washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Arts

With 'Office,' NBC Goes Off the Beaten Laugh Track

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page N01


When NBC announced last fall that it would remake the British cult hit "The Office," fans of the strange and wonderful BBC comedy, quite reasonably, rushed to judgment: This is really going to smell.

The fear was that the network executives would take something fresh and pure and turn it into retread, into a "Joey." The Internet was aflame with Anglophilic rant.

From left, B.J. Novak, Rainn Wilson, Steve Carell, John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer in a scene from the new show, which premieres Thursday. (Paul Drinkwater -- Nbc)

Because the British original (aired on BBC America, now enjoying brisk sales on DVD) was/is a gas. There was no laugh track. Instead, there were these long. Painful. Pauses. The humor was sly, knowing, hip. Filmed as a mock documentary -- a kind of "Spinal Tap" for TV -- on the purgatory of cubicle toil, it featured a cast of Dilbertian wage slaves overseen by a nit of a boss who considered himself a wit, played by the British comedian Ricky Gervais, who was so deliciously clueless and uncool, so unctuous that he was sublime.

But surprise, surprise. NBC is taking a gamble. The network is going boldly forward with the spirit and style of the original. It hired Greg Daniels, co-creator of "King of the Hill" and veteran writer for "Saturday Night Live," "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld," to bring the show over the Atlantic. It chose as its lead Steve Carell of "The Daily Show" to play the American boss of the paper distributor Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, and the creepy Rainn Wilson from "Six Feet Under" to play Carell's geek-henchman, the assistant to the regional manager, a toady Sgt. Schultz to Carell's Col. Klink.

The first episode of the American version of "The Office" airs Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on NBC. It's essentially the original British first episode translated into Americanese. The five shows after that are new material and will air on "The Office's" regular night and time: Tuesdays at 9:30.

The British version ran only two seasons -- 12 episodes -- which, common even for successful shows there, may have left fans wanting more. Fingers at NBC, adrift comedically in a post-"Friends" malaise, are crossed.

On a recent sunny morning, Daniels and two of his writers, B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling, who also act in the series, sat down in their own office and explained the process of transforming the series from there to here.

The first thing Daniels did when he began his work two years ago was try to understand what made the British show tick. (English imports like "All in the Family" made the Atlantic crossing -- steered by Norman Lear -- with great success; others, like the recent NBC flop "Couplings," drowned in the middle passage.)

"I think the trick is the mockumentary, because there aren't any of those on TV," Daniels says. "That style of telling jokes hadn't been done to death. So it takes the energy of a reality show. You really have to look at the character's faces. Are they serious? Lying? Deluded? In pain? Do they know they look like an idiot? Those are interesting things to watch."

Daniels continues: "I have this mental image of fresh snow. You know, you're a kid. You go outside and nobody's played in it. It's fun. You go out and make snow angels, whatever. As opposed to waking up too late and everybody has already used all the fresh snow and it's all trampled. Yes, hmm, fresh snow."

Novak and Kaling are looking at Daniels and trying not to laugh. He is, after all, their boss. But snow?

For Daniels, "fictional TV isn't delivering that, these moments where you don't know what is going to happen. Most of the time, fictional shows play at such an unreal level you don't really care what happens. Sitcoms are in a rut." Setup. Joke. Canned laugh. "Every 15 seconds, the sound of people laughing. After 30 minutes you wonder, did I just watch something? It's like driving to work. Suddenly you're there but you don't remember how you got there."

There will be no laugh track for "The Office" on NBC, joining a small number of network comedies that operate sans canned guffaws such as "Scrubs" and "Arrested Development" and the HBO hit "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

CONTINUED    1 2 3    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company