Kaling And Daniels: Writing 'The Office'

This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 2, 2006.

Between them, Greg Daniels and Mindy Kaling, wrote a number of classic episodes for NBC's The Office, including "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" and "The Dundies." Kaling, who plays Kelly on the show, has also appeared in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Five-Year Engagement, and currently stars in her own comedy series, The Mindy Project. Daniels has a history of TV comedy writing. He has worked on Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, King of the Hill, Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

The BBC version of "The Office" was adapted for American audiences by Greg Daniels. He's the executive producer of the NBC show, and also writes and directs for the series. Daniels co-created "King of the Hill" and has written for "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live." Mindy Kaling, now the star of Fox's "The Mindy Project," was both a writer and an actor on NBC's "The Office." She played Kelly Kapoor, who Michael Scott described as our most ethnic employee. Terry Gross spoke with them both in 2006.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Mindy Kaling, Greg Daniels, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the things that happens on "The Office" is that since so - since "The Office" is shot as if it were a documentary about this group of office workers, people are always talking to the camera, like, looking away from the action and then talking to the camera in a confidential way, talking about what's really going through their mind.

And they're often giving these kind of pained glances to the camera as Michael makes a fool of himself in the office. And I'm wondering if, like, during auditions, Greg, you asked everybody to roll their eyes and give pained looks, because that's so much of what they have to do. Everybody's always so embarrassed on Michael's behalf and looking so uncomfortable because of what he's doing.

GREG DANIELS: Well, we didn't have a normal audition process. We - or we did have a normal audition process, but afterwards, we did screen tests. And we actually took three days and combined all the different finalist actors in different combinations, and we filmed them improving scenes together. And that was definitely one of the great things that distinguished us - for example, Jenna Fischer, the pained looks that she would give to camera.

GROSS: She plays the receptionist, the character Pam.

DANIELS: Yeah, she plays Pam, and she's really the most put-upon of all of them.

MINDY KALING: And that's a very - it's a very cool tool, because if you notice in the show, it's only certain characters sort of have the permission to have that familiarity with the camera and the cameraman, and other characters who have less self-awareness do it less, and it works great. Like, for instance, Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight, has - I think is a kind of character who less self-awareness, and he doesn't do it as much as, say, John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer, who play Jim and Pam, the two, like, the love interests.

DANIELS: Yeah, it's kind of saying: Does anyone else see how crazy this is? So you have to be kind of a reasonable character to get away with it, although when Michael Scott does it, it has a different flavor. It's usually uh-oh. I just blew it again, didn't I? Oh, yes, I did, when he looks to the camera.

KALING: Or that he's the host of a party, and that he wants to keep - you know, he wants to be kind to the camera people as the host of this party, and the party is the office.

GROSS: In the seasons that "The Office" has been on, are there ways that the characters have changed that you never would have expected, and are there ways that Michael has changed, the main character, that you didn't plan on, it just kind of evolved that way?

DANIELS: That's a good question. I think Michael has changed a little bit, and a lot of it has to do with growing away from the British show a little bit, and also Steve's movie career, because when Steve Carell did "40-Year-Old Virgin," I think that was eye-opening for me and for some of the writers to see him play a romantic lead in that way, and how likeable he was.

And it helped us include some of those characteristics in his character of Michael Scott.

KALING: You know when you're on the subway, and you see this, like, really weird-looking loser that's talking really too loudly, and they have, like, a girlfriend? To me, that was like a big change in, like, the second season is that, like, characters who were - you're kind of like that person's loved by somebody?

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: They are. Like, you see Dwight is loved by somebody, and Kelly has love in her own way. And, you know, all these people that you're like that person's, like, so sort of terrible in their own way. Oh, but I guess they - there's another person out there who understands them and likes them. And most of the characters on the show who are real characters have some kind of love life, and that's realistic, I mean, sort of unusual. And that's a big difference, I think, between our two seasons.

GROSS: Yeah, and Jan, who you mentioned, is Michael's supervisor. And even when they do maybe, maybe not have an overnight relationship - because she's drunk, and he's drunk, and he doesn't - they probably just fell asleep, we think. But...

DANIELS: I'm glad you picked up on that. We really discussed that a lot, and that is - that's what we think, too. We think that she complained about her divorce for hours, and then fell asleep on...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right, except he thinks that probably much more happened, and he's always acting as if they had this, like, long, passionate fling.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Just like another example of him getting just, like, everything, everything wrong. It must be so much fun to write for a character like that.

DANIELS: Yeah, he has such little self-knowledge, and that's what makes a great comedy character, I think, is someone without any self-knowledge. And he really lacks in every aspect of his life.

BIANCULLI: Greg Daniels and Mindy Kaling, speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. After a break, we'll hear from the star and co-creator of the original "Office," Ricky Gervais. This is FRESH AIR.

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