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A Show About Phyllis: An Oral History Of ‘The Office’


In March of 2005, a new sitcom debuted on NBC that looked like almost nothing that had ever aired on the network before. The show was an American adaptation of a British cult hit called The Office, and it trafficked in dry, understated humor, a groundbreaking documentary style, and a fixation on the oppressively monotonous grind of the modern workplace. Despite the challenging style and off-kilter humor, the show became a hit and ran for nine seasons. This is the story of how a brilliant team of writers and a legendary ensemble cast took a show about humble people with humble aspirations and turned it into one of the most beloved and successful sitcoms of all time, told by the people who were there to make it all happen. This is an oral history of The Office.

Part 1: Origins


Ricky Gervais (Creator of the British Office): There’s a saying in England which is, “If something happens in England, then the same exact thing will also happen in America, but for a much longer time.” This was the guiding principle behind the American Office: What if the British Office happened all over again, except this time it took nine fucking years for some reason?

Greg Daniels (Creator of the American Office): I was sitting in my office thinking about Phyllis when all of a sudden Ricky Gervais walked in and said, “Let’s make a show where Phyllis goes to work and her boss is a lunatic.” I said, “Ricky, I’m in.” That’s how the idea for The Office was born.

Jeff Zucker (Former President of NBC): I remember when Ricky Gervais and Greg Daniels pitched the idea for The Office to NBC. They walked in and they said, “Phyllis” in unison and left. I turned to the executive next to me and said, “Give them whatever money they need. This show is the most important thing in the world.” It bankrupted the network, but it was worth it.

Greg Daniels: NBC gave us $50 billion to make The Office. That’s how we were able to afford all the computers that appear on the show.

Ricky Gervais: We knew that casting the show was going to be very important. One of the reasons that the British Office had succeeded was because we had such an incredible ensemble cast. We had all sorts of British legends in that show like Franky Doublechins, Old Chim-Chim Tea-Guzzler, Spitshine The British Gorilla, Captain Aftermath, Tommy Razorblades, Princess Diana Jr., Fatty Skin-And-Bones, Martin Freeman, and Tall Mrs. Smokestacks: The Sultan Of Fuck. I was also in it, but I forget what I did.

Greg Daniels: The first thing we had to do was find an actor to play Phyllis. For the audition I went to the beach and stood at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. I yelled, “Phyllis! Reveal yourself!” and Phyllis emerged out of the ocean, walked right past me, and climbed into the back seat of my car without saying a word. That’s how we knew she would be the one to play Phyllis.

Phyllis (Phyllis): Phyllis.

Ricky Gervais: Casting Michael Scott was a little bit harder. We had so many great people audition. Daniel Day-Lewis auditioned for the role and completely blew us away. We wanted to cast him, but unfortunately he refused to read the lines without doing a cartoonish Italian accent.

Greg Daniels: It sounded like if Super Mario worked at a paper company. We said, “Daniel, the performances are amazing, but the accent is ridiculous and somewhat offensive,” and he said, “My name-a is-a Michael Scott-a! I sell-a paper for money and I use-a the money to buy a cannoli from-a Sicilia! Mama mia!” Then we said, “Please just speak normally,” and he said, “Mama mia! Paper is-a like-a tree-flavored ravioli! I’m-a Michael Scott-a!” So we had to pass on him for the role.

Ricky Gervais: Other people who auditioned for the role of Michael included Bernie Madoff, Buzz Aldrin, Speed Racer, Leonardo DiCaprio, the real Michael Scott, Tiger Woods, Tobey Maguire, Sean Connery, Daniel Day-Lewis again wearing a fake mustache and calling himself Sexxx Rumbleman, Donkey Kong, Anthony Hopkins, Paul McCartney, Big Bird, Jack Nicholson, and the Eiffel Tower. They all were great, but they also all insisted on doing the same offensive Italian accent that Daniel Day-Lewis had done, so we couldn’t cast any of them.

Greg Daniels: We were about to give up and just cast a ventriloquist dummy as Michael Scott, but at the last second we found the perfect actor for the role.

