The Turbulent Early Days of The Office

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: NBC/Getty Images

Years after the final episode of The Office, fans still can't get enough of the hilarious mockumentary. In 2018, it ranked on Netflix as the most-watched television series of the year, with a total of 52 million minutes streamed.

This alone illustrates how successful the show is, but did the actors know in the beginning that they were destined for greatness? Check out these behind-the-scenes facts about the early days of The Office.

Who Knew It Would Explode?

As they filmed the first episode, no one on the cast knew it would become such an immense hit. They didn't know what would happen, period. As many know, The Office is an adaptation of a British show, and the pilot episode was met with some criticism because of this.

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Photo Courtesy: Superrcat/Wikimedia Commons

Some reviewers said the show wouldn't last long, that its comedy was mediocre at best and that they shouldn't have tried adapting the show in the first place. Those people are clearly biting their tongues now, but at the time it was discouraging feedback.

Following the British Version

The Office didn't try to hide the fact that it was an adaptation. The pilot episode closely follows the pilot of the British version starring Ricky Gervais (pictured), only varying in the smallest ways. For example, they tweaked some jokes to make them more "American" and changed the substance of certain scenes.

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Photo Courtesy: Ralph_PH/Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who has seen the British version of The Office, however, will notice the similarities right away. For some, this was a welcome reimagining of a popular show. For others, it was a failed attempt at mimicry.

Pilot Success

Despite some mixed reviews, the pilot episode was generally received positively. About 11 million people sat down to watch it, which is no small figure — it ranked first among its competitors that night and was the third-most-watched show for the entire evening. With these numbers, "Pilot" remains the second-most-watched episode in the series.

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The only episode that outnumbered "Pilot" was "Stress Relief" from season five. This one reached almost 23 million viewers. No matter how you look at it, The Office outshined its pilot episode by a long-shot.


An Unlikely Casting Decision

Phyllis Smith (the actress who plays Phyllis Vance on the show) wasn't originally trying out for the part. She had a job as a casting associate and spent her days reading lines with the other actors during auditions. She did so well reading scenes with actors that they decided to write her character into the show.

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Photo Courtesy: Todd Williamson/Getty Images

Thanks to this stroke of serendipity, Phyllis became a beloved character throughout the seasons and provided many hilarious moments. This isn't the only instance of improvisation, however — The Office was pretty much built around improvisation.

Pam's Audition Tapes

There's a part in the first episode when Michael Scott makes Pam cry by way of "jokingly" firing her. This clip was actually a part of Jenna Fischer's audition tapes for the part of Pam. According to Fischer, they had to film this scene about 30 times — she simply couldn't keep a straight face.

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If you watch the scene again, you can tell that she's trying hard not to break character. She shields her face from the camera as if to cry, but she might also be hiding some giggles.

The Role of Michael Scott

It's hard to imagine The Office with anyone else but Steve Carell at the forefront, but there were a couple other contenders for his role. Carell almost had to forfeit the show entirely due to scheduling problems, which would have left Bob Odenkirk at the helm. In the end, though, Carell made it work.

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Other actors who auditioned for the part of Michael Scott include Rainn Wilson, who’s the actor that ended up playing Dwight Schrute. His mastery of Dwight's character is unparalleled, so fans are definitely happy about the casting decisions.


Steve Carell's Careful Planning

Because The Office was an adaptation, the actors had to get familiar with the original British Office. John Krasinski (a.k.a. Jim Halpert) was a big fan of the British version of the show, but Steve Carell took a different approach.

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Carell only watched enough of the British Office to get a feel for the show and the original character (David Brent) he would be emulating, but he didn't watch more than a few minutes. This was so David Brent's character didn't influence his own too much — he wanted to maintain some originality.

The Cast Couldn't Keep It Together

Often, the cast cracked each other up so much that they couldn't get through a scene. Jenna Fischer says Steve Carell's "6-million-dollar man" dance in the pilot episode made her laugh so much that they had to film her stone-faced reaction separately. They even had to kick Carell out of the room!

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The scenes that were the most difficult to film with a straight face made it onto The Office blooper reels, which fans of the show still love to watch. You can tell the whole crew enjoyed filming and that everyone had a great time on set.

A True Mockumentary

It was crucial for The Office to truly feel like an office building and for the mockumentary to closely resemble a real documentary. To do this, they kept the people on set to a minimum — only the actors, director, cameraman and boom operator were allowed.

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Photo Courtesy: Francisco Antunes/Flickr

They also filmed the show in a real office building in California, pictured above. At times, the crew had to show up at 7:30 a.m. to film themselves doing fake officework. All of these small touches made the show that much more believable.


