed in it persevered until the market changed just enough to give it a chance.
Innovators in any industry are wired to want to make a long-lasting difference and change the world for the better. We find inspiration in many facets of technology and even entertainment. Anything is possible, as long as you seek out inspiration and act on it. If your organization is looking for this inspiration, or has it and needs help acting on it, contact us.
The Office Deep Dive With Brian Baumgartner is available on all podcast platforms.