'People of Earth' Exec Producer Greg Daniels on Reuniting With Conan O'Brien, Peak TV and an 'Office' Follow-Up

People of Earth - Inset of Greg Daniels -Publicity-Getty-H 2016
Courtesy of TM & Turner Entertainment Networks; John Sciulli/Getty Images for Turner

Before Greg Daniels helped create beloved TV characters like Michael Scott and Leslie Knope, he got his start writing for the small screen alongside another soon-to-be beloved TV personality: Conan O'Brien.

After meeting at Harvard, the two worked together on the HBO satire series Not Necessarily the News and later at Saturday Night Live before their paths diverged in very different directions.

"We said that we were looking to do something together since we stopped being a writing team, which was when we were both on SNL," Daniels tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Pretty soon after he became a talk-show host, suddenly the opportunities to do stuff together were not as available as we might have expected."

More than half a century later, the two have been brought back together by TBS' People of Earth. The single-camera comedy, on which both serve as executive producers, centers on a skeptical journalist (Wyatt Cenac) who investigates a support group for those who have allegedly had alien encounters. The more he examines their bizarre claims, the more he realizes a sliver of truth in their stories and possibly even signs that indicate he also was abducted by aliens.

"The great thing there is that everybody’s on the same page," Daniels says about working with his former writing partner. "The stuff that he’s going, 'Oh, that was such a cool moment,' I'm like, 'Oh, it's good that you liked that because I thought that was super cool, too.' There isn’t a lot of not getting anything, and so it just makes it easier."

The Emmy-winning writer and executive producer behind The Office, Parks and Recreation and King of the Hill also spoke to THR about his decision to dive into sci-fi, the highs and lows of the "Peak TV" era and the possibility of an Office follow-up.

How did you get involved with the project?

Well, I read the spec script and I liked it a lot, so I met with [creator] David Jenkins, and by the time I met with him I believe [O'Brien's production banner] Conaco had optioned it. I thought he was very bright and had a lot of interesting things that he wanted to do, and I saw a certain vision for the show and he seemed to like what I was talking about and we got along well. We went and did the pilot, and I directed the pilot as well as executive producing, and we cast it and figured out how it should look, and I designed one of the aliens. We had a lot of fun.

What were some of your influences for kind of creating the look of the aliens, because I think that’s obviously a big question of shows like this, of how much they’ll show and what they’ll look like and that sort of thing. How did you go about designing that?

David had done a lot of research on what experiencers actually say has happened to them, and in general it breaks into the three categories that we use in the show, which are the Nordic, the reptilian and the gray, and how you wanted to make sure that the gray had a certain tone to it which was like not broadly comedic but still comedic and not like as if we thought it was scary or super, like the tone of the show had to be embodied in the aliens. So I drew what I thought would be a funny alien and then we sent it to the special effects designer [Christopher McMillan], who is very good.

Are you a big sci-fi fan yourself? And are there certain movies or projects that you were strongly influenced by when you were crafting this look and also when you were directing the pilot overall?

Yeah, I do love science-fiction. I am a bigger reader of science-fiction, I would say, than a viewer of it. But X-Files was an influence, the Coen brothers — they’re not really science-fiction, but just in terms of the shooting — and Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] came up, [Steven] Spielberg. And I also was working on the science-fiction show that I had sold to HBO. So part of my motivation for directing it was to get experience with using a practical special effects before doing this other show, which is not going on at HBO but it maybe somewhere else.

When it came to directing People of Earth, what were some of the biggest challenges in regard to using special effects on the show?

Tone was the biggest challenge, because when you have aliens, you didn’t want it to be campy, and we wanted to do the science-fiction well and to have it be legitimately kind of spooky and give you that emotion of, like, “Ooh, what’s happening here? Oh, my God!” And we discussed early on our preference for practical effects and not using CGI, and so there’s very little bits of CGI.

A lot of it is just, like, how do you do comedy of the style that I like, sort of human scale, behavioral comedy and incorporate something that’s just not human scale or inside anybody’s personal experience. But that’s where I feel like your imagination has to come in and you say, "Okay, what would real people — these real characters that we’ve been discussing, whose acting style we’re trying to make very believable — how would they really react if this experience happened to them?" And you can sort of imagine what the experience would be like, in the same way that you might have to imagine what it would be like to be cheated on or lose your job or some of these other experiences that you put your characters through.