The OG Cast

When they filmed the first episode, producers thought the main cast would consist of Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer and B.J. Novak. Clearly, things were shifted around throughout the seasons, but these actors remained largely in the forefront (with the exception of B.J. Novak).

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It wasn't until later in the show that other supporting characters found their niches — figures like Phyllis, Angela, Oscar, Creed, Meredith, Toby and Kevin. Many of these supporting roles proved just as popular with the fans as the main actors did.

The Auditioning Process

Jenna Fischer describes the auditioning process as a rather unusual one. Instead of using pre-written scripts, actors were asked various questions and expected to respond as their characters. For some actors this was ideal — several had backgrounds in improv, including Angela Kinsey (Angela) and Kate Flannery (Meredith).

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Their reason for conducting improv-style auditions makes sense when you consider how the series was filmed; while much of it was scripted, actors often improvised scenes on set. Because of this, they had to hire actors who could think on their feet.

Actors Who Turned Down Roles

During the casting process, there were several well-known actors who turned down roles or simply didn't get the parts. Paul Giamatti turned down an offer to play Michael Scott, while Hank Azaria and Martin Short auditioned but didn't make the cut. Seth Rogen and Patton Oswalt also auditioned for Dwight but weren't the right fit.

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It seems that selecting lesser-known actors was the right way to go with The Office — if a famous actor had been in the lead, it would’ve conflicted with the realistic, office-next-door vibe that made the show so successful.


Some Thought It Was Their Last Chance

Given that many of the cast members were lesser-known actors, some of them saw The Office as their last-ditch effort. Years of acting and improv hadn't propelled them to success, and it looked like things simply weren't going to come together. After all, many people believe you can't "make it" acting if you're already past a certain age.

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As it turns out, that's not always true. And boy, are the actors sure glad they took the opportunity! In the end, the small, goofy show brought them to unprecedented levels of fame and success.

Angela as Pam?

It's hard to imagine actors in The Office playing any other roles than the ones they were given, but some of them were hoping to fill different shoes. Angela Kinsey, for example, who played Angela on the show, originally auditioned for the part of Pam Beesly.

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Jenna Fischer's portrayal of the receptionist, however, just couldn't be beat. She and John Krasinski won their roles rather easily and showed a natural chemistry that the crew knew would work well on screen. And Angela as Angela? It couldn't have been more fitting.

A Small World

Surprisingly, some of the actors had known each other for a long time before being cast in the same show. Angela Kinsey and Oscar Nunez had done improv together in a comedy show called Hot Towel. Neither of them knew the other would be a part of the show, but both were pleasantly surprised to find out.

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John Krasinski and B.J. Novak also had ties that went way back. They'd been in the same grade together during high school and even played on the same Little League baseball team. Novak has a picture of them together as kids.


Real-life Keepsakes

In an attempt to make the set feel more realistic, the cast was asked to bring in photographs from home. These could’ve been any older images of the actors or something close to them that would fit in with their characters. These were left on their desks, as people do in real-life office buildings.

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Phyllis chose a photo of herself in a hot pink boa and skimpy burlesque outfit from her days of dancing as a young woman. This is an unexpected twist in Phyllis' backstory, but one that works very well.

Easter Eggs

If you re-watch the first episode, there are some subtle Easter eggs hidden in the dialogue for the most attentive of fans. At one point, Michael asks Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak) if he's familiar with the show Punk'd. This is funny because Novak had actually been on that show.

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There's also a part when Dwight hums the tune of "The Little Drummer Boy." Whether intentional or not, this foreshadows his relationship with Angela — in a later episode, she sings "The Little Drummer Boy" while Dwight loyally holds her microphone.

On-screen Enemies, Real-life BFFs?

As any viewer of The Office knows, Angela and Pam have some real beef on the show. They rarely get along and are often arguing about party decorations or birthday gifts while sharing withering glances across their cubicles. Ironically, these women are the best of friends off-screen.

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Kinsey and Fischer even started their own podcast together called Office Ladies. There, they chat about their experiences on the show and their lives post-Office. It's funny to think that, during all that time they were rivals on-screen, they were actually forming a lifelong friendship.


Krasinski Visits Scranton

You know that iconic Office opening sequence — a few shots of buildings, the street and a "Welcome to Scranton" road sign? Well, these clips were actually shot by John Krasinski in the real-life town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. After he got the part of Jim, he traveled to Scranton to get a feel for the place.

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Without knowing what purpose they might serve, he took some videos while he was there. The crew liked them so much that they decided to use them in the show, and The Office’s opening credits were born.

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

The computers on set weren't simply props — they were really hooked up to the internet. In all those scenes with Meredith, Stanley, Creed or Phyllis in the background working away, the actors were actually surfing the internet or playing solitaire. This helped them pass the time.

