These Two Storytelling Elements Made ‘The Office’ a Success

It’s no secret that The Office is a wildly popular show — even today. Brian Baumgartner’s podcast An Oral History of The Office seeks to discover why the show is as popular as it is.

In episode 6, “Mom, We Made It,” showrunners reveal two pieces to the puzzle that made The Office a major success.

Steve Carell 'The Office'
Steve Carell | Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Brian Baumgartner is investigating what makes ‘The Office’ so popular 

To this day, The Office remains one of the top-streamed shows on Netflix. Baumgartner, who played Kevin Malone in the series, uses his podcast to investigate why  — even amongst generations who weren’t born when the show originally aired. 

So far, Baumgartner has discussed the show’s popularity with his castmates, directors, writers, and even camera operators.

‘The Office’ strikes a balance between drama and comedy

Yes, The Office is a series about the employees of a mid-level paper company. But it’s also about the incredibly awkward Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and his journey to find true love. 

The Office is also about the love story between co-workers Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer). 

It’s a comedic drama. 

Baumgartner pointed out how “there were two major components [of the show] that [writer] Greg [Daniels] considered especially important.” Comedy and drama.

A McDonald’s sandwich inspired ‘The Office’

The show had elements of comedy and drama, but keeping them separate is what allowed The Office to work.

As Daniels explained to fellow writer Brent Forrester: “[Greg] said ‘tonally, separate out the scenes that are dramatic tone from the scenes that are comic tone.’ He called it the McDLT.”

McDonald’s used to offer a cheeseburger they dubbed the McDLT. Forrester recalled the sandwich to Baumgartner. 

“They had this hamburger that was served hot in half the styrofoam container, and then the other half of the styrofoam container was cold lettuce and tomato,” he said. “The gimmick was the hot stays hot, the cold stays cold. [Greg] used to say — keep the funny side funny and the drama side dramatic.”

‘The Office’ embraced a specific type of comedy 

Before The Office came along, shows like Arrested DevelopmentFreaks and Geeks, and The Larry Sanderson Show were serving up something called cringe comedy. 

You know, the kind of comedy Michael Scott has become known for. The kind of comedy that makes you — well — cringe. 

Most viewers understood what The Office was going for with their cringe-worthy approach to comedy. Still, some generations simply didn’t understand it.

“Our generation embraced the comedy of failure and awkwardness,” Ed Helms explained. “That’s a thing that’s extremely funny to our generation. My parent’s never got The Office — they were mortified by it. They weren’t able to see the humor in it. But [cringe] is so much of what drove comedy writing at that time.” 

‘The Office’ is a success because it turns people’s worst moments turned into a joke

Yes, The Office strikes a careful balance between comedy and drama. But the thing that makes the show most successful is the level of realness it delivers to viewers.

If you’ve ever watched The Office and cringed, it’s probably because you related to whatever awkward thing was happening.

“To me, the most awful embarrassing moments in your life are so hellish when you’re going through them, that to sit like a horror movie in a safe position and watch somebody else go through something that you’ve been through is so liberating,” director Paul Feig explained. 

That feeling of liberation is what makes The Office such a well-liked and relatable, even today.