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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    Why was 'The Office' so successful? Kevin Malone, aka Brian Baumgartner, seeks answers in a new book

    "Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office"

    Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office

    By Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman

    Custom House. 464 pp. $30

    - - -

    The final episode of "The Office" aired on May 16, 2013. And yet the beloved mockumentary has remained a steady favorite in the years since: In 2020, it was the most streamed show of the year, according to Nielsen. What explains the comedy's enduring appeal? Michael's endearing antics? The Pam and Jim saga? Dwight's inept ambition?

    Kevin Malone, the show's slow-talking accountant, may seem an unlikely character to come up with the definitive answer, but Brian Baumgartner, who played the deliciously dull bean-counter, has taken a crack at it in a new book, "Welcome to Dunder Mifflin."

    The 48-year-old actor teamed up with producer Ben Silverman to create a book written in a style that's less like a Hollywood nostalgia trip and more like a true-crime mystery. "Instead of why is this person missing or who killed this person or whatever, the mystery is: Why is this show now more watched than anything else?" Baumgartner said in a phone interview.

    Baumgartner began by conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, with everyone from creator Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell to hairstylist Kim Ferry and cinematographer Matt Sohn, for the podcasts "An Oral History of The Office" and "The Office Deep Dive." In "Welcome to Dunder Mifflin," excerpts from those recordings are interwoven with follow-up conversations, exclusive set photos and fascinating factoids — including the casting choices that almost were. The result is a 464-page tome that is the ultimate behind-the-scenes account.

    Baumgartner discussed his approach to the book, what he learned in all those interviews and whether he cracked that central mystery.

    This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

    Q: Your preface poses the book's key question: "Why is 'The Office' different?" Why did you want to approach this oral history in that way?

    A: To me, art on every level — from theater, film, television, whatever — is infinitely more interesting when it's about a question as opposed to an answer, right? If I just tell you why this is great, that's not so interesting. So let's explore what happened and why now it's popular.

    Q: One of my favorite passages was when Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, the creators of the original British version of "The Office," got into the nitty-gritty of why they find cringe humor so funny. How important was it to offer that kind of insightful conversation about the show, and not just a grab-bag of behind-the-scenes tidbits?

    A: One of the most interesting conversations, which also came from Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, really had to do with the fact that they did something that had never been done before, which was they inverted the love story between Jim and Pam (Tim and Dawn in the U.K. version). As opposed to it being central — which it is on every other television show — they inverted that into the background. Yet, that is an iconic love story that people are still talking about today. But it existed in the corner, and they brought the buffoon (Carell's Michael Scott) forward. For me, that exploration is vital, as opposed to just, "Oh, when we were shooting this scene, this is something that happened behind the scenes."

    Q: How would you describe the dynamic of being both the interviewer facilitating the conversations and, as an actor from the show, one of the subjects that this book examines?

    A: There was a substantial conversation early on about who should conduct these interviews. Should we get a real journalist in here to do this? And I very quickly arrived at (the conclusion) that I may not be a journalist, and I may not know exactly the right questions to ask, but what I did know was that I was going to get people to open up in a unique way. It doesn't mean better, it doesn't mean worse. But I thought, "If I do these interviews ... we're going to be able to share stories that are unique and different."

    Q: All these years later, people presumably could speak more candidly about such topics as the 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike or the relationship with NBC, which came close to canceling the show early on. Did you learn anything new during those conversations?

    A: To me, one of the most beautiful, touching moments in the book is when a character in the book that nobody knows, Laverne Caracuzzi-Milazzo, our makeup artist, told me that Greg Daniels sent everyone on the crew a check while the writers' strike was going on. I had no idea. I'd never heard that. No one ever told me that.

    Q: Having gone through the process of doing these interviews, releasing the podcasts and putting together the book, what ultimately is your answer to the question of what makes "The Office" different?

    A: Well, we were making a show for people who were in offices and could relate to that, and we were never talking about a show for young people. That was never a conversation we were having. But my real discovery through this were the parallels between an unreasonable boss, who makes his employees do unreasonable things, sitting next to people that they don't choose to sit next to day after day, and an unreasonable teacher, who makes their students do unreasonable things, sitting next to people day after day and year after year, that they don't necessarily choose to. I think that's the answer. That and Ben Silverman saying, "Well, it's just (expletive) funny."

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