Life at Work Live

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Amy Joyce and Greg Daniels
Washington Post columnist and Guest
Tuesday, March 21, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce writes Life at Work on Sundays in the Business section and appears online every Tuesday to offer advice about managing interpersonal issues on the job.

Amy was joined by Greg Daniels , executive producer of NBC's hit sitcom " The Office ," which takes a humorous look at the white-collar work-world. For three years, he was a writer for "Saturday Night Live," and was the the co-executive producer of "The Simpsons." In 1997, he co-created and is the executive producer of "King of the Hill."

Read Amy's latest Life at Work column: A Comedy of Terrors (Post, March 19). Then ask yourself: Is "The Office" Your Office?

The transcript follows below.

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Amy Joyce: Hi gang. We've got a special guest with us today. Greg Daniels, the executive producer of NBC's The Office, is here and ready to take your questions about the show and rants about work. Uh, not that you have ANY complaints about your workplace.

I'm thrilled he's here. If you haven't seen the show, check it out Thursday nights at 9:30.

If you haven't seen why he's here, check out my Sunday story about how the show is actually a lot of our realities.

Okay, let's get started ...

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Washington, D.C.: Hi! The first season of The Office seemed to mirror the British version very closely -- especially with Steve C.'s character acting a lot like Ricky G. By the second season, Steve seemed to make the character his own and since has been much more successful. What brought the change? Thanks!

Greg Daniels: It was hard to adapt this show because the British series is so perfectly executed and tailored to Ricky G., who also co-wrote and co-directed it. The pilot was close to the British series because I adapted it before casting the American actors, and after casting I didn't want to open the whole process up to network notes. Once we got past the pilot though, we came up with new stories and wrote the first six. Then we shot the first six, and after that I edited the first six. It was after they were completed that we learned the most about what was working and how to tailor things more to Steve. By the time the second season started, we had also been blessed by Ricky and Stephen Merchant and the critics and the lovers of the English show, so some of the pressure was off and we could start to play around a little more.

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Arlington, Va.: I just wanted to thank Greg Daniels for bringing "The Office" to the U.S. I have loved the U.K. version for years and was worried about the quality of the U.S. version, but I must say, I like the U.S. version better than the original. It is by far the funniest show on t.v..

Greg Daniels: What a nice question/comment! You are very welcome. It has been the most fun experience of my career, and I will tell you that I was worried about the quality of the US version too. I had this nightmare that I would be tried in comedy court for messing up what I consider to be the most perfect thing ever on t.v., the British series.

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Columbia, Md.: When are Jim and Pam going to hook-up?

Amy Joyce: Ah, the old intra-office dating routine. Greg, your public wants to know ... !

Greg Daniels: What does "hook-up" mean exactly?

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for giving me a reason to watch television again! I saw an interview with Jenna Fischer where she said that for the audition, the auditioners (were you one?) directed her, "don't be afraid to bore us." This sounds like it was a great technique. Any other interesting casting stories or dilemmas?

Greg Daniels: I remember her audition very well. She was behaving as if she was a receptionist who we had pulled in and asked to audition. When given the opportunity to improvise, she would uncomfortably answer with one syllable words, unlike most of the other actors who were anxious to get the job and behaved more like actors who were anxious to get a job . It was perfect and I felt like I was watching a magician because I remember asking her how she did it.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Amy and Greg.

This one's pretty much for Greg. I really love your show, and I say that as a huge fan of both versions.

That said, thanks a freaking lot! Due to your show's wonderful portrayal of the Jim and Pam story, I am having problems with a co-worker who seems to believe he is Jim to my Pam (I am happily married to a wonderful non-lunk). My choices are either to be completely rude to this Jim-wannabe or be friendly and thus subject to a barrage of e-mails and social invitations. Since he's not outright inappropriate (just VERY persistent), HR isn't an option.

So, Amy? Greg? What do I do?

