LOS ANGELES — Sometime in Season 3 of “The Office,” its creator, Greg Daniels, conceived the premise for what would be the show’s finale.
Not the actual documentary about the Dunder-Mifflin paper company of Scranton, Pa., that a fictional camera crew shot for what turned out to be nine years, he decided — but a reunion show, in the fashion of the post-competition cast rehashes familiar from reality shows like “Survivor.”
“At one point I actually approached Jeff Probst,” the host of “Survivor,” Daniels whispered as the big reunion scene unfolded here in the auditorium of an AT&T office building. Standing in for the Scranton cultural center, it was one of many locations for the ambitious one-hour finale, to be shown May 16 on NBC.
Onstage at the reunion were most of the prominent characters — minus the biggest one, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott — arrayed in a long arc of folding chairs. They were answering questions about how the documentary, supposedly recently presented on Scranton’s PBS affiliate, had changed their (fictional) lives.
Why PBS? “I tried to think what outlet would shoot something like this and take nine years to do it,” Daniels said.
That idea is almost as improbable as the notion that a comedy adapted from a British sitcom and initially poised for oblivion would become a bellwether of many of the changes that have overtaken television today.
It played a role in pioneering alternative entertainment forms like TV offerings on iTunes and Webisodes on the Internet. It helped executives recognize the value of delayed viewing. Equally important, it opened broadcast television to a new concept in humor: the sitcom that makes you uncomfortable.
“The Office” never qualified as a blockbuster hit (though it attracted one of the most affluent audiences in television). Yet it clearly paved the way for a style of filmed comedy — smart, multilayered and subtle, sometimes so much so that a portion of viewers never understood its humor. The genre has since been embodied by other highly regarded comedies like “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Community” and “The Mindy Project” (starring an “Office” graduate, Mindy Kaling).
The show also had striking worldwide appeal. The original British version, starring Ricky Gervais, has been copied in places as disparate as Chile and France, proving that office life under a bumptious boss is apparently universal.
“‘The Office’ was like a high-wire act,” said Ken Kwapis, the show’s first and last director. He cited, among other things, the absence of a laugh track, the exclusion of any kind of background music and a completely untraditional filming style.
“Some of the things most compelling about the show aren’t even funny,” Kwapis said. “But they make you cringe. Now I go to pitch meetings where executives say, ‘I want that cringe-worthy comedy.’”
That any of this happened is mind-boggling for almost everyone who was involved at the show’s inception, beginning with Ben Silverman, the executive producer (and later, head of NBC’s entertainment division), who chased Gervais all over London to secure the American rights.
John Krasinski, who inhabited the show’s male romantic lead, Jim, recalled that during the shooting of the first six episodes, a network executive would show up every Friday and say, “This episode is so good — unfortunately, it’s the last one we’re going to do.”
Expectations among critics were also low because the British version, created by Gervais and Stephen Merchant, had been deemed an instant classic, and NBC had misfired two seasons earlier in a remake of the British comedy “Coupling.”
A breakthrough came when Daniels realized that between Americans’ newborn fascination with reality shows and their growing habit of recording even mundane events in their own daily lives, “being in front of a camera and talking to a camera became a most relatable experience.”
Casting required new thinking. “The actors who were workers at Dunder-Mifflin had to look, frankly, like people who don’t belong on prime-time television,” Kwapis said.
Phyllis Smith was the assistant casting director for the pilot when she intrigued the producers with her line readings opposite actors at auditions. Daniels asked her if she might want to switch jobs and act in the pilot. She did, creating the slyly funny sales rep Phyllis Lapin-Vance, who lasted all nine seasons. Several other regulars jumped from the writing staff, including B.J. Novak (Ryan), Kaling (Kelly) and Paul Lieberstein (Toby).
Early on, Silverman alighted on the idea of casting Carell as the boss, Michael Scott, the American version of Gervais’ David Brent. With a cult following from his days as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” Carell was also coming off a breakout role in the 2003 film “Bruce Almighty.”
For Kaling, the show was akin to “an eight-year intensive grad school” in television writing and comedy acting. “Greg also showed me how to lead a show,” she said, “and Steve showed me how to lead a cast.”
When the first six episodes aired in spring 2005, the ratings were tepid. NBC announced it would bring the show back, but only after insisting that Silverman and Daniels cut the budget.
Between the first and second seasons, however, the show received several breaks. Foremost was “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” a hit that established Carell as a movie headliner.
What truly turned their fortunes, however, was that in the first week that NBC shows were available for purchase on iTunes, episodes of “The Office” occupied four of the top five spots. Suddenly NBC was impressed, especially by the makeup of the audience: young, college-educated and affluent.
“We thought people from the workplace would be our audience,” said Rainn Wilson, who portrays Dwight Schrute. “Then it turns out it’s kids in college who embrace us first.”
The show’s audience was so heavily populated by tech-savvy early adapters that as the use of DVRs proliferated and more viewers chose to watch episodes later, the ratings of the Thursday broadcasts fell.
In pure ratings terms, “The Office” peaked in Season 5, when it averaged 9.3 million viewers and scored an impressive 4.9 among the viewers who attract the most advertising dollars, adults from 18 to 49. By the final season, the ratings — factoring in delayed viewing over seven days — had dropped to an average of just under 5 million viewers, and a 2.5 in that 18-to-49 group (still near the top for all NBC entertainment).
The decline was undoubtedly accelerated by Carell’s departure after Season 7.
Emotions among the unusually tight-knit cast spilled over in the final week of shooting. Daniels confessed to choking up while writing a few of the characters’ final words.
Ed Helms, who like Carell, Fischer and Krasinski saw his film stock soar while in “The Office,” gives the comedy full credit.
“The show’s importance to me personally and professionally can’t be overstated,” he said. “Some people say my big break was ‘The Hangover.’ But I would not have gotten ‘The Hangover’ without this show.”
Beyond the laughs it delivered, Kwapis views the legacy of “The Office” in how it made the audience feel. “You didn’t hear words like cringe-worthy or cringe-inducing in a complimentary way before,” he said. “Does that make the show a classic? I don’t know. But I do like the fact that the show made people appreciate the entertainment value of cringing.”