‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ Helped ‘The Office’ Succeed in an Unexpected Way

In the age of instant gratification, it’s harder for shows to become hits if they don’t succeed right away. When a show isn’t an immediate hit, it will often get the cancellation ax. This is especially the case in today’s streaming landscape where the programmers are more about keeping the lineup fresh rather than nurturing a show. 

In today’s media scene, Cheers, which took time to find an audience, would probably have been gone. And so would have The Office despite it starring Steve Carell. That’s because when the NBC show first started, Carell wasn’t yet a 40-year-old virgin. 

How ‘The Office’ crossed the pond

Steve Carell as Michael Scott
Steve Carell as Michael Scott on ‘The Office.’ | Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

The Office began its life in England in 2001, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and starring Gervais in the lead role. The show was a “mockumentary” set at a paper company where “life is stationary.” It satirized the workaday 9-to-5 life with all the silliness and politics that come with it. It was slow to take off in the UK, but it gradually found its feet and became popular enough to spawn versions in multiple countries.

The American version debuted in 2005, with Carell taking the central role. But this was before Carell was a big deal. He had come out of the Second City comedy troupe, and he went on to work on The Dana Carvey Show.

While that show lasted only a handful of episodes, it proved to be a launching pad for people who would go on to bigger things, including, notably, Stephen Colbert. Michael Schur, a TV impresario who worked on the U.S. version of The Office, spoke to Vox, saying that he looked up to Kevin Reilly, the NBC executive who took many a chance with that show. 

“He had come from FX, and he loved the British show, and he was very passionate about The Office … He was very invested in the show. We made six episodes that first season, and no one liked it,” Schur said. 

How ‘The Office died’ and lived again

The ratings for the first season were anemic, and critical reception was not enthusiastic. One reviewer for USA Today wrote that it was a “passable imitation of a miles-better BBC original.” By these metrics, The Office was going to go out of business after it had just barely started. 

But then two things happened. First, Kevin Reilly believed in the show so much that he decided it deserved time to find its following. As Schur explained in Vox: “So, definitely going to get canceled — except that Kevin Reilly kind of stakes his reputation as an executive [on it]. And says to his bosses at NBC, ‘I believe in this show. I think it can work. Please, please, please give me another chance. Give us another season.'”

NBC acquiesced and then the second thing happened. Carell had his chest hair ripped off in The 40-Year-Old Virgin as he screamed: “Aaaah, Kelly Clarkson!” And a new movie star was born. 

Schur said: “So I say all of this as a way of saying, it’s not one thing. It’s a great cast. It’s a very, very smart person making good decisions. And then it’s just stuff that you have no control over. It’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin coming out.”

Netflix, ‘The Morning Show’ and beyond

In other words, no matter how talented you are, luck is always a factor. The Office became so popular that when it moved to Netflix, it became one of the most-watched shows there. So much so that people actually wondered about the future of Netflix when it was announced that The Office and Friends were going to bolt the streamer. 

Cut to the present day, and now Carell is an Oscar nominee. He has also received multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations as well, with one Globe win for none other than The Office. And now he’s starring in The Morning Show, on one of Netflix’s most-hyped competitors, Apple TV+.

Life — and The Office — are funny that way.