Why ‘The Office’ Producers Avoided a Ratings Strategy Often Used by ‘Will & Grace’
The Office turned some cast members including Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, and Jenna Fischer into superstars. Never wanting to use gimmicks to draw in viewers, producers of the sitcom always sought to keep a ‘reality’ feel on the show.
Since the NBC comedy was a bona fide hit, the network began pressuring producers to bring on A-list celebrities for guest appearances. The “Stress Relief” episode set to air after the Super Bowl seemed to be the ideal time to promote a big-name cameo.
NBC wanted celebs to visit Dunder Mifflin
In Andy Greene’s book The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, writer Lee Eisenberg recalled having some potential candidates in mind for a celeb spot on the show.
“The network was insistent that we get celebrities, and that was really complicated,” Eisenberg told Greene. “I remember wanting Matt Damon or Ben Affleck to be on it.’”
The Office writer even considered some storylines that could work with either of the Good Will Hunting actors.
“I was like ‘Okay, we’ll get somebody who has a blue-collar feel to be running a warehouse,” Eisenberg recalled. “‘Or they’re gonna go up against Michael somehow. It’s Matt Damon or Ben Affleck versus Michael Scott.’”
Greg Daniels comes up with a solution
Showrunner Greg Daniels went toe-to-toe with NBC over the issue, maintaining that having a Hollywood personality on the show would take away from the rural roots of the sitcom.
“His point was ‘How does that fit into a show based in an office in Scranton, Pennsylvania?’” producer Randy Cordray said of Daniels. “‘What would celebrities be doing interacting with a paper company office in Scranton, Pennsylvania? … That makes no sense.’”
Daniels’ ingenious idea of having “a movie within a movie” met the network’s demands, yet kept the integrity of the sitcom. By having celebs Jack Black, Jessica Alba, and Cloris Leachman appear in a bootleg film that Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) brings in, Daniels solved the problem.
“Andy had access to stream a movie on his laptop and so we created this movie,” Cordray explained. “That was our way of satisfying the network creative people and putting promotable star talent into the Super Bowl episode.”
Not following in the footsteps of ‘Will & Grace’
NBC’s popular show Will & Grace often highlighted A-list stars as part of a storyline. While the strategy often resulted in high ratings, the production team at The Office never wanted to follow suit.
“The Office always shied away from stunt casting,” writer Halsted Sullivan told Greene. “At the time, Will & Grace would have someone like Cher or J.Lo on every episode, and the episode [would be] about that person. What we didn’t want to do is have some stunt casting.”
Daniels’ solution gave the network what it was asking for while staying true to the tone of The Office.
“We had Jack Black and Jessica Alba in that stand-alone movie so we could promote them,” Sullivan explained. “They were in the show, but at the same time, at no point did our characters get outshone by these big movie stars.”