Steve Carell (Michael Scott): Before I auditioned for the role of Michael Scott, I came up with a backstory for him so that I could understand him better. Creating a biography like that helps me inhabit the character completely. The backstory I came up with for Michael Scott is that he is a man who once ate a hardboiled egg and one time a dog humped his leg. Having this intimate understanding of the character was ultimately what gave me the confidence to nail my audition.

Ricky Gervais: Steve Carell basically became Michael Scott. He looked me right in the eyes and said, “My egg was delicious in the past. The dog that humped my leg had an eyepatch.” It was like Michael Scott was in the room with us. I’d never seen an actor embody a role so perfectly. It was a match made in heaven.

Greg Daniels: It also helped that he didn’t do an offensive Italian accent. He was pretty much the only one who talked normal.

Ricky Gervais: The next step was to cast Jim and Pam. Their romance was very important because every TV show needs romance. What would Cheers be without the central romance between Rim-Rim and Durango? What would Friends be without the central romance between Donald Beeswax and Professor Rancho? What would Wheel of Fortune be without the romance between Pat Sajak and Yahtzee The Jewish Iguana? Nothing at all. Romance is essential to great TV, and so Jim and Pam were essential to The Office. We couldn’t screw it up.

Greg Daniels: The first actors we cast to play Jim and Pam were John Goodman and Nancy Pelosi. Unfortunately, the onscreen chemistry was completely off. One moment they’d be screaming at each other and attacking each other with swords, the next moment they’d be having sex on Michael Scott’s desk. We had to recast them.

John Krasinski (Jim Halpert): When I auditioned for Jim, Greg Daniels asked me, “Would you ever attack Pam with a sword?” I said, “No, that would be inappropriate for the workplace.” Greg said, “Perfect. Now you are Jim.”

Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly): For my audition, Greg Daniels asked me if I could do a somersault. I said, “kind of,” and he said, “Perfect. You are now Pam.”

Greg Daniels: The easiest character to cast was Dwight.

Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute): I hate Dwight Schrute. He has the mind of a dog. I want to murder him with fireworks.

Ricky Gervais: We knew Rainn Wilson was going to be perfect for the role of Dwight. It couldn’t be anyone else.

Rainn Wilson: One night I woke up and Greg Daniels and Ricky Gervais were standing over my bed staring at me and smiling. They said, “You’re going to play Dwight Schrute. He’s a very stupid man who digs around in the mud like a pig.” I said, “He sounds awful.” They said, “The best part is that he’s also a Nazi.” I said, “I don’t want this role,” and then I went back to sleep. When I woke up I was on the set of The Office in costume as Dwight. My life has been a living hell ever since.

Greg Daniels: The rest of the cast was already in the office doing work when we showed up to film.

Part 2: Humble Beginnings


With a powerhouse ensemble in place, shooting was ready to commence. The show’s inaugural season was a humble affair, only six episodes long, but even at this early stage, there were signs that they were making something special.

Greg Daniels: Originally the pilot episode of The Office was a single 30-minute shot of everyone in the office throwing rose petals at Phyllis until she’s completely buried underneath a big pile of flowers. Once she’s completely buried, the door to the office opens and Phyllis walks in with a leaf blower. She blows the big pile of rose petals away and where her body used to be is now just a skeleton. Everyone in the office is confused and frightened about what they’ve just seen. Pam throws up. Then Phyllis says, “Let that be a lesson to you all” and leaves.

BJ Novak (Ryan Howard and writer): The “Phyllis Beneath Flowers” pilot was honestly an amazing piece of television. Unfortunately, Phyllis took all the footage and sold it to the king of Saudi Arabia, who to this day still plays it on a loop 24/7 in his palace. Without that footage, we had to make a new pilot, and that’s the one that ultimately made it to air.

Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (King of Saudi Arabia): Phyllis.

Rainn Wilson: When I was driving to work on the first day of shooting, I got pulled over by a police officer. I rolled down my window and the police officer said, “I pulled you over because you’re that Nazi idiot Dwight Schrute, the man who lives in the mud.” I said, “How did you know that I play Dwight? We haven’t filmed a single shot of The Office yet.” And the cop said to me, “Shut up, Dwight,” and beat me with his billy club. Then he drove away. I hate being Dwight.

