Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Open letter to the cast of THE OFFICE

A couple of quick things first:

I'm off to the Bay Area for the weekend. Daily posts will continue assuming there is internet access in Silicon Valley. I'm cautiously hopeful.

Due to technical difficulties, the Phil Spector rare tapes will be heard Thursday and Friday on Hear it here (hopefully). As the great Real Don Steele used to say, "Electronics is just a theory".

Tomorrow: some questions and answers I didn't get to during the Teleseminar.

And now... an open letter to the cast of...

Congratulations. You are on a hit show. Your faces are on the cover of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (special collector's issue no less). People are quoting your lines. Everywhere you go people tell you they love you. You get invited to A-parties. Free flat screens. The first new Prius off the line. iPhones. You are currently “America’s Guests”.

But with sweeping success come a number of traps. You seem like a wonderful cast, lovely folks, and my guess is you know and intend to avoid most of this stuff already…but it never hurts to have a reminder. And I offer these selfishly. I love your show. I don’t want to see anything screw it up.

Enjoy every single minute of being on a hit series. Never take it for granted. Not for one second. Yet always remember: these people who love you? They love you in context. They love the character, not you. And to that end…

Do not quit the show to launch your bigtime movie career. You are not the next Will Ferrell despite what the CAA agent trying to poach you says. Jenna, do not fall for these standard agent statements. “I can get you in a room with Spielberg.” “I can get you in a room with Scorsese”, and their typical closer: “I can get you in a room with the Pope”.

Supporting cast members: do not quit the show to star in your own vehicle. You will forever be more popular in this supporting role than you will starring in your own cancelled-after-three-episodes series. The TV landscape is littered with JOEYS and BOB PATTERSONS and HELLO LARRYS.

Do not count lines. EVER. Do not complain that so-and-so has more to do than you. Be happy you’re there. Not to discount your talent but there by the grace of God you’re on THE OFFICE and not CAVEMAN.

Don’t hold up the studio or producers for gigantic raises. It’s disruptive and these days you could find yourself out on your ear. You could fill Madison Square Garden with former LAW & ORDER cast members. The show will go on without you...or even all of you.

If you do features during your hiatuses never treat THE OFFICE as just an imposition. ALWAYS put it first. It is the reason you have movies, it is the reason you're not working in a real office.


You’ve been given a huge gift. Appreciate it. Yeah, after awhile it might seem old hat still playing the same character week after week but it’s your job to make it seem fresh. And having to find a way to make your character interesting in episode 200 should be your biggest worry in life.

Just know this: the crew NEVER phones it in. The writers NEVER phone it in.

And speaking of writers – I know this is a gray area because some writers are also in the cast and there is some ad libbing – but never think you can write the show better than the writers. You may come up with a great line or bit but that’s very different from sitting down at your computer and staring at the tyranny of the blank screen. Show them respect. They don’t get the magazine covers and glory. James Lipton will never host INSIDE THE WRITERS STUDIO.

Be on time. Don’t make 100 people wait for you just because you can. Not every phone call has to be taken right now. And you can hold your water for two more minutes until the director gets the take. (Actors pee more than any human being on earth.) You may be saying, “We don’t do any of that,” and if so, great! But as the years go by this bad behavior may begin to creep in. Don’t let it. You can approve tile samples later.

Awards are evil. They destroy cast unity, they cause resentment, jealousy, and disharmony. Don’t hate your former best friend just because he/she won an Emmy and all you have is a shitty People’s Choice Award.

And finally: You will probably be identified the rest of your life with this show. Don’t shy away from that. Embrace it. I’m not saying you can’t go on to do many great things in exciting new directions but today, this minute, you’re on a Superbowl winning team. Wear the ring proudly. So very few ever get one.

Have another undefeated season!


Anonymous said...

Ken, once again another superb piece from you. Words of wisdom from a man who has been there ... and done that!
And as for The Office ... one of the great ensemble casts in the history of TV ... right with Lucy and Bilko and MASH and Newhart and MTM and Taxi and Cheers and Seinfeld. Keep up the great work guys!

Anonymous said...

As you pointed out, several cast members write for the show, while others are writing their own film projects. And Jenna Fischer is (was?) married to a screenwriter. So if any group of actors has a realistic / jaundiced view of how the business works, I'd say it's this one.

Richard Cooper said...

Steve Carrell has a big nose for comedy and I hope THE OFFICE has a good, long run. I noticed on an old episode of the the British version that they used a "dildo" as an important prop in one episode. We have too much censorship in the U.S., don't you think? Seriously, Ken, don't you think it's strange that we can watch 100 murders per week on tv but can't say "shit" on broadcast television? It's just getting to be stupid. The major networks have become the Reader's Digest of televised entertainment and it's no wonder they've lost so many viewers to cable.

Michael Jones said...

Another point might be, "Don't forget your roots." If it weren't for the British version of the OFFICE, there wouldn't be an American OFFICE. Next time you're interviewed, don't poohpooh the original.

Anonymous said...

"Seriously, Ken, don't you think it's strange that we can watch 100 murders per week on tv but can't say 'shit' on broadcast television? It's just getting to be stupid."