To me, it was kind of like a commitment to pursuing the circumstances in what I thought was a realistic way, and yet finding the comedy in it because it’s, like, a tense situation for them. They're also characters who have a lot of denial and mental blinders on, which is funny for comedy.

You mentioned that you have these two projects that you’re working on that both kind of deal with effects. Is that just a coincidence or is that something that you were kind of wanting to do or…

I made a decision. I just felt like after doing mockumentaries, I was trying to think, "Well, what do I want to do next?" And I wrote this sci-fi show. So, I don’t know — I felt like this was good for me because it was like you could do realistic human interactions but it’s fun to have that extra layer of premise that you have to constantly be filtering and it adds to the circumstances.

I mean, when I was at SNL the head writer, Jim Downey, used to say that there’s two kinds of sketches: the kind that the cast love, which are crazy characters who go on very ordinary adventures, like going on a date but they’re crazy, and the ones that the writers love, which is the sort of everyman characters who get themselves into crazy situations. I guess this show’s a bit of a mix of those characters.

Coming out of The Office and Parks and Recreation, were there certain things you knew you definitely did want to do or things that you knew you didn't want to do? How did you figure out what would be next?

The two things I wanted to do was sci-fi and animation. I wanted to go back and do some more animation, and I wanted to do some sci-fi. I have a few animation projects in development, and then this sci-fi stuff. And also I kind of feel like I want to just take time to respond to other writers' material and supervise them, so I also have another project that we’re working with a young writer who came up with an idea for a show. So that’s my strategy.

What made you lean toward the latter? What do you think drew you to this role of working with younger writers?

I don’t feel like it’s that different to the roles I’ve played, because going back to, say, King of the Hill, as a showrunner of that show I would be the most experienced writer and I would work with other writers on episodes, and it was a very full week because you had many different episodes you were working on, and mostly the job was changing and editing and supervising the work of the other writers. And now in this environment, where the seasons are so much smaller, I still know that I enjoy working with other writers and having multiple projects going.

To me, it’s sort of the same daily life. Whether I’m initiating the idea or responding to somebody else’s idea isn’t so important to me right now because, I don’t know, I’ve had a fair amount of success and I’m really more about what ideas are really attractive to me, and the fact that David Jenkins came up with it, that I still get to work on it is great. I would have loved to have come up with it myself but I didn’t, so it’s great to see an idea that you really get excited by. And rather than just wait around for that to strike, I wanted to be a part of it.

At TBS, you're also working again with former NBC president Kevin Reilly. TBS is currently in the midst of a major reinvention in terms of original series, so what has it been like working with him?

It's terrific. I love Kevin’s taste. I thought the stuff he did at NBC between The Office and 30 Rock and Heroes and many other shows that he developed, as a fan I was just very interested in all those shows. And then when he went to Fox and he did The Mindy Project, New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, there’s a lot of good shows. So when he went to TBS, I was like, 'Oh, okay, that sounds like that’ll start to have some cool stuff a year after he gets there.' He also gave me a good level of hope that there would be other companion pieces on the show, although I don’t even know if that’s really that important anymore. It’s nice to be on a network that you feel like, oh, they’re doing some cool things and the marketers are doing some cool marketing, and that’s a good feeling.

You're coming from a broadcast background where you're doing 22-24 episodes a year, so how has it been adjusting to the shorter orders on cable and the shift in the kind of programming on cable versus broadcast?

I never really did half-hour sitcoms until they were trying to be cable-y in that window when The Office and Parks was on, and before that I was doing animation or late-night. I never really participated in the classic broadcast tank, so it seems to me like the broadcast networks have gone back to the classic broadcast thing moreso, and I don’t know, it’s not so much about the number of episodes, I think, as it is about just is there a place for, like, subtlety and unusual stuff. I don’t know, I’m not pitching stuff there right now. I’m mostly pitching to other outlets.