John Krasinski: My most vivid memory of the first day of shooting The Office is Phyllis coming up and whispering, “Give me money,” in my ear.

Phyllis: I want money. I love money. When I see a human adult I will go up to them and tell them to give me money.

Steve Carell: When we were shooting season one, I developed a lot more of Michael’s backstory. I decided that once when he was a child he saw a pigeon choke to death on an olive, and I also decided that once when he was in his early twenties he had a dream where a sneaker floated away into the sky like a balloon. These biographical details really informed the way I portrayed Michael and brought him to life.

Oscar Nunez (Oscar Martinez): During that first season, Rainn Wilson would entertain us on set by doing his horse trick, which is a special trick where a horse would kick him in the stomach and he would throw up.

Jenna Fischer: Things were definitely very stressful during that first season, which is why I was so grateful for the days when Rainn Wilson would get kicked in the stomach by a horse and then roll around on the floor in agony while yelling, “Where do these horses keep coming from? This isn’t normal, you guys!” while everyone on set laughed and applauded.

Rainn Wilson: The horses kicked me because they knew I was Dwight. I do not like being Dwight.

Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapoor and writer): Shooting that first season of the show was very exciting, but also very scary, because we knew we could get cancelled at any moment. One morning NBC sent an executive to the set and he stood up in front of everyone and said, “Do a good job or we’re going to cancel your show,” and Phyllis stood up and yelled, “Give me your wife’s pearls!”

Phyllis: Pearls are beautiful beans that you cannot eat. If you eat 1,000 pearls, you have to go to the hospital and all the doctors yell at you, “Not again, Phyllis! Why do you keep doing this?” Pearls come from a type of clam called an oyster. Humans cannot make pearls. The only thing that humans can make that is close to pearls is teeth, and if you wear a necklace made of human teeth, they don’t let you wander the halls of your local elementary school handing out wax fruit to children. I had to learn that lesson the hard way. Anyway, I love money.

Ricky Gervais: One day Steve Carell called me out of the blue and said, “I have important news about Michael Scott’s past: when he was 18 years old he saw a raccoon eat a mitten.” I said, “Okay, thank you for telling me,” but he had already hung up.

Jeff Zucker: I originally wanted to cancel The Office after one season. I wanted to launch a spin-off series called Phyllis On Wheels where Phyllis would drive around the country in a golf cart telling people that their family members had died.

Greg Daniels: I thought Phyllis On Wheels sounded like a much better show than The Office. I wish The Office had been cancelled so that we could all watch Phyllis drive up to people’s houses in a golf cart and say stuff like, “Your dad had a stroke. Give me money. Goodbye,” before driving away in her golf cart. It would have been a wonderful program, but sadly it was not to be.

Jeff Zucker: We found out that NBC only owned one golf cart, and at the time Lorne Michaels was using it to run over his neighbor. So we had to scrap the idea of Phyllis On Wheels. I figured that renewing The Office for eight more seasons was the next best thing. At least Phyllis would still be on TV.

Mindy Kaling: Getting renewed for eight more seasons completely changed how we went about writing the show. When we thought there was going to be just one season, we figured we’d need to pack a bunch of plot into just a handful of episodes, so, for example, the initial plan was to have Jim and Pam get together much sooner. Our original idea was that in episode 2, Jim would say to Pam, “Pam, I love you, let’s have sex in the office,” and Pam would say, “But Jim, I’m engaged to Roy,” and Jim would say, “You mean this Roy?” And he would hold up Roy’s severed head and then he and Pam would have sex on Stanley’s desk while Stanley Googled “How to make naked people be quiet.” Once we found out we were renewed past Season 1, we were able to stretch out that romantic arc over a few seasons, which just felt more natural.

Greg Daniels: Originally, we also had Oscar come out of the closet much faster because we weren’t sure if we’d get a chance to do it later. In fact, we announced he was gay in the original Office theme song. The lyrics were: “It’s time for The Office! Oscar is gay! This is a show about Dunder Mifflin! They all work in Scranton and have sex with each other! Michael Scott is the boss and Stanley cheats on his wife! The end!” We got Celine Dion to sing it. The whole song was 15 seconds long, but we felt that it covered a lot of important information. 