Getting to be? It's been stupid for decades. America pays lip service to Freedom of Speech, but basically we have never, as a people, really believed in practicing it. You're only as free to express yourself as the most conservative, backward pressure groups will allow. Although it's always been like this, from the begining of the republic on, it's on a swing to increased repression right now, owing to the monolitically repressive Bush Administration. Bush always accuses our enemies of "Hatin' Freedom.", but no one hates actual freedom of expression more than he does.

You are free to agree with him.

Rob said...

Personally, I understand a bit of restraint on network TV, but I'm alarmed that the gains made by NYPD Blue and other series in the later hours seem to have been wiped away.

What I find distressing is that the FCC has no problem with eliminating all of the rules that kept radio a viable local media(corporate ownership of multiple stations in multiple markets has destroyed local radio) but becomes the protector of all when it involves anything "obscene" hitting the airwaves.

The sad part is that one group with an internet site can generate a few hundred or a few thousand "complaints" (in other words, a fraction of the viewership for most network shows) to the FCC via form letter and suddenly the program becomes a target.

In the meantime, the FCC continues to give the rights to anything they control to the highest corporate bidder, so long as they promise not to show us a boob for 1/8th of a second or say any of the seven deadly words.

Anonymous said...

//Next time you're interviewed, don't poohpooh the original.//

Very good point, and at the same time, don't be bothered by the internet hoards who claim that the US Version completely sucks after only having seen the pilot episode. (Yes, there are still people like this.) Admittedly, your pilot was a weak retread of the BBC first episode, but since then you've come well into your own, and now we have two very enjoyable shows that just happen to have the same name, basic setting, and somewhat similar characters. Michael Scott is like the Picard to David Brent's Kirk, except Brent's cheesiness is intentional. :P

I actually think the stricter censorship in the US forces the NBC version to become more creative with the "offensiveness", without the risk of falling into the trap of cheap sex gags and the like. (Not that the sex gags in the BBC version were particularly cheap, but it's always a risk.) The one way, however, in which I still believe the BBC version was superior was the Tim/Dawn romance. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Jim/Pam as much as the next guy, but their relationship has a very clear "THIS IS A TV SHOW AND THESE ARE THE ROMANTIC LEADS SO CARE ABOUT THEM OR DIE" feel. Tim and Dawn felt more natural, more real.

Anonymous said...

Ken, while you may have headed off problems on The Office, you need to be alerted to the next threat: Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention, his play on the invention of television, opens on Broadway on Oct. 15th. Get ready for speeches along the lines of, "Let's hope this great new invention doesn't fall under the control of callous network execs who want supremely talented writers to work in a romantic subplot on a brilliant drama about a late night comedy show." Repeat for two hours.

Max Clarke said...

They should frame Ken's wisdom and put it on the wall IN THE OFFICE. Put it next to the painting of Dunder Mifflin that Michael bought at Pam's art show.

Christina said...

"James Lipton will never host INSIDE THE WRITERS STUDIO."

James Lipton interviewing... oh, say Charlie Kaufman - now that would be a funny SNL skit. Except only people on the coasts would know who he is.

estiv said...

Except only people on the coasts would know who [Charlie Kaufman] is.

Oh for God's sake, shecanfilmit. Did you embrace feminism only to decide that other forms of prejudice were okay, since the flyover folk aren't really human? Jesus.

The first decent conversation about BEING JOHN MALKOVICH I had was with someone in Knoxville. Look it up on Google Maps.

At the risk of usurping Ken's role as moderator, but in light of this and yesterday's exchanges about Germany, may I suggest that we only insult our own ethnic/religious/geographic groups, and not other people's? Criminy.

SomeGuyInVA said...

Ken - Tivo Cavemen. Take 20 minutes and watch it. Yes, the premise is annoying and the actors are hard to look at, but I caught the second episode (the hardest one, right?) and the writing was actually quite good. You're getting some negative feedback from readers and perhaps that is because you've already bashed the show and folks like to suck up a bit. Before you use it as another punchline, watch the show. If after that you think those writers are phoning it in, bash away.

I'm not in the industry but really enjoy your blog. Thanks!

Dan (not Anonymous)

Scott said...

You have made someone who cares not one whit about The Office nor its cast actually interested in what you had to say.

And that my friends is how a writer does it. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like good advice. What I've always wondered about in re. The Office is how many actors they auditioned before finding ones who look like real people that you might, you know, really see in your average office.

Miles said...

Ken, truer words never spoken.

Cap'n Bob said...

Twenty minutes was about as much of Cavemen as I could bear. Everything good about the commercials was ignored, everything bad about situation comedy was embraced. Too bad, because I think the commercials are very funny.

Today's lesson, for those who need it: Look up hoard and horde.

Anonymous said...

and whored as well

Anonymous said...

An Aaron Sorkin Broadway play? I see characters crossing the stage while talking a mile a minute. When they reach the edge of the stage, the hallway set flies up and another hallway set flies down, and they cross the stage the other direction, without ever having stopped talking. Repeat until Intermission. After intermission, repeat until curtain call. For the third performance, bring in John Goodman, but only for two performances.