Greg Daniels: That is too bad. Sometimes there are unintended results when you do a comedy show. When I was doing "King of the Hill," the actor Toby Huss who plays Hank's father "Cotton" went back home to I believe Iowa and a woman told him that her husband had started slapping her behind and shouting "bring me my sammiches, woman!" because he like Cotton so much (that was a line that the misogynistic character was saying at the time.) Not our intention. My suggestion to you is to become engaged to a large warehouse worker at your company who will hopefully scare this guy off.

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D.C.: Amy and Greg, good day to you both. Greg, do you find inspiration for the show from people you know who have typical office jobs and vent about what happens there? Do you ever find yourself feeling like you're bringing "Dilbert" to life?

Greg Daniels: My father was a salesman then a sales manager when I was a kid, and for about nine years while I was producing King of the Hill, our offices were in a high-rise office building in Century City that was full of typical office workers with a Starbucks on the ground floor, so I have been surrounded by typical office life for a while. And when the writers are all coming up with ideas, we are hanging around in little rented office suites that could be for any small company. Also I try to be an inconsistent, stupid, arbitrary and self-centered boss to them to provoke story ideas.

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D.C.: Hey Greg,

I keep hearing about how great your show, "The Office" is. I even asked a co-worker last week for the air day and time, but somehow keep forgetting to tune in. I haven't seen any commercials to remind me about the show either. Is there a way to punch up the publicity a little -- perhaps more commercials airing a little before and during prime time t.v. watching hours?

Greg Daniels: Great question! Perhaps you can also leave it at NBC.com. It is a huge amount of work to launch a t.v. show -- it gave me pneumonia a couple times this year -- and I seriously don't have the energy to keep track of the commercials and complain when we don't get enough, although I should. So we are on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. EST on NBC.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Greg! We love "The Office!" On a recent morning at my own office, I discovered a raunchy printout from a sex personals site on the printer. I put it down pronto, retreated to my desk, and alerted a co-worker. We then spent the entire rest of the day watching the printer to try to figure out the culprit. Never did identify a suspect but watching people find the printout was a lot of fun in itself. I spent the whole day thinking "what would Jim Halpert do?" Thanks for a new perspective to help get all of us through our 9-to-5 days.

Greg Daniels: That's got to happen a lot. My mom told me a story about a woman she worked with who sent a romantic email to a coworker named "Mark" but hit the wrong button and it went to "marketing." I am trying to work that into a script. Thanks for the compliments!

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Alexandria, Va.: The "thermostat wars" reminds me of an incident from my previous job. One department occupied a group of desks behind a high cubicle wall. I once noticed an odd tool on someone's desk there -- a long piece of plastic with the hook from a wire hanger taped to the end. When I asked what it was, I was told it was used to change the thermostat, which was just beyond the cubicle wall, next to the desk of an employee who liked the temperature much lower than they did. Someone would be sent to distract this guy, while another employee would push the tool between the cubicle wall and the permanent wall to reach the thermostat.

Greg Daniels: That's very funny. The offices we do the show in have bad air conditioning where if you set the thermostat to under 70 a chunk of ice forms or something that shuts the whole unit down and it gets incredibly hot in the offices. The signs that are posted on the thermostat asking people to not turn it below 70 have gone from polite to firm to frantic to ridiculously over-the-top with dire warnings and threats and still people keep turning the thermostat to 50 and knocking out the system. I think they are doing it now just to see what the building supervisor will write next.

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Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: Just a rant... My boss (the owner of the company) showed up today with a stomach virus, the kind where things come out of both ends. And of course he's here, breathing on all of us. Of course, it is a nice bookend to last week when his wife came in with a terrible cold and breathed on us.

Sigh.

Amy Joyce: I hate it when co-workers' wives breathe on us.

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Seattle, Wash.: Hi, Amy.

