Editors note: On March 24, 2005, the first episode of the NBC television show "The Office" aired. The show would eventually star five St. Louis natives. Here was TV critic Gail Pennington's first take on the show.
"The Office," an Americanized version of the British cult hit, makes its debut on NBC (8:30 p.m. on Channel 5).
Give this one a chance. The mock-documentary style of the show and its downbeat tone, including lots of uncomfortable moments and no laugh track, could make it an acquired taste for anyone used to American-style joke-punchline comedy.
Another hurdle: As the obnoxious boss, Steve Carell is so big and loud in his obnoxiousness that he tends to drown out the other, more subtle (and funnier) characters.
But after disliking the show initially, I've now seen the first three episodes, and I've come around. Despite its flaws, "The Office" is a smart, subversive change from most TV comedy.
With so many trite and predictable -- and generally unfunny -- sitcoms around, one that's different deserves a chance. Or two or three.
Looking back: St. Louisans recall their time on "The Office."
'The Office' clocks out after 9 seasons
In many ways, “The Office” was a rarity. Adapted from a cult-favorite British comedy, it not only didn’t embarrass the original but even, at best, exceeded it. Debuting at the tail end of the 2004-05 season, it wasn’t a throw-away but a keeper, running nine seasons and, by the end, about 200 episodes.
Even when ratings sagged in the last few seasons, “The Office” was still a bright spot on NBC’s faltering schedule. Since 2007, repeats have aired practically around the clock in syndication, and the show is also seen in countries from Australia and India to Germany and France.
A workplace comedy that was, at heart, a family comedy, “The Office” depicted a scene that (except for the film crew shooting an unending documentary) was very much like that of many American workplaces. The job, selling paper for Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, Pa., was drab, but the people were colorful, once you got to know them, playing pranks and revealing quirks, falling in love and winning our hearts.
Michael Scott (Steve Carell), Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) were clearly the leads. But in a brilliant move, producers solidified the ensemble early on, making all the background characters into regulars rather than treating them as disposable.
That provided a rich background tapestry of Stanley (Leslie David Baker), Phyllis (Phyllis Smith), Angela (Angela Kinsey), Kevin (Brian Bumgardner) and more. Even if they didn’t have a line in an episode, all were there, tapping away at their computers, just like in a real office where people come to work every day.
“The Office” also created a workplace for an unusual number of St. Louisans, so many that the set once played host to a gooey butter cake bake-off. Fischer, Smith and Ellie Kemper, who plays secretary Erin, all grew up here (as did first assistant director Rusty Mahmood). Ken Kwapis, who directed the pilot and this week’s finale, is from Belleville. Kemper’s younger sister, Carrie, joined the staff as a writer in the last three seasons.
With the end approaching, we asked the three actors, Kwapis and Carrie Kemper to reflect on the “Office” experience, and what it had meant to them.
Jenna Fischer says 'wildest dreams' came true
Grew up • Chesterfield
High school • Nerinx Hall
Played • Pam Beesly Halpert, 2005-2013
Fischer was doing office temp work just two years before being cast as one of the leads in “The Office.” At the time, her acting roles had included playing “Sorority Girl 1” in the movie “Lucky 13.” “The Office” has kept her busy, but she starred in the 2010 movie “A Little Help” and appeared in several others, including two still due out. Fischer also became a mother; she and husband Lee Kirk, a writer, had a son, Weston, in September 2011.
It is nearly impossible for me to explain what ‘The Office’ has meant to me because its effect on my life has been profound.
Before “The Office” began, I was an unknown, struggling actor, worried about how I was going to maintain some sort of decent health insurance. I was basically just another head shot on a desk, and I had to audition countless times just to get small walk-on roles. Every day was a struggle, every week was a fight, my only goal was to be a working actor. Not famous, just working. Sometimes to keep myself motivated I would write in a journal. I would write about my ups and downs and my hopes for the future. Here is what I wrote, 11 years ago, describing what would be my wildest dream come true:
"I want to be a regular character on a long-running, ensemble, comedy, television show that is innovative, award-winning and ground-breaking. A show in which I’ve been cast because of my unique contribution to my character, where my input and point-of-view are encouraged. A show in which I get to help develop my character and I don’t have to worry about being hot. And shoots in LA so I don’t have to move."