I think the other thing is that from a business standpoint, a lot of the reason why it was 25 episodes or whatever before was because you were trying to get to 100 episodes. But currently it doesn’t feel like that’s that important. It feels like it’s more interesting to do something that, if at all possible, is not something that’s already been done, and something where you feel like the audience would be intrigued and delighted somehow, the fictional audience that I have in my head. But just as a viewer, there’s so many cool shows on and you want to participate in that.

What are some of the things that you’re watching and enjoying right now? What’s sitting on your DVR?

I just finished Fleabag, which I loved so much. I’m watching Better Things that I also love, and I loved Broadchurch recently, so a lot of British stuff. You know what’s crazy? I’m really into this show called Merlin, which I think it’s, like, a British show from about five years ago that appears to be aimed at 14-year-old boys. I found that on Netflix. I was watching that while I was in Canada shooting [People of Earth] and I stumbled back to the hotel at, like, 8 a.m. and had trouble going to sleep and I’d watch this show for teens, I think.

You're launching People of Earth in the Peak TV era. What would you say are some of the challenges of this current overflow of original series?

There's definitely some challenges to so much television going on. I think TV now feels more like the publishing industry — it doesn’t feel like there’s shows that you’ve got to watch to be participating in a conversation with every other American, you know what I mean? It feels like when like Roseanne was on the air or something like that, you just knew that the next day people would be talking about Roseanne. And I’m very excited by stuff like Game of Thrones. I don’t know what the numbers are for them. I assume a lot of people watch them, but it was probably just a small fraction of the audience that Roseanne used to have. And for shows that are not 10 million dollars an episode on HBO, it seems like, oh, that person got a two rating or a one rating or something. There are a lot of shows that seem to be getting the same amount of rating, and how much time can you spend watching television? So I think it’s harder to get into the conversation in the same way that you used to be able to.

It’s cool to be a viewer. I think our culture is so fragmented now and there is something a little sad about the fact that not everybody’s watching the same stuff, but it’s led to some great stuff, or at least stuff that I find really great. I was telling somebody about this recently: I was, like, TV, when you grew up and there were five main networks or something, it’s like they only had five sizes of pants, and so you got your pants when it didn’t really fit that well. Now there’s 100 and 200 sizes of pants so you can go, "Oh, okay, I actually got one where the waist and the length is my size, so I’m much more enthusiastic about it." But there’s probably fewer 32-32s being sold than when it was just small, medium and large.

Knowing that about the industry and how it’s progressed and how specific some of these shows can get, has that changed the ideas that you’re coming up with and what you’re pitching and how you’re developing things?

No. The hardest part is that there’s so many shows now that I have certain ideas and then I see little bits of them on other shows and I start to go, 'Huh, should I even pursue this?' But then you've got to think, like, with 400 shows or something, execution becomes more important than concept because there’s going to be 100 murder mysteries or whatever.

I don’t think it changes how you think up a show necessarily. You’re always trying to think of something that’s entertaining and interesting. But the part where you go, "I’m trying to think of something that’s never been done before" is harder because people are just so much savvier and every genre … like, for example, before People of Earth, I was, like, "Yes, this is science-fiction, I’m going to do that. I haven’t seen a lot of good science-fiction on TV." By the time I wrote this thing for HBO, there was a lot of more science-fiction on TV, you know, The Last Man on Earth was on TV and Black Mirror started and there were all these things. I was like, 'Oh, okay, that wasn’t about as unique as I thought it was going to be.' But it’s kind of hard to even imagine how what’s not being served from that standpoint.

I have to ask while I have you on the phone: Ricky Gervais is coming out with an Office follow-up film, David Brent: Life on the Road. I'm curious how open would you be to doing a follow-up project for the U.S. version of The Office?

I feel like I did in the finale what that would have been because I jumped forward in time as, like a reunion of the characters, and so, to me, I think that was it. It said everything that the show had to say. Personally, I feel like we left on a good note. I’m not that anxious to open it up again myself, but I would be interested to see what David Brent’s up to. But also I think the American show became so much of an ensemble and to not have the whole ensemble there would just feel kind of, I don’t know, less than. So I don’t want to criticize what he’s doing, I think that’s great, but I’m okay with us having had our finale.

People of Earth airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on TBS.