Q&A: Greg Daniels

Showrunner paid his dues at other TV comedy hits before taking the corner 'Office'

Greg Daniels spent years behind the scenes on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons" and co-created "King of the Hill" before landing his "Office" job. His overtime efforts on NBC's U.S. version of the comedy have resulted in a run of 100 episodes and counting. And with the series going strong as Daniels launches the quasi-companion piece "Parks and Recreation," "The Office" co-creator made it clear to The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Carlson that he's not slowing down.

The Hollywood Reporter: What does it feel like to be the guy that revived "That's what she said" for popular culture?

Greg Daniels: That's really funny, isn't it? I think it was actually (supervising producer/co-star) B.J. Novak. He put that in one of his scripts, so I would give him the credit for that.

THR: Speaking of Novak, you've got a lot of young staffers on the show. Does that help the appeal to a younger demo?

Daniels: I think so. I also think that artistically speaking, the fact that it had a lot of difference to what was out there helped. When you look back at when we premiered, I think the previous big NBC show had been "Will & Grace," and the kind of shows that were like "The Office" were much more like cable, like the British "Office," "Curb Your Enthusiasm." ... I think it was a little bit unusual to have the characters in the show be aware of the camera. Usually younger people are more interested in novelty.

THR: Did that kind of novelty give you any concerns as to life expectancy with the network?

Daniels: Oh yeah. Every moment -- at the end of the pilot, and at the end of the first season -- I felt like, "Well, if this is all we get, I'll still be super happy about the experience because I really enjoyed all the people I worked with and was so proud of the stuff that we did." So I had a kind of peacefulness about it, I guess. But we were struggling really hard to stay on.

THR: Was there a point where you realized, "OK, we're gonna be around for a little bit"?

Daniels: At the end of the second season, I had made some off-hand comment to a newspaper, I think in Chicago, about how I wished we could be supersized for our finale. And fans organized themselves and wrote letters to NBC, and there was just tons of them, and they decided to let us supersize the finale. That was when I felt, "Oh, OK, we have fans." They were interested enough to do that, and they're making a difference.

THR: This far in, is there concern about how to keep the show fresh?

Daniels: I think that part of it is trying to anticipate what people think we're gonna do and then try not to do that, and part of it is that the staff is exploring their own learning curves. We've had both of our editors and probably four of our writers direct episodes this season, and that is the way that they get a feeling of freshness and trying out different jobs. And then we have had great guest casts this year, and that kind of shakes things up.

THR: I gotta admit, when Idris Elba (formerly of "The Wire") walked on, I was worried he was going to start shooting people. But I think that speaks to the quality of the show in that guest actors never feel like gimmicky appearances.

Daniels: We try to have it be people who are just really excellent actors but not necessarily taking you out of it by having tons of associations.

THR: Do you ever feel any pressure from the network to have those bigger guest stars?

Daniels: We did in the Super Bowl episode, which had Jack Black and Jessica Alba, for example. But in that instance, what we did was have them be not actually walking into the world but be in a bootleg movie that people were watching on their computers. That helps keep the show grounded and less like "I Love Lucy."

THR: Looking back over the past several seasons, do you have any particular episode or moment that stands out to you as a favorite?

Daniels:We had a 100th episode party, and Dave Rogers, the senior editor, cut together an "100 Moments" montage (featuring one from) each episode, and there's stuff that I love about all the episodes. The other thing is just having all those memories of the actual filming, like being out there under the scorching sun shooting the "Beach Games" episode, and Harold Ramis directing it from under this little black cloth that he had to go into to look at the monitor, everybody just sweating a ton.

THR: Shifting gears just a little bit, "The Office" -- and "Arrested Development" before it -- led the charge for modern, single-camera comedy. Would you want to move into multicamera?

Daniels: Well, I wouldn't move back into multicamera because I never really had a multicamera background. Before "The Office," I had done like 12 years of animation, which is single-camera in its storytelling style, and before that I'd been doing basically variety, like "Saturday Night Live," so I actually avoided the normal multicamera sitcom experience pretty thoroughly. So I don't know if I'd ever be interested in going to there. I don't think it takes advantage of my skill set. I feel like I'm more of a visually-oriented person than like a playwright, and I think that a multicamera sitcom is best for people who are very good with words. Single-camera is kind of tricky. If you don't really watch it, it sucks comedy out of things.
I think that the mockumentary style is fantastic because of the interviews providing a voice-over element. You can have the images edited in a very compact way underneath the interview segments, and it allows the subject of the interview to narrate things. And by having a mockumentary, you can interview anybody who's in the play. Their point of view can narrate whatever it needs to narrate.

THR: "The Office" is a comedy but also really dark on occasion; one episode that comes to mind right away is the "Dinner Party" episode.

Daniels: (Laughs) That was pretty dark.

THR: Do you find it's tough to maintain a balance between that and more lighter fare, or is it more like whatever's funny to you is funny?

Daniels: Personally, I've always enjoyed pathetic things happening. What makes me laugh a lot of times is the distance between what somebody's hoping is going to happen and the pathetic reality. I find that particularly funny. I think a lot of what we're doing is character comedy, where the humor is very much about that particular character chose that or did that or said that. Whereas if you don't care about the characters so much, you can do comedy that anybody can enjoy, like very physical comedy or stuff like that. So I kind of think that sometimes we short-change the physical comedy in favor of this character comedy, and sometimes we allow the characters to have all these letdowns, and at the end of the day we look at it and we go, "Wow, that's pretty melancholy." So yeah, I think we could always do a little bit more with the physical comedy. I always enjoy it so much when it's on the show.

THR: How does it feel to have "Parks and Recreation" launching as "The Office" hits this milestone?

Daniels: It feels great! I feel really glad that "The Office" hit 100 episodes. I feel that from the standpoint of ("Office" co-creators) Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, I didn't let them down. I remember interviewing with them seven years ago, and this was certainly the goal, so I'm very pleased that we got to 100 episodes in a strong fashion. I think the show is in a very good place right now. I don't know if you saw the ratings last week (ending April 19), but we were beating "CSI" in 18-49 -- who would have thought that when we aired for the first time? While I've been working on "Parks and Recreation," Paul Lieberstein and Jennifer Celotta, who are two other executive producers (on "Office), have been really stepping up and doing an excellent job. They have taken "The Office" to some really great places, and it seems very in-its-prime. From that standpoint, it's not a bad time to try and launch something else.
"Parks and Recreation" was kind of born out of Ben Silverman really, really wanting another show as a companion piece, and I think it has a good potential. I think Amy Poehler's super funny, and again, I think the mockumentary format is the way to go for single-camera comedy shows. I don't know how you shoot an "Ugly Betty"-style show. It seems like that would be so much work to light it properly and have dolly tracks. There's so much energy and improvisation you can do when it's all handheld and the concept is if the lighting isn't perfect, it's because there wasn't perfect lighting in that room.

THR: Where do you think Michael Scott (Steve Carell) will wind up?

Daniels: I'm hoping that we're still many episodes away from that, so I wouldn't want to give anybody any hints.