BJ Novak: Once we got renewed for another season, we could have Oscar reveal his homosexuality much later in the show and give his coming out story a bit more depth. We also got rid of most of the lyrics to the theme song and made it mostly instrumental, but if you listen very closely, you can still hear Celine Dion mumble, “Stanley loves adultery” very quietly at the very end.

Leslie David Baker (Stanley Hudson): When I showed up on set for the first day of shooting, they tattooed the words “Mr. Adultery” onto my bicep inside of a Jewish star.

Rainn Wilson: When I found out that The Office had been renewed and that I had to keep playing Dwight, I went into a church and threw a radiator at a statue of Jesus out of anger.

Part 3: A Phenomenon Is Born


The Office had survived its first season and now had a chance to grow and develop. As the relationships between the characters deepened and the writing became more complex, the once-modest sitcom began to amass a dedicated following among critics and viewers alike. Before long it had become a critical darling and a ratings juggernaut. A full-blown television phenomenon had been born.

Jeff Zucker: At some point in Season 2, something just clicked. The ratings for The Office started going through the roof and pretty soon the show was the number one sitcom on TV.

Steve Carell: Suddenly I was getting stopped on the street and people were saying, “Oh, wow! We love The Office! We think you’re so good as Michael Scott!” and I would say, “Thank you. Please have a raisin,” and then I would feed them a raisin out of my hand.

Kate Flannery (Meredith Palmer): People would come up to me in the street and say, “I love you as Meredith on The Office. I love how much Meredith drinks. I love that Meredith gets drunk at work and that she is miserable.” I felt so famous!

Greg Daniels: The Chinese Communist Party erected a huge statue in Tiananmen Square of Mao Zedong handing a bottle of gin to Meredith with an inscription that read, “MAO AND THE PEOPLE SALUTE MEREDITH’S EXCESSIVE DRINKING.” That was very flattering for us.

Paul Liberstein (Toby Flenderson and writer): The Pope gave an address at the Vatican where he said that Jesus’s final words on the cross before he died were, “Stanley from The Office. Oscar from The Office.” That kind of recognition from such an influential figure was very exciting.

Ricky Gervais: In the first season, the American Office had been modeled very closely after the British version of the show, but as it progressed the writers started developing their own voice and the cast began putting their own spin on the characters and Phyllis was there and Stanley looked so tired all the time and Meredith was miserable. The performers really started coming into their own. And the writing was truly next-level.

Jenna Fischer: Something that was really amazing was how much backstory the writers created for all the characters and the world they inhabited. For instance, Greg Daniels once told me that Pam and Roy met and fell in love at Jim Halpert’s funeral 40 years before the events of the show’s first episode. That really informed the way I played the character and acted around Roy.

Craig Robinson (Darryl Filbin): The writers told me that Darryl’s backstory was that he was the eldest son of the Emperor of Japan, and that he was just working at the Dunder Mifflin warehouse while waiting for his father to die, at which point he would return to Japan and assume the throne.

Greg Daniels: Here’s an interesting bit of Office backstory: Dunder Mifflin sold paper to the Nazis during World War II. Adolf Hitler would buy reams and reams of Dunder Mifflin paper and write, “I’m Hitler” on all of them and then throw them on the floor. During World War II, Dunder Mifflin’s slogan was “Dunder Mifflin: The official paper supplier of the Nazis and the Pittsburgh Pirates.” That was a little bit long, so in 1943 they changed their slogan to “Dunder Mifflin: We hope World War II is a tie.” That remained their slogan until 1998. Now Dunder Mifflin’s slogan is “Dunder Mifflin: No slogan.”

Steve Carell: One neat piece of Michael Scott’s backstory is that he once saw a rat eat a Ritz cracker.

Mindy Kaling: One of my favorite things to write for the show were all the pranks that Jim played on Dwight. We wrote so many of those, and not all of them made it onto the show. For example, there was the prank where Jim nailed Dwight’s hand to a table.

BJ Novak: There was the prank where Jim told all the pallbearers at Dwight’s dad’s funeral that the funeral was cancelled, so Dwight had to carry his dad’s casket all by himself and the weight of it crushed him and broke his spine.

