Interview Date: 11/16/2010
Run Date: 11/19/2010
Few sitcoms have as many cast members serving as members of their writing and production staff as “The Office” does. Just taking a look at the show’s current season, you’ve got B.J. Novak, who wrote “Counseling” (Michael has to endure six hours of counseling with Toby), you’ve got Mindy Kaling, who wrote “The Sting,” which introduced Timothy Olyphant as Danny, and, most germane to this particular interview ,you’ve got Paul Lieberstein, the man behind “Sex Ed,” where Michael contacts all of his former girlfriends to tell them that he may have given them herpes. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Lieberstein in conjunction with “The Office” making yet another appearance on our TV Power Rankings, and he talked a bit about this season’s episodes, how he feels about Steve Carell’s imminent departure, and whether we’ll get an answer to why Michael hates Toby before Carell leaves
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Paul, how are you doing?
Paul Lieberstein: Good! How are you, Will?
BE: Not bad! I don’t know if they told you, but Bullz-Eye does its TV Power Rankings twice a year…
BE: “The Office” is once again one of our highest ranked sitcoms, so congrats on continuing the trend.
PL: Thank you! I really appreciate it.
BE: And it’s particularly impressive that you’ve been able to maintain the quality for so many seasons.
PL: Thank you very much. We try very hard. (Laughs) That was a big fear, to be at the helm where everyone’s, like, “Oh, those were the bad years…” But this makes me more confident that we’re not in the bad years yet. (Laughs)
BE: Actually, I was talking to Mike Schur yesterday about the first season of “The Office,” and how a lot of people have convinced themselves that the show didn’t really get into a groove until Season 2, whereas I feel like that groove had very much started by the end of Season 1.
PL: Thanks. I mean, I know people obviously have a lot of opinions, but I have a real soft spot for Season 1. It was definitely a darker show, and we made it more accessible and with a broader appeal, but I really kind of love those earlier episodes. They were very painful to watch, I have to say… (Laughs) …but they were a lot of fun to write.
BE: With Season 7, you’ve of course got a lot of different storylines happening, but as a parent, I’m enjoying the fact that you’ve got a baby in the mix. How has it been to introduce Pam and Jim’s kid into the storylines without making it feel too gratuitous?
PL: Well, you know, we haven’t done it too much. We did the baptism episode, and during Andy’s play, when they’re out of the office, it comes into play. It’s helpful in finding something new to play with after all this time. We have something coming up for Valentine’s Day where they have to celebrate a lunch because they don’t have a sitter for that night, which lets them go out and have a couple of bottles of wine and come back to the office a little tipsy. So, you know, it’ll be fun that way. But, you know, it’s an office comedy, so if we don’t want to use the baby, we don’t have to. But at the same time, there are certain things the characters probably won’t do anymore, now that they’re a little more responsible. It kind of changes you a little, becoming a parent.
BE: Well, like you mentioned, I thought it was funny that you used the baby as part of the storyline with Andy’s play.
PL: Yeah, that was fun, to get Erin in there and prove her to be a terrible babysitter. (Laughs) It was really kind of remarkable that they ever trusted her.
BE: So did you guys view it as being too easy to keep Andy and Erin together? Is that why you decided to go a different direction with them?
PL: It seemed more interesting to kind of break them apart and have Andy want something that he can’t have. We’ll do both, I think. They can be an interesting couple when they’re together, too. We’ll get back there eventually.
BE: You mentioned the christening episode a minute ago. I wanted to just applaud your performance as Toby. It was such an oddly touching moment, with Toby making his plea to God, as it were.
PL: (Laughs) Oh, thank you! Yeah, it kind of worked out that…I always cut Toby out when I’m editing, but with this one, the storyline kind of crept back in.
BE: Do you have a favorite Toby storyline that you cut but in retrospect wish you hadn’t?
PL: Hmmm. Interesting. (Long pause) Probably. I can’t recall anything, though. But I’ve cut a lot. (Laughs) Often, there’s just these little scenes rather than a whole storyline, so I end up cutting them, but there are a lot of fun scenes with Michael. A lot of them ended up as part of the deleted scenes on the DVDs, but…they just weren’t necessary.
BE: Speaking of Michael, his departure is obviously imminent. Are you tempted to reveal why he and Toby have that very tense relationship, or is it destined to be TV mystery for the ages?
PL: I think it’s for the ages. I don’t think we’re going to say. I’m sure we know. (Laughs)
BE: Yeah, I was going to ask you if you had a list of possible reasons why.
PL: I have theories. (Laughs) But the truth is that…it was in Season 1, and it was Meredith’s birthday, and Michael was watching Toby fill out Meredith’s birthday card, and he just came in and wrote something quickly, but, still, it took, like, 30 seconds to get it down, which we edited time out of. And Steve, in that time, as Michael, felt just this tremendous amount of hate start to overcome him. This hate for Toby. So that’s how it started. Nobody really knows why. (Laughs)
BE: You had Timothy Olyphant on the show this season, which was kind of an interesting choice for a guest star. How did he come into the mix?
PL: Well, we needed… the role was for someone who was better than anyone else. Better than Michael, Jim, Dwight…everyone. So we needed someone who was a believable heavy hitter, and we just wanted a really good actor. And he doesn’t do a lot of comedy, which kind of also made it an attractive choice, because he wasn’t someone who “30 Rock” had already taken. (Laughs) And I think he really nailed it.