And it was “The Office” that made my wildest dreams come true. In fact, it was an even better manifestation of what I had written down, because in addition to all those qualities I had hoped for, I also got to work with the most amazing cast and crew. I was surrounded every day by people who are the best at what they do. And that was my JOB! My job was to go to this magical place every day for nine years and laugh and create and get paid to have fun. ‘The Office’ provided me with some of the best friends of my life, some of my richest memories and, yes, even great health insurance.
Phyllis Smith feels grateful for 'a prayer answered'
Grew up • South St. Louis
High school • Cleveland
Played • Phyllis Lapin-Vance, 2005-2013
Smith was a football Cardinals cheerleader and a burlesque dancer (“no stripping!”) with Will B. Able and his Baggy Pants Revue at the Chase-Park Plaza in the 1970s. She continued dancing in California until she injured her knees; she then worked in casting with Allison Jones, who cast “The Office.” When executive producer Greg Daniels and director Ken Kwapis (who grew up in Belleville) heard Smith read lines opposite various auditioners, they wrote a role for her.
Since then, Smith has appeared in movies including “Butter” and “Bad Teacher,” in which she played Cameron Diaz’s best friend. She will make her debut at the Muny this summer in “Nunsense — Muny Style!”
This past weekend in Scranton our fans made it clear that we were all loved and they will miss watching us every week. I had one young man tell me he wished I was his mom. Another young woman told me that every time she watched “The Office,” I reminded her of her mother, who had just passed away a year ago, and that every time she saw me she felt as if she had a piece of her mom still with her. Another fan told me that when she was recovering from cancer, watching “The Office” was the only thing that got her through. Those kind of sincere remarks make you humble and grateful for the opportunity to contribute to making someone feel better.
Personally, I was able to experience things I never imagined, like going to the Emmys, the SAG Awards, going on locations to beautiful settings I never knew existed in California. I now have a second family with the wonderful people I worked with for nine years. We had babies born, a few deaths, some tears, but mostly laughter and heartfelt memories.
Someone said to me, “now that the show is over are you going back to casting?” I said absolutely not, I am blessed to have a new career to pursue in my life.
By the way, thanks to Ken Kwapis, who suggested they cast me. Ken, even though I was happy before, your decision made my life profoundly blessed.
I miss my fellow “Office” mates and crew, but know that the bonds made and friendships will continue.
I have said in many interviews that God had a better plan for me than I ever anticipated. I still firmly believe that and I am grateful for a prayer answered. I once prayed when struggling financially and worried how I was going to be able to assist my parents in their latter years living thousands of miles away, to help me win the lottery or something. And I did win the lottery, just in a different and better way.
In a final note, thank you “Office” fans for always being so polite, thoughtful, and just all around GREAT!
Ellie Kemper calls herself 'unreasonably lucky'
Grew up • Ladue
High school • John Burroughs (Jon Hamm once taught her drama there)
Played • Erin Hannon, 2009-2013
Kemper, who graduated from Princeton University, got her start writing and doing improv comedy; she had lived in New York and worked on shows including “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” (where she met her future husband) before being cast in “The Office.” Kemper appeared in the mega-hit “Bridesmaids” and turned up this season on pal Mindy Kaling’s “Mindy Project.” For the last three years, “The Office” was a family affair for Kemper; her younger sister, Carrie, wrote for the show.
The assignment is a 300-600 word essay on what “The Office” has meant to me over the years. The writer is a horribly sentimental, unreasonably lucky, and forever grateful fan of and actress on “The Office.” I need 6 million words.