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Sometimes the cast even paid bills using the computers while cameras were rolling. If you watch carefully, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of Meredith's computer screen with the solitaire cards lined up. Looks like they were truly living the part of office workers.

The Central Relationship

It may seem like Jim and Pam's budding romance is the centerpiece of the show — after all, they're set up as flirtatious friends in the very first episode — but there's another relationship that's just as important to The Office. This is the relationship between Michael and Pam.

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Despite Michael's bumbling, offensive behavior, Pam nevertheless feels empathy and platonic affection for him. Michael, in turn, is constantly showing how he cares for Pam. Interestingly, Michael speaks the opening lines of The Office, and Pam speaks the closing lines in the final episode.


Staying in Character

Some of the crew met each other in interesting ways. Jenna Fischer, for example, met Rainn Wilson while he was in character for his audition as Dwight Schrute. Fischer says she thought he was the strangest person she'd ever met and only learned his true personality later on.

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Rainn Wilson also had a funny interaction with Angela Kinsey — when he introduced Kinsey to his wife, he said she was "the bearer of my seed." Rainn's wife was pregnant at the time. It seems that Rainn might have enjoyed playing Dwight a little too much.

John Krasinski Almost Blew It

Another person in the running for the part of Jim was Adam Scott, an actor many now know from his success on Parks and Recreation. He might have landed the role, too, if the executive producer hadn't been so forgiving of John Krasinski.

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Before Krasinski's audition, a man in the waiting room made small talk with him. Krasinski told him he was nervous the adaptation might ruin the original British version. The man he was talking with was Greg Daniels, executive producer. Despite his slip-up, Krasinski's audition showed his readiness for the part.

Krasinski Did His Research

Once John Krasinski got the role of Jim, he didn't hesitate to conduct research. Not only did he travel out to Scranton to see the town the show was set in, but he also interviewed paper salesmen to hear what the job was like.

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He met several different employees from different companies and asked them all he could about what day-to-day life was like on the job. These insights no doubt came in handy for the opening episode, when Jim describes his position and says, "I'm honestly boring myself right now."


They Didn't Think the Show Would Last

During the first season, the attitude surrounding The Office was that it probably wouldn't last for long. This was when the show still closely followed the British version and before the cast members really found their voices on set. According to the actors, NBC executives often showed up with negative attitudes.

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They hinted that the show would soon be cancelled, dropping comments like "This might be the last episode we do." The cast found this discouraging. This pessimistic tune changed, however, as soon as the show started growing in popularity.

The Opening Theme

Greg Daniels, the showrunner for the first four seasons, sometimes took a democratic approach to making decisions. When it came to the theme song, for instance, he let the cast vote on the final version. The crew presented four different options to each actor and had them pick their favorite.

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Unfortunately, the song the cast really wanted got snapped up by another show. This was a song called "Mr. Blue Sky" by Electric Light Orchestra. This twist of fate landed them with the final theme song — the catchy tune that so many love.

Real-life Experience

Some of the actors had real-life experience in office buildings to inform their acting. Angela Kinsey, for example, had been working as a phone operator for 1-800-DENTIST when she got her part on The Office. This job prepared her well for her role as an accountant.

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Leslie David Baker, the man who played Stanley, worked on a board of education and in an office of cable and communications before his acting career took off. He also played an office worker in commercials before getting his part on the show.


The Truth Behind the Characters

The character of Creed is one of the most mysterious on The Office. He always references a crazy history and complicated backstory, but not everything he says is untrue. In fact, the man who plays Creed (also named Creed) was truly in a band called The Grass Roots.

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On the show, Creed occasionally referenced his past as a band member. There's also an episode in which Creed sings karaoke, and the song happens to be his real-life hit "Spinnin' N' Wheelin'." Who would've thought that Creed really did sing in a band?

Carell Saved the Show

As most fans know, the first season didn't go over so well with the people running the show. Even though they may have found the episodes funny, it wasn't doing well enough with fans to survive for very long. In fact, they almost ended it after the first season.

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The saving grace, however, was Steve Carell — he had just done The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and his acting career was looking very promising. Because of this, they decided to renew The Office for a second season. Thanks to Carell, the show got the chance it needed to take off.

The Truth About Jim and Dwight

Just like Pam and Angela, Jim and Dwight are rivals on the show. Their pranks and hijinks were a constant source of amusement for viewers, and they created a favorite dynamic for many fans. When they aren't on screen, however, the two actors are very close friends.

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The men were on such great terms that they gave each other feedback and pointers on set, which is usually a big no-no among actors. Sometimes, they made each other laugh so hard that the whole production had to stop until they got it together.