You seem to be having a spate of entries of people who love their jobs so I just thought I'd keep the momentum up. I recently moved across the country for my dream job, and two and a half weeks in it is still living up to my ideals of it. The people are fun and friendly and really smart, the work is interesting and for a great cause. Yay! Before I moved out here I also engaged in my first ever salary negotiation -- and got almost everything I asked for. For those of your readers who are nervous about asking for raises or higher starting salaries, I say go for it! Employers really do expect you to negotiate. I feel like many talented people out there are not being paid as much as they could be for great work because they accepted first offers for fear of causing discomfort or starting off on the wrong foot. If you have legitimate reasons that you can back up for why you deserve more money, employees will at the very least not be upset with you for asking -- and hopefully give you all you want!

Amy Joyce: That's terrific, Seattle. Thanks for sharing your great news. But hey, what kind of t.v. show would survive on such a story? It would be over in one episode. And Seattle, Wash. lived happily ever after. The End.

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Boston, Mass.: Mr. Daniels ... Too much time in the office doesn't make me want to recreate it -- usually -- but you do a great job!

Have you ever wanted to work on on a show that is a little more, shall we say, escapist?

Or do you see yourself on an office-like theme for awhile?

Greg Daniels: I would like to work on Lost which is shot in Hawaii.

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Pottstown, Penn.: Dear Amy,

I enjoyed your column on Sunday. I have just retired from a public library in Pennsylvania where I worked for 20 years. I worked for several directors during that time. The last was the worst. Our place may not have been "The Office," but it was similar. In the six years that our most recent director has been there, she has managed to alienate nearly the whole staff. People have left because of her. In terms of your column of a couple weeks ago, she is neither likeable nor competent. She has no vision. She lets others do her work. A friend of mine was approached about standing election to eventually become president of the state library association. When she ran the idea past the director, the director said, "no." The library board is as clueless about her as she is clueless. Fortunately, the county personnel office has heard enough from people who left that they have begun an investigation. Hopefully, she will be gone soon.

washingtonpost.com: A Comedy of Terrors (Post, March 19)

Amy Joyce: She sounds like a real gem. Unfortunately, there are a lot of them out there. Of course, it's on both sides. Lots of nasty employees, too, who have no clue how to interact with people. Such is life, and such is the workplace. Congrats on your retirement ...

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Fairfax, Va.: First I would like to say that I absolutely Love the show. I was wondering where you got your inspiration for the characters ... for instance Jim and Dwight play so well off each other, are there people in your life with these same personalities?

Greg Daniels: Well, my inspiration for the characters of Jim and Dwight was the characters of Tim and Gareth in the British show, so that made that pretty easy. In the audition process, we did screen tests with the actors and I had them play improv games. Some of the ones we used were, Jim brings Dwight a glass of water without being asked for it and Dwight is suspicious, or Jim asks Dwight to watch his phone for a minute while he goes to the bathroom and Dwight refuses, or Dwight falls asleep at his desk and Jim can do anything he wants to him. During that process, John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson had the most evenly matched and interesting interactions, so I think that they naturally play well off each other. In terms of the adventures they have on a weekly basis, I am always stealing stuff from the people I know and adapting it for the characters. For example, my brother Alex Daniels who has no children came back from a business trip to Switzerland with a copy of Strewelpeter, a very harsh German children's book about a tailor who cuts off the fingers of children that suck their thumbs, and read it to my daughter who was about 4 at the time. I was able to use that entire experience as something Dwight would do in last week's episode.

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D.C.: Greg, I love the office supplies in Jell-O jokes! Please consider doing something about the practice of leaving things in people's chairs instead of their "In" boxes -- maybe Steve's character could implement a new policy about it or something. It's a pet peeve of mine and I am mystified as to how it all began. BTW -- I loved the episode on diversity training and when the Indian woman slapped Steve for his moronic actions. I think you both entertained and educated us in that episode, that as silly as some things may seem, there is often a certain serious basis to it.