The episode of CAVEMEN two nights ago was the first broadcast. The second hasn't aired, and hopefully never will. But what you really got wrong was your statement: "The writing was actually quite good." I watched the whole thing. It was terrible. God help it if the second episode is somehow worse, but I'll never know.

Crutnacker, I agree with pretty much everything you've said about the FCC. Right on.

Anonymous said...

This is an awesome piece. This "Open Letter" should be directed to all new hit shows.

R.A. Porter said...

Jesus! Can't Aaron Sorkin write anything without cannibalizing himself! we've already seen "The Farnsworth Invention".

Alright, that's an exaggeration, but I'm pretty sure the two minute lecture William H. Macy's Sam Donovan gave to network flunky J.J. on Sports Night will be more original and dramatic than this play.

Anonymous said...

This article contains excellent advice, and appears to be completely consistent with St. Paul's First Epistle to Gary Burghoff.

Rob said...

Hey, even we people in Kentucky know who Charlie Kaufmann is. His classic character of Latka on Taxi was a stitch.

THe part about embracing the fact that you were on the show and will be identified with the character is interesting to me.

I have great respect for the actors who seem greatful for their success and don't feel that forever being identified with the role is some sort of curse. The truth is that some actors are stereotyped because they found the perfect part for their acting style, and a stretch out of that never works(Jason Alexander is one that comes to mind). Others (Alan Alda comes to mind) will forever be identified with a character, but have the talent to make us forget that character in other roles.

And I'm kidding about Charlie Kaufmann. I know he's actually Edgar Burgman's dummy.

SomeGuyInVA said...

D. McEwan - Quite good is relative, of course. But if people think Caveman is bad they are not allowed to heap praise on the mediocre Back to You. Forget the caveman premise for a minue... which supporting character is more fleshed out and original- the guy finishing his doctoral degree, or the oversexed hispanic with a thing for Kelsey Grammer?

Anonymous said...

Great article. I agree whole-heartedly, but could not have written something nearly as effective as you have here.

Here's to the office remaining good, and not turning into the next Friends.

Anonymous said...

"Forget the caveman premise for a minue... which supporting character is more fleshed out and original- the guy finishing his doctoral degree, or the oversexed hispanic with a thing for Kelsey Grammer?"

Interesting question, but I can't speak to it, as I'm not watching BACK TO YOU, (nor will I be checking in on CAVEMEN again.) as it stars two very talented Republican tools. If it's a success, that's just more money for Kelsey to give the Republicans to further their evil agenda, and will provide Heaton with additional exposure to keep her current, and thus able to continue her repellant public campaigns for the Republicans, and against stem cell research. I am sorry to be missing lovely Fred Willard.

Anonymous said...

Sorkin got his start in theater. He wrote a play which got a lot of notice, then he got flown out here for meetings, and well, we all know the rest.

Do your research before you comment, or you end up sounding like jealous jerks.


Anonymous said...

I'm hugely offended that you
A) Think this is unnecessary
B) Feel you have the right to speak to them this way
C) Are getting compliments from people who think that it is your place or somehow beneficial for you to say these things

I just don't understand. You are preemptively being bitter and seem like you are trying to sound much more... knowledgeable and important than you really are. I get the feeling you are using the success of the Office to get blog hits.

Anonymous said...

Are you the same Ken Levine that does video games?

mrshanno said...

You guys that are complaining about too much censorship on network TV (The Office)

I'm guessing that you are probably young without kids. I just had my first baby last month. I think you may feel differently when you have to raise a child watching tv, listening to radio, etc in this world.

I grew up in the 70's and 80's (innocence)...think of today's children that grow up with internet porn, penis enlargement commercials on radio, etc. and now you want dildo's to be shown on network tv? I shudder to think how "educated" our kids will be by the time they grow up. Perhaps you want sex in the street, free drugs on the corner, porn on billboards?Kids should be allowed to grow up as a kid.

There are plenty of options for dildos, etc on cable, pay per view, HBO etc. Please leave the small network piece of tv alone. And of course the Bush administration has to be blamed...frankly, that's getting old. Live your life and don't worry about dirty politicians, whether democrat or republican.

I think the Office is doing fine...If you want the dildo version, watch it on BBC on most cable networks.

Anonymous said...

What a brilliant letter. It's very wise, very funny, and very TRUE. Stay together guys, I never thought I'd find any other ensemble show that I'd love more than Friends, but The Office is quickly gaining my adoration, kudos guys!

Cristin said...

The Office makes Friends look like Caveman.

Unknown said...

Small gripe about the "Bob Patterson" remark. Jason Alexander did notleave "Seinfeld" to do that show. I'm sure if Jerry had wanted to continue, Jason would have been more than happy to keep going.

Also, the comment about not asking for more money is a bit misleading. Granted, if you're the third or fourth actor in the pecking order, it is hard to get a raise unless those higher up get one. I don't think one should ever do a "Donny Most". However, if a show is doing well, the studio should compensate the actors, especially if their starting salaries were low (which, I can imagine, is the case with "The Office").

Anonymous said...

This is really nice, but I from everything I see and read the cast sees it as a collaborative experience. And adore the crew with every fiber of their being. :)