Greg Daniels: There was the prank where Jim changed Dwight’s legal name to “The Fabulous Mr. Al-Qaeda” which caused the FBI to detain him in Guantanamo Bay for six months.

Mindy Kaling: There was the prank where Jim left Dwight stranded alone on a tropical island for 60 years.

Greg Daniels: There was the prank where Jim changed Dwight’s legal name to “Osama bin Laden, But Larger,” which caused the Navy SEALS to show up at his house and shoot him in the stomach.

BJ Novak: There was the prank where Jim wrote “Kick Me” on a piece of paper, threw the paper in the trash, and then lit Dwight on fire.

Mindy Kaling: There was the prank where Jim put Dwight’s hand in warm water while he was sleeping and then ran him over with a Jeep.

Greg Daniels: There was the prank where Jim changed Dwight’s legal name to “Uncle Chuckles: The Clown Who Mails Guns To The Taliban,” which resulted in the Marines coming to his house and repeatedly punching him in the throat.

Rainn Wilson: John Krasinski did all of those things to me in real life. He said it was method acting. Being Dwight has transformed my life into a diaper.

Paul Lieberstein: I think the height of the show’s success was probably after the third season when we were nominated for several million Emmys.

Jeff Zucker: We racked up Emmy nominations in categories like “Show With Most Actors,” “Least Nudity In A Half-Hour Program,” and “Phyllis,” and we were beating out all these prestige series.  It was a clear signal to me that The Office could be the cornerstone of our network.

Greg Daniels: We ended up winning the Emmy for “Show With Car In It.” It remains the highlight of my career.

John Krasinski: I’ll never forget the feeling of standing on the Emmys stage with the cast and crew accepting our Emmy. I was standing next to Phyllis and looked at her and said, “Phyllis, we did it!” and Phyllis said to me, “I’m going to trade your hair for diamonds.”

Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin): I keep my Emmy on my mantle, right next to Creed’s severed head.

Steve Carell: When The Office won an Emmy, I celebrated by forcing my children to watch me eat a box of raisins and when my children asked if they could also have a raisin I said, “Never.”

Phyllis: I brought my Emmy statuette home to my nest and the little golden Emmy man whispered, “Phyllis, I’m afraid of you,” and I whispered back, “You should be.”

Rainn Wilson: After the Emmys I came home and my wife said, “We have to get divorced. I hate being married to Dwight.” I said, “But honey, I’m not Dwight. I’m Rainn Wilson.” Then a man who looked and sounded exactly like me walked into the room and put his arm around my wife. He said, “No…I’m Rainn Wilson. You’re Dwight.” Then he and my wife started passionately kissing each other until I left the house.

Part 4: Saying Goodbye


As the years went by, The Office went through many changes. Jim and Pam got married and had children, Steve Carell left the show in Season 7, and a parade of new faces came and went at Dunder Mifflin as the show continued to dominate among audiences and critics alike. But all things must end, and as the show entered its ninth season, Greg Daniels and his team decided that it was time to say goodbye.

Greg Daniels: We were very keen on just having the show continue indefinitely until the entire cast died of old age, but we had to scrap that plan after Phyllis told us that the whole cast was going to die on the same day 3,000 years from now in a manner too horrible to describe. We just didn’t have the budget to continue the show for another 3,000 years, so we figured we’d call it after Season 9.

Jenna Fischer: I’ll always treasure the time I spent on The Office. I made so many friends and I took so many pictures of Phyllis. Angela bit me and Steve Carell tried to use a magic spell to turn me into a raisin. It was the ride of a lifetime.

Craig Robinson: I have so many happy memories from being in The Office. My name got to be Darryl. I got to play a character who worked in a basement with muscular strangers. I got to work with Steve Carell and I got to set Dwight on fire. These are incredible opportunities that I don’t think I would have gotten on any other show.

John Krasinski: On the last day of shooting, I looked around at everyone and they all had tears in their eyes, and that was when I realized that all of these people were actors from the NBC sitcom The Office.

Jenna Fischer: Before I left the set for the last time, I gave Steve Carell a hug and I said, “You were incredible as Michael Scott,” and Steve looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “For the first six years of this show, I thought my character’s name was Jalopy Goodtimes.”

