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May 10, 2006 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed

TELEVISION

'Office' manager takes on new task

*Steve Carell, the wacky workplace leader on the NBC series, envisioned and wrote the season finale, airing Thursday.
 

    
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By Lisa Rosen, Special to The Times

Keep a close eye on the credits when they roll for "The Office" this week and you might notice the comedy's star, Steve Carell, wrote the episode.

At this point, it's almost de rigueur for actors to try their hand at directing an installment or two of their series, but writing them is much less common. But Carell's not one to shy from stepping out of the mold. A scene-stealer in the films "Bruce Almighty" and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," he plays the eternally embarrassing "Office" manager Michael Scott to perfection.

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The quirky comedy, based on the lauded British BBC series of the same name, started out slowly last year on Tuesday nights as a midseason replacement. It took awhile for audiences to warm up to it, but the summer break helped; that's when Carell's star turn in "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" hit theaters. Overnight, the scene-stealer became a star. "I don't know if that's ever happened before," said Angela Bromstad, president of NBC Universal Television Studio. "You've had a TV star become a movie star. But have you ever had a movie star in a series? It's all too good."

The show was boosted further in the middle of its second season by a move to Thursday night, in a slot after the NBC hit "My Name Is Earl," a time and place that viewers are accustomed to watching comedy. (The viewership went from 8.1 million to 8.7 million after the move, and the adult rating from 3.9 to 4.5.) "It's not as gigantic a hit as 'Lost' or 'Desperate Housewives,' " said Bromstad, "but yet it's the No. 1 download week in and week out on iTunes." The kids are watching.

The show has tapped into something different, part of which may stem from the way executive producer Greg Daniels runs it. He hired all of his writers as performers also and most of them have appeared on the show. Three of them — B.J. Novak, Mindy Kaling and Paul Lieberstein — play recurring roles as Ryan the temp, Kelly the talky and Toby the hapless, respectively. The actors he hired have great improv skills and the writers' room door is always open to their jokes and story ideas. One of those suggestions — for the "Office" staff to host a casino night — was thrown in a few months back by Carell. When planning the final show of the season, Daniels thought a casino night would make a great setting and asked Carell to write it. On the flight to and from New York to film scenes for the show's Valentine's episode, they fleshed out the idea further.

But after Carell got back home, his busy schedule gave him pause. He had essentially one weekend to write the script, and his parents were coming to town for that weekend. So he went into Daniels' office to try to get out of it. "I said I don't know if I can give it my full attention, and I don't want to do a half-baked job of it," said Carell by phone from the set of "Evan Almighty" in Virginia. "But he is a very persuasive gentleman, and I walked out of the meeting not only still writing the episode, but filled with all sorts of hope and excitement about the episode."

Part of that excitement was the chance to write for the actors he had gotten to know over the last season and a half. "I knew I could get away with a lot as a writer," he said, because "even if what I wrote was terrible, it would end up looking good because they're all such good actors." His favorite scenes to write were between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer), because the actors have such great chemistry. "They have a real knack at playing that sort of realistic dialogue between two people who care about each other," he said.

He worked on the script at night after his visiting parents went to bed and handed a draft in on Monday. "I wasn't there for the rewrite sessions, I was off shooting. But the great part of it is that I didn't feel precious about the script," Carell said. "I felt like I had written what was a pretty decent half hour, but I knew it could be better, and I knew that all of the writers would make it better. They're all so smart and good and funny that I didn't feel weird about letting it go and letting it evolve."

Daniels gives Carell plenty of credit though. "He came in with a great draft," said Daniels, who was not surprised. After all, Carell's résumé includes co-writing "Virgin" with Judd Apatow, the film's director. "And can I say, looking back on it, it was such a great move to have him write it," not just because of Carell's talent, "but also I feel like, as a staff, we were too close to it. It was good to have somebody write it who hadn't been sitting in the [writers'] room." While Daniels wouldn't give away any big plot points for the show, he did say that with everyone dressed up for casino night, an elegant evening in the company warehouse, anything could happen.

Carell hadn't yet watched the completed episode, but the few scenes he had seen were a thrill. "That's a very exciting thing to have written something — or have been a part of the writing of something — and just see it come to life, and have it actually be better than you could have ever imagined it would be."

So is there more writing in his future? "In a heartbeat," Carell said. Then, with a modesty that couldn't be further from Michael Scott, he added, "Honestly, I can hardly think ahead to tomorrow in terms of anything I do career-wise. I'm always surprised to be working, let alone being given a choice of what to do."




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