Conn College grad has 'The Office' behind him and movies ahead

Connecticut College alumnus Lee Eisenberg, above, is a former writer  of "The Office." He speaks at Conn Friday night.
Connecticut College alumnus Lee Eisenberg, above, is a former writer of "The Office." He speaks at Conn Friday night.

Harold Ramis - who knows whereof he speaks, having written the likes of "Caddyshack," "Analyze This" and "Groundhog Day" - liked writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky so much, he hired them. Impressed by their work, he collaborated with them on the 2009 Jack Black movie "Year One." And then he brought them onboard to co-write the script for "Ghostbusters 3."

In 2009, Ramis told the Boston Globe about the duo, "They write dumb characters really intelligently. People can say the dumbest things but they're so clever and surprising it makes you laugh and not have contempt."

That's not their only writing talent by any means, but it's one that must have come in handy during their years on "The Office" (Michael Scott, we're looking at you). Eisenberg and Stupnitsky worked on that acclaimed TV series for five years, up until the end of last season, when they left to pursue screenwriting full-time.

Eisenberg, who is a 1999 Connecticut College graduate, says "The Office" is "probably the best job I've ever had." That doesn't mean it was easy; Eisenberg and Stupnitsky were doing "The Office" five days a week and then working on their movies on the weekend. Ultimately, the work load and their desire to write different stories led them to leave "The Office."

And one of those different stories is coming soon to a theater near you. Their film "Bad Teacher" is scheduled for release later this year. It stars Cameron Diaz as a foul-mouthed and self-centered junior high school teacher who's on the make, going after a rich colleague. Eisenberg and Stupnitsky were very involved in the casting, ended up becoming executive producers on the movie, and were on the set every day. The cast, by the way, also includes Justin Timberlake and up-and-comer Lucy Punch.

Eisenberg returns to Conn Friday to kick off the college's series "Great Beginnings: Conversations with Alumni." The Needham, Mass., native majored in English at Conn before heading out to Hollywood.

Last week, he took time to talk by phone about his work.

Creating an "Office" episode is quite a process:

"Basically, there's a couple times during the season where the writers will go off and try to generate dozens of stories, and then they'd pitch those stories to the executive producers. In our final year, we were head writers of the show, so we were involved in helping to select what stories would go. For some of the stories, you'd start piecing together the season - 'Oh, OK, that nugget someone pitched can go really well with that other thing we were talking about.' And things start taking shape.

"Then, from there, you split up into smaller rooms of maybe four people, and you start pitching jokes, storylines, and 'The Office' has a lot of arcs- romantic arcs and business arcs. The goal, as my former boss Greg Daniels said, what we try with a lot of the episodes is to really stuff the sausage - just trying to cram in as many jokes, as many things we think the audience will like that make us laugh. ...

"The average 'Office' episode, when it's shot, is probably about 39 minutes long. We have to cut it to 21 minutes for commercials. What that means is, you're essentially cutting 40 percent of what you spent weeks writing and rewriting and shooting. You really have to find the story and make sure it still makes sense ... and (keep) all the jokes you really like. It's a tricky process."

One of the hallmarks of "The Office" is, of course, finding comedy in awkward moments:

"That's the thing we like the most. We're huge fans of 'Curb Your Enthusiam' and 'Seinfeld.' All that kind of social comedy and comedy of manners is something we really like and try to put in everything. What we loved in the British 'Office' and the American 'Office' before we worked on it - what we liked more than the jokes almost were the silences that followed the lines. Sitting in an uncomfortable moment to us is so fun.

"We wrote an episode called 'Dinner Party,' where it's the world's most uncomfortable dinner party ever. That's one of the things we're most proud of that we've written, just the writing process of that - can the scene get any more uncomfortable? And then, oh, yes, it can. Oh, look who's arrived. Or, oh, the dinner's not going to be ready for three more hours in the worst possible setting. Couples arguing in front of other couples is always fun."

There are distinct advantages to having a writing partner:

"I am inherently an incredibly lazy person. If left to my own devices, I think I'd, like, barely get out of bed in the morning. I think having someone you're accountable to is helpful.

"The other thing with comedy is there's a lot of time where you think something is funny, and you say a joke at a dinner or at the office ... and people don't laugh.

"At least part of the good thing about having a writing partner is there's a vetting process, so hopefully by the time we submit a script, we've both gone through a joke multiple times. There are fewer opportunities for people to say, 'That's not funny,' or 'That's been done,' or 'That was a "Seinfeld" episode.'"

Part of the inspiration for "Bad Teacher" was the lack of juicy roles for women in movie comedies:

"We kept watching these comedies, and there were these really great roles for men, and then the women would be these afterthoughts where they're almost like (an instrument of the plot). They'd be annoying or shrill or she needs to agree with her husband about something. ...

"There were all these funny women, and you'd see them when they'd host 'Saturday Night Live,' or even female cast members of 'Saturday Night Live,' and we were working with these great actresses on 'The Office' and these amazing female comedy writers. How are there not really any strong female comedies?

"We had this idea and we felt like, if we wrote a strong role where the two leads were women, it'd be able to attract lots of actresses. ... There was a lot of interest from a lot of different people. When we found out Cameron was going to do it - Cameron Diaz - it was obviously a a real surprise and really exciting. She's this huge, crazy movie star. We didn't think the movie was that big in scope, that it would get the attention of someone like that her. Then, it just started falling into place."

Eisenberg has co-written the screenplay for "Ghostbusters 3":

"We've been working really closely with Ivan Reitman for a couple years on it. Dan Aykroyd has been really involved. Harold Ramis has been very involved - we're sharing a story credit on it with him. Then we reworked the script. I mean, that script went through a lot of rewrites, and it kept getting, we think at least, tighter and funnier. It took a little bit to really understand the tone of a movie like 'Ghostbusters.' It's really scary when you're writing characters you grew up on. ... The last thing you want to do is disappoint.

"Right now, we have a script we haven't worked on probably in a couple of months, and we're waiting for Bill Murray to read it. People seem excited about it, and the studio seems high on it. ... We're very proud of it. We worked really hard on it, and I think it'd be a really fun movie."

"The Office" writer Lee Eisenberg (pictured with "Office" writer and actress Mindy Kaling) left the sitcom last year to focus on screenwriting.

If you go

WHO: Lee Eisenberg, former writer and co-executive producer of "The Office"

WHEN: 8:15 p.m. Friday

WHERE: John C. Evans Hall, Cummings Arts Center, Connecticut College, Mohegan Avenue, New London

ADMISSION: Free

CONTACT: (860) 439-2500

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