Greg Daniels: People always ask me what happened to the characters in The Office after the show ended, and I always have answers for them because we actually spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking about their post-show trajectories. For example, 10 seconds after the events of the series finale, Oscar turns into a billowing cloud of steam.

Oscar Nunez: We actually filmed the scene where Oscar turns into steam. It’s right after the events of the finale, and Pam says, “Oscar, we’re going to go out for a drink. Do you want to come?” And Oscar says, “Fuck you, Pam. It’s time for me to become fog.” Then Oscar evaporates into a cloud of steam which gets inhaled by a stray dog.

BJ Novak: After the events of The Office, Ryan and Kelly get married. Unfortunately, shortly afterward, Kelly accidentally calls Ryan “Andy Bernard from The Office” during sex and they get divorced. They later get remarried, but then on their wedding night while they’re having sex Kelly accidentally calls Ryan, “Andy from The Office and Stanley and Oscar from The Office and Angela’s cats from The Office,” and so they get divorced again.

Craig Robinson: It always feels silly to speculate about this stuff. However, Greg Daniels did tell me that after the events of the finale, Darryl’s head triples in size. So there’s that.

Phyllis: When The Office ended here’s what happened to Phyllis: If you are a little boy or a little girl, and you get good grades in gym (B- or above), then put that report card under your pillow before you go to sleep. Later that night, Phyllis will sneak into your room and take your report card and replace it with a piece of wax fruit. Fake apples and bananas from Phyllis for little boys and girls who get good grades in gym! When you wake up in the morning you shall bite into the wax fruit that Phyllis has left under your pillow, and you shall age 80 years in 30 seconds because Phyllis put a curse on the wax fruit! So always try your best in gym class so that you can get good grades in gym and Phyllis can take your good report card and give you wax fruit with a curse on it!

Greg Daniels: One of the most amazing things about The Office is how many careers it launched. So many people from that show started as unknown actors and The Office rocketed them to superstardom.

John Krasinski: I can’t believe how far I’ve come thanks to this show. I went from acting in The Office, which is a TV show about figuring out which one of your coworkers you’re supposed to marry, to starring in A Quiet Place, which is a movie about telling your son to shut the fuck up or else he’ll get eaten by a bug. My life is a fairy tale.

Steve Carell: The Office transformed me into a massive celebrity sex god supreme. Now I star in movies and I even appeared in an international commercial for Ford Motors, where I cried and screamed, “We’re sorry! We’re sorry!” over footage of Ford cars bursting into flames and driving off of cliffs. Before The Office I could barely afford a single raisin. Now I own 12 raisins, and I can afford to pay former Navy SEALS to guard my raisins from my children.

Rainn Wilson: After The Office ended, I decided to really explore the full range of my acting abilities. I auditioned for a production of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. They said, “Your audition was amazing.” I said, “What role am I playing? Am I Hamlet? Am I Laertes?” They said, “You are playing Dwight. He’s a new character we added to Hamlet. He’s a Nazi doofus who digs around in the mud all day and he gets killed by Hamlet in every scene. His only line is, ‘Oh no!’” I said, “I don’t want that role,” and they said, “Dwight, be quiet. We are trying to think of new ways to kill you.”

Ricky Gervais: The Office changed the way we watch TV. By making an entire show about a mundane American workplace, viewers learned to see beauty in boring things. Now we hate things that are exciting. When we see something explode on TV, we say, “This sucks. It needs to be more boring. Why isn’t anyone in this movie slowly driving to work?” 

Greg Daniels: A few years ago I saw the James Bond movie Casino Royale in theaters, and as I was walking out, I heard someone say, “That movie wasn’t boring enough. I wish that instead being about James Bond shooting a gun, that movie had been about Stanley writing the word ‘sandpaper’ on a manilla envelope.” Because of The Office, America has fallen in love with boredom, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Phyllis: It’s as simple as this: I love money. I need to have money. If you don’t give me money I’m going to make you fall asleep and have a nightmare. I like to spend money on wedding dresses that I wear by myself in the dark. I am the Bride Of Nothingness. I am the Queen Of Empty Rooms. Give me your mother’s most valuable jewelry. No more questions.