The 'Real Life' Of Actor Steve Carell
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Next week, NBC presents its special final episode of "The Office," the Americanized version of the 2001 BBC mockumentary series starring and co-created by Ricky Gervais. Steve Carell starred in the U.S. version for most of its eight-year run, and his is one of the interviews we'll feature on today's FRESH AIR salute to "The Office."
We'll also hear from Ricky Gervais himself, from executive producer Greg Daniels, who worked with Gervais and Stephen Merchant to create the NBC adaptation, and from NBC "Office" co-stars Mindy Kaling, Jenna Fischer and Rainn Wilson.
When the original version of "The Office" premiered in England, it was a tight little masterpiece, only 12 episodes - like the classic "Fawlty Towers" - plus a concluding telemovie that was so endearing and emotional, it made me cry. That version of "The Office" was so perfect and so boldly original, it took me a while to warm up to NBC's incarnation.
American TV history is littered with epic failures of attempts to remake great British shows. For every one that works, like "All In the Family," there are dozens of flat-out disasters, such as the recent tries to Americanize "Prime Suspect," "Cracker," even "The Prisoner."
But the American "Office" - thanks to tight writing and some especially shrewd casting - defied the odds. Steve Carell's Michael Scott turned out to be an even more endearingly pathetic boss than Gervais' David Brent, and other key character types were just as resonant. Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute was a certifiable office oddball, and John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer as Jim and Pam - whose long-simmering attraction was the heart of the show - were just as sweet as the central couple in the original series.
But after Carell left and James Spader came and left as a corporate executive, "The Office" lost some of its momentum and arguably, its focus. But now that it's finally reaching its finish line, after producing almost 15 times as many episodes as its British counterpart, "The Office" is going out with a clever premise. The documentary crew, which supposedly has been following the paper company employees for almost a decade, finally has finished its work; and the documentary is about to appear on public television.
The gang from "The Office" heads to the local bar to watch and for some reason, even without a TV film crew to document them, we can still see them. In Thursday's episode, they arrived just in time to beg the bartender to change channels.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
ELLIE KEMPER: (As Erin Hannon) You have to change the channel to PBS.
BRIAN BAUMGARTNER: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As bartender) College baseball is on.
KEMPER: (As Erin) Well, there's a documentary coming up. Everyone in the bar will love it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As bartender) What's it about?
KEMPER: (As Erin) A paper company!
BAUMGARTNER: (As Kevin) (Chuckling)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As bartender) How many people want the game?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As bar patrons) Yeah!
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As bartender) Who wants PBS?
CAST OF 'THE OFFICE': (As characters) Woo! Yeah!
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As bartender) Sorry, tie means I do nothing.
BAUMGARTNER: (As Kevin) Sir, please, this show is about me and my attempts to find love in all the wrong places.
ED HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) One more for the doc!
CAST OF 'THE OFFICE': (As characters) (CHEERS, APPLAUSE)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As bartender) All right.
BAUMGARTNER: (As Kevin) Yes!
BIANCULLI: Next week, NBC presents both the final episode of "The Office" and a retrospective special. Today, we'll present a retrospective of our own, beginning with a 2007 interview with Steve Carell. When Terry spoke to him, he was still with the TV show, even though his 2005 comedy "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" had made him a movie star.
Let's start with a clip featuring a typical Michael Scott appearance, on a day when a seminar for women only is taking place.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
KEMPER: So, I'm happy to be here. It's very nice to see all of you. You're all looking well.
Today's a women in the workplace thing. Jan's coming in from corporate to talk to all the women about I don't really know what, but Michael's not allowed in. She said that about five times.
Women today, though we have the same options as men, we often face a very different set of obstacles in getting there, so...
STEVE CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Hey, what's going on?
KEMPER: Michael, I thought we agreed you wouldn't be here.
CARELL: (As Michael) Yeah, you know what? I just, I thought about it. I just have a few things I want to say.
KEMPER: What are you doing?
CARELL: (As Michael) Just hear me out. What is more important than quality? Equality. Now, studies show that today's woman - the Ally McBeal woman, as I call her - is at a crossroads.
CARELL: (As Michael) And - just - you have come a long way, baby, but I just want to keep it within reason. They did this up in Albany, and they ended up turning the break room into a lactation room, which is disgusting.
KEMPER: You are not allowed in this session, OK? Now you're really not allowed in this session.
CARELL: (As Michael) Well, I'm their boss, so I feel like...
KEMPER: I'm your boss.
CARELL: (As Michael) Anybody want any coffee or anything?
KEMPER: We're fine, Michael. We just need you to leave, please.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Steve Carell, welcome to FRESH AIR. How would you describe Michael?
CARELL: Michael Scott is someone with an enormous emotional blind spot. He is someone who truly does not understand how others perceive him. And if he did gain any knowledge, his head would explode. He would not - it would not be able to - he wouldn't be able to assimilate. He wouldn't be able to take in all of that information, because it's just - certain people exist on a different level, and they are only able to exist because they're in a sense of denial about who they are or how other people view them. And I think that's who he is.
But he's not a bad guy. I think he's - he's a caring person. He wants what's best. But he doesn't always do the best things in order to achieve what he hopes to achieve.
GROSS: You know, a lot of people who have worked in offices feel like they've worked with somebody like Michael Scott, but you've never worked in offices. It's just, you know, you're an actor. So who do you draw on for the character? Are there teachers that you had or other people who you knew who were as clueless?
CARELL: Primarily, yeah. It - I think, for me, it stemmed mostly from various teachers that I had growing up. Because many, many teacher that I had - especially fifth, sixth, seventh grade - would be people who were trying to be as cool as the students or wanted the students to think that they were cool, but indeed, they were not. And the harder they tried, the less cool they would appear to be.
And that's basically what Michael is up against. He thinks people think he's cool. He thinks people like him and think he's funny and charming, but he's really none of those things. And incidentally, when you say everyone knows a Michael Scott, I guess the rule of thumb - Ricky Gervais told me this, in regards to the character that he played, David Brent in the BBC version of "The Office" - is that if you don't know a Michael Scott, then you are Michael Scott.
GROSS: That's really great.
CARELL: So better that you actually have a frame of reference for a Michael Scott.
BIANCULLI: Steve Carell, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.