Greg Daniels: Thanks. The office supplies in jello joke was from the original British series and we have been staying away from that recently but I agree it is very funny. One of the other things I liked about the British show was how by merely presenting people's insensitive behavior you do make a sort of moral comment without trying to preach.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a rant with the old theme: The bosses have, the employees have not. I used to work for a publishing company that had offices on two floors. The upper floor had a lunch room with a soda machine. The lower floor's cafeteria room did not have a soda machine. The lower floor, however, held the offices of most of the upper management. At some point, they decided to put in a second fridge on the lower floor, stocked with soda. For the upper management. We were told not to touch it. There were times I would work 12-hour days and be in the office way after most people left. And the soda machine would be empty. I didn't raid the management fridge. Apparently, somebody did. When we returned from our holidays, there was a combo lock keeping us serfs out. I quit shortly there after.

Greg Daniels: It's funny how inside a big corporation, which should be by definition a capitalist environment, the people behave like bureaucrats in the former Soviet Union where the leaders get all sorts of perks and everybody else waits in bread lines. Maybe not so funny if you're working there.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Greg,

There hasn't been much fallout (yet) regarding Jan's behavior at the end of Valentine's Day.

Is it over, or has she given Michael yet more hope?

Greg Daniels: Yet.

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Arlington, Va.: So, if you do work in an office full of wacky people, similar to The Office, what are some tried and true coping mechanisms? There has to be some way to survive other than moving on to greener pastures or killing your co-workers.

Greg Daniels: I think the stressful part about working in an office is that those two options, "moving on to greener pastures" or FLIGHT, and "killing your co-workers" or FIGHT, are the first-choice options nature has programmed into us. I would suggest the comical world-view, which is to step back and try to see what is humorous in the absurd situation. Then, if you get really good at that, give me a call and I'll hire you away.

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Washington, D.C.: I work in a rather small office with eight others and I love peace and quiet. The others who work with me don't. The radio is always on, they shout to each other all the time -- it drives me nuts. I can't wear earplugs (not allowed) and when I mentioned that maybe they might want to "keep it down," they told me that they like the noise. My boss is basically never here, and I know he would be mad that they are goofing off. I'm already looking for a new job, but what can I do to stop myself from blowing up at them?

Amy Joyce: Here's something that's come up in several of my chats now: You're not ALLOWED to wear earplugs? When it might actually help you work better? I just don't get it. (Particularly if your boss isn't there... )

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Greg,

First of all thank-you for a show which I can totally relate to. It's dead-on office humor and the characters are something I look forward to every week. Since the dialogue seems like it's almost improvised, do the scripts look like normal sitcom scripts or do the actors deviate from that and improvise much of their dialogue?

Greg Daniels: Thanks for the compliments, and in case I get cut off at the hour, I want to thank Amy Joyce for having me and everyone who wrote in for taking the time to participate and for watching the show. There are a lot of questions that I can't get to -- everyone time I publish one I see a whole new screen with like dozens more, so thanks for all your interest, everybody.

So, the scripts look like normal single-camera t.v. show scripts, although pretty long usually, but the improvising happens on the set once the actors are going off memory. A lot depends on the director of the episode too. It is a great compliment to the actors for their naturalistic acting and the writers for the natural dialogue that even when they are following the scripts people think it is all improvised. But you can tell in the moment if the scene is playing funny or not, and if it's not, then we all try to come up with new things. Also, the interviews are a place where the actors can really ramble and often a gem pops out. In next week's episode, Steve Carell was improvising about the worst birthdays he ever had and two complete and hysterical stories popped out from somewhere that we put right in the show.

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Amy Joyce: Well, our hour's up. Thanks for joining us this week, Greg. You're a great respite from, well, me.

Okay, gang. Join me again next week for our usual hour of work-bashing and problem solving. Check out Life at Work the column in this Sunday's Business section. And have a good week.

Greg Daniels: Thanks, Amy and everybody! It was really fun.

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