BE: Oh, yeah, it was blast to see him playing a role like that. But, then, you guys have had a habit of bringing in guys who we aren’t necessarily used to seeing do comedy. For instance, you had Idris Elbra a few seasons ago.
PL: Yeah! Well, I’m a huge “Wire” fan, and I just thought, “God, I just want Stringer Bell and Michael Scott to go at it.” (Laughs) I just thought that would be such a good dynamic. And he came in, and he did a character much different than Stringer Bell, although his intensity will always be part of any Idiris Bell performance, I suppose. Yeah, that was another fun guy. And Michael’s such a great buffoon. One of the best things we can do is bring in a new straight man for him and find a new side to him.
BE: So whose idea was it to do an episode revolving around an episode of “Glee”?
PL: I think it was Mindy Kaling. I think she had pitched “‘Glee’ viewing party.” And I loved the idea. And then John Vitti, who’s a new writer to us, kind of really ran with it and came up with a lot of the storyline.
BE: Along those same lines, the idea of spending as much time on “Sweeney Todd,” by which I mean the actual musical, was inspired. I don’t think anyone would’ve expected quite that much singing to have gone on during the episode.
PL: Yeah, you know, I don’t think we intended to show as much as we did in the script stage. But that’s Ed Helms, you know? He’s just so incredibly talented that it was just really funny to see him up there…and we didn’t want cut it! (Laughs)
BE: I popped over to the Wupfh.com website a few minutes ago. Good to see it’s up and working for the episode.
PL: Well, mostly working, anyway. (Laughs)
BE: What I want to know is how B.J. Novak is able to say the name of the site that way without bursting into laughter.
PL: (Laughs) I don’t know! I was pretty impressed with that, too. I should ask him if he was reading or if he actually memorized that whole thing.
BE: I’m really impressed with the way you guys have expanded some of the ostensibly-lesser characters...or, at least, that’s how they’d be perceived by someone who doesn’t watch the show very often…into having such major storylines. Like, say, Darryl, for instance.
PL: Oh, yeah, Darryl has been our secret weapon for a long time now. He’s not such a secret anymore, I guess. (Laughs) He is so funny. Craig Robinson is so funny. He shows up and says “hello” to you, and I’m, like, “I don’t understand why I’m laughing, but I am.” His faces are great. So I’m looking forward to doing a lot more with him.
BE: I also love that you were able to bring in all of Michael’s ex-girlfriends for “Sex Ed.”
PL: Yeah, thanks, that was fun. (Laughs) Doing it off his assumption that he had herpes was fun, too. It was great. I was sad that we had to cut that down to 21.5 minutes, because the initial assembly was…I think it was over 44 minutes. So more than half the show had to go. And it was good! I loved seeing Jan again. She has such a great energy. And the scene with Carol was really good, I thought…who is actually Steve’s wife. It was just fun to kind of…we’re looking for ways to do that this year, to take Steve through memory lane a little bit.
BE: And it was a nice tease to see Holly, because I guess we’re going to be seeing a bit more of her before the season’s out, correct?
PL: Yes! You’ll be seeing her starting with the Christmas episode.
BE: You touched on something else I was going to ask you about, which is going through Michael’s past this season. So that was indeed something that was a conscious effort for you guys, then?
PL: Yeah! I think it’s kind of fun to see his…I mean, he’s changed a lot, and his changes are a big part of how he leaves, so I think they’re kind of relevant episodes…and fun. Hopefully fun. (Laughs) You be the judge.
BE: I’ll keep my fingers crossed. (Laughs) So, obviously, you guys have the end game in place for Steve’s departure, but is it still the plan that you’re not really going to let us in on his replacement ‘til the beginning of next season?
PL: Yeah, you’re going to have to wait to see how he’s replaced.
BE: Is that mostly for your own amusement?
PL: (Laughs) No, that’s just part of the storytelling. We just haven’t had a story that’s better than that.
BE: Are you sad to see Steve go? I mean, seven years is a long run for any actor on a show, especially one with as significant a film career as he’s got. Did you see it coming?
PL: I mean, I did, but I didn’t. I was in fierce denial. It was speculated for a long time, but I always thought he’d stay another year. Yeah, it’s sad. For sure. And infuriating. (Laughs) We found him when he was nothing but a movie star, and we made him a TV star. And this is how he repays us.
BE: Well, Paul, as I say, we’re really happy with the show here at Bullz-Eye. You guys are still doing solid work. Can you tease about what we can expect in the next few weeks or months?
PL: Let’s see. You’ve got probably got access to a lot of what’s coming up in the next few weeks, but… (Long pause) Do you know about China?
BE: I read the description, about Michael wanting to stop China from taking over the United States.
PL: Yeah! That turned out really well. It’s one of my favorites of the season. But…it’s kind of hard to tease, you know? Holly shows up in the Christmas episode, but she’s still with AJ, and they’re talking about becoming engaged soon, so that’s a big thing for Michael to deal with over a couple of episodes.
BE: And Rainn Wilson directed the Christmas episode, correct?
PL: Yes! Who did a great job. This is his second time directing an episode, I think. I forget what his last episode was, though.
BE: And then you guys are back in mid-January?
PL: Production-wise, we’re back up the second week of January.
BE: Excellent. Well, good talking to you, Paul!PL: Good talking to you, too! And thanks for including us in the Rankings! That’s awesome!