On April 10th, , The Office topped itself with its best half-hour ever — and perhaps the best comedy episode of the decade. The previous season had seen Jim and Pam finally get together after years of flirtation; Michael had also found love — with Jan Levinson, his former boss. The result was a master class of dark comedy that few other shows would dare attempt, as well as 22 of the most brilliantly cringe-inducing minutes in TV history.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, we tracked much of the cast and crew for an oral history of the landmark episode.
That was the inspiration for it. We had set it up earlier, where Michael kept asking Jim and Pam for plans, and they kept having excuses. Michael Scott is always the fool, but in this moment he outsmarts Jim and Pam because he so desperately wants to hang out with them. You show someone falling down.
How do you get a comedy writer to laugh? Show a guy pushing a woman down the stairs. The darker, usually, the funnier to us. A line would happen and the audience, along with the people at the dinner, would just kind of sit there and let it hang. And so the rhythms of this episode are slightly different. They were usually scenes like a diversity-training seminar in the conference room.
Once Jim and Pam got to the condo, this entire episode was a killing field. Some writers would write him as childish, others would write him as incompetent, some would write for the version of Michael Scott when he was at his best. We were trying to get him at his most pathetic.
They talked about going to his high school prom in the limo, and then you realize that Michael was the limo driver at his own high school prom. Gene Stupnitsky co-writer : We felt like that was the right time to break up Michael and Jan: once their world blew up in a dramatic, spectacular fashion. We let it run its course. We wrung as much comedy from it as we could. The Unraveling of Jan Levinson-Gould At the same time that Jim and Pam became a perfect couple, Michael and Jan — who had lost her job at Dunder Mifflin corporate before moving to Scranton — were coming apart at the seams.
John Krasinski Jim Halpert : Melora was so good on our show. She played the severe girlfriend so well and ended up being a great comedy duo with Steve.
Her character had so much ambition and so much power in her, which was the exact opposite of Steve. Melora Hardin Jan Levinson : When I first started to play Jan, she was incredibly straight and serious and kind of humorless. I found that aspect of her really funny because nothing could, in any way, sway her to feel like anything had any humor to it at all.
I felt like she was a little bit anxious, because everyone had come from these improv backgrounds. And then the comedy started drifting more toward her, where she actually got jokes, rather than being the straight person and being the reaction shot.
Her character started to develop. She really embraced it. His wheels just started turning in that moment. It was just so funny to see. To Jan, Michael was this guy who was kind of an idiot, but also represented this possibility for her white picket fence, which is why the dinner party is so resonant. Pre-Production A table read is a chance for actors to get familiar with the script and for the writers to see if the jokes work. Not a lot of laughs.
Little by little, it just starts building, and I never experienced that before. The laughs kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.
I remember I was just sweating through my T-shirt. This is going to be a blast. Before any show gets on the air, the network has to give notes and sign off on the script. So the writers got called in to the office to hear the notes. Greg gets on the phone and the executives are on the other line, on speakerphone. It is. I maybe had to use up some chits to protect this episode, but I had a bunch of chits in the bank. Jan and Michael were never supposed to work out, so I think there is an element of relief and hope that they break up. Where do they sleep? How many bedrooms is it?
How is it decorated? How long is the dinner? He still tries to push through in spite of the fact that Jan is clearly on the edge and in spite of the fact that their relationship is crumbling.
Oh, my God. They hate each other! Her assistant wrote a song about her.
This is just fabulous. I mean, we truly had one of the greatest brain trusts of comedy since probably, like, early [ National] Lampoon days.
Then we picketed our [set] the second day, and then finally they shut it down, which was just terrible. It was really devastating for a lot of people. And we all really respected him for that. The whole production had to shut down until the end of the strike, and I feel like we ended up losing something like six or seven episodes that year. It ended up being a episode season. They were our lifeblood, and we wanted them to get whatever they wanted.
Paul Feig director : I directed a few episodes every season. My favorite thing is to make an audience really uncomfortable and make them laugh at the same time. So I was super-bummed out. I just so completely saw it in my brain.
You know, at a grocery store or something. We never knew that you could kind of transform a place like that. It was fun making it look the way that it would look when he was buying it.
And so I always felt very connected to the condo, because we shot a lot of episodes in there. What does the bedroom look like? You try to kind of throw away as much as possible. There are just little touches, like the beer sign in the garage, and Michael having that hand-shaped chair. We talked about this idea that Michael buys a lot of things that he sees late at night on TV, so he has a Bowflex and he has a Soloflex. He has an Ab Roller. He never uses any of them, but his garage is filled with that stuff. That was written in the script. The whole candle business was just so funny to us.
He is such a brilliant director, and one of the things he knows how to do is get the best out of everybody.
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Michael was jealous of his youth and good looks from the second he laid eyes on him. Everyone but Michael, that is. The lyrics for the song were written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, but for the music and voice they turned to New Pornographers guitarist Todd Fancey.
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He wrote it clearly about Jan and how she made him a man, and it was a terrible song. He likes the song.