“The Office” is a television show that will go down in history as one of the best television shows in the history of television shows. As someone who works in show business and, for the most part, does not understand business, I do my best to try and figure out exactly what made this model work. And I keep coming back to the same thing: We, as viewers, connect to what is real.
How much more real could “The Office” get? Who were these barely made-up, balding, beautiful characters, and how could I get them into my closet-sized apartment more than just once a week? I had never seen anything like it on TV before. There weren’t really punch lines. There weren’t really hairstyles. There were lots of extremely uncomfortable, deeply funny, and sincerely sweet moments where I just sat there, cringing, laughing, or crying, until the moment ended. I loved those moments, and I loved those people.
I knew Jim (or, I knew a guy like Jim). I understood Pam (or, I thought I was some version of Pam). Having just started working with a temp agency in New York, I knew bosses like Michael Scott (in some form), and having an older brother who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mose Schrute, I knew Mose (minus the beets). These characters weren’t far-off or remote or out of reach. I already knew them.
“The Office” was not mean, or cynical, or pessimistic. It rooted itself in a firm sense of hope. The workers of Dunder Mifflin fought with each other, annoyed each other, and helped each other. They were a family, and like all good families, at the core of everything was a very good heart.
On May 4, the fabulous city of Scranton welcomed the cast and crew of "The Office" for a final farewell party. I try to explain how it felt, and I come up short — 10,000 fans celebrating the end of a television show was a remarkable thing. Everyone was just happy. I’m not sure people make television like this anymore. I think “The Office” was an incredibly healing show.
Greg Daniels is the man to thank for all of this. He gathered a group of abnormally smart, funny, and weird people, and he led them as they all designed, wrote, and performed what we saw in our living rooms every Thursday night. When I met them in person, they proved to be every bit as smart, funny, and weird in real life. That is another key piece in all of this. From Steve Carell to Jenna Fischer to Phyllis Smith to Ken Kwapis to Rusty Mahmood to Carrie Kemper, this group of people was a gracious and generous bunch.
I don’t pretend to think that I will ever get to work on a show as special as this again.
Kwapis directed first and final episode of 'The Office'
Grew up • Belleville
High School • St. Louis University High
Kwapis directed (and helped cast) “The Office” pilot and also directed the finale, plus more than a dozen episodes in between. He also directed “The Larry Sanders Show,” developed “Bernie Mac” and adapted the movie “Outsourced” for TV. Kwapis has also directed movies including “Big Miracle,” “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”
I had the privilege of directing both the first episode of "The Office" and the last — the Pilot and the Finale.
When we launched the show, we wanted it to behave differently than other television comedies. Greg Daniels, who adapted the British original, wanted our show to be both poignant and funny, and we worked hard to make sure the emotional content of each episode was as strong as the comedy.
As the series grew, every member of the ensemble blossomed. The Finale covers a lot of ground — there are nearly 20 characters with vital story lines. Needless to say, wrapping up all those stories was exhilarating, but also very emotional. The moment I called “Cut” for the last time brought a lot of tears.
Nine years ago, most pundits predicted that an American version of “The Office” would never succeed. This truly was The Little Show That Could, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.
Carrie Kemper learned dull moments can be funniest
Writer • Seasons 7-9
Grew up • Ladue
High school • John Burroughs
Kemper was fresh off an internship at “Late Show With David Letterman” when she began writing scripts for “The Office,” on which her sister Ellie played Erin. Currently, she’s writing a movie for Universal.
It’s honestly hard to count all of the things “The Office” has done for me. It exposed me to some of the most talented comedy writers in television, as well as a brilliant cast and crew. It taught me to pay attention to the small, seemingly dull moments in life, because they can often be the funniest. And before any of that — before I stepped foot in the writers’ room — it entertained me for years. It’s rare to get to work on a series you actually enjoy, and when I started, “The Office” was my favorite show on television. These days, of course, it’s “Shark Tank.”
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