Greg Daniels, 42, has written for some of TV's most renowned comedies: Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and King of the Hill.Daniels's latest project puts him inside corporate America and workplace culture: He's the man in charge of the American version of the BBC show The Office. The sitcom, which airs Tuesday nights on NBC, follows a typical small office run by a midlevel manager who uses the presence of a documentary crew to try to make himself look good — with disastrous results. Fast Company snuck past reception to chat with a funny boss who writes about one who only thinks he is.
Fast Company: Do you think The Office reflects reality?
Daniels: One of our actors went to the town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with video equipment to interview people who worked at different paper companies [the show is set in one such firm] for research. It turned out to be very similar to what's on our show. The bosses wanted to lead them around and explain what they were doing. The people working there looked a little embarrassed, caught in the glare of the camera. And sometimes people would show off because they knew they were on TV and would say something inappropriate like, "This is the funny gay voice I sometimes use on the phone."
FC: What's your office setting like?
Daniels: Last year, we rented a place called e-offices. We were across from Taco Bell and ate with other people from different floors who worked for companies like Shoes.com. We did general office stuff like taking your lunch into the courtyard and playing lots of computer games. Now we're in a corporate office-park environment. I've got an employee ID badge. I'm sitting at a desk outside an office parking lot surrounded by buildings. We didn't want to work on a Hollywood studio set where you walk down the street and see people dressed in Star Trek uniforms. If I can't find ideas looking around this place, then how lame am I?
FC: Do all of the ideas for the show come out of your office?
Daniels: The basketball episode [last season] came from the father of one of my kid's friends. He was telling me his law firm has a softball game every year to improve morale between the partners and the support staff. The lawyers are so competitive that even though they know the game is to increase morale, they make these really insulting T-shirts — like they'll have the shirts read essential personnel and nonessential personnel. I hear a lot of stories like that.
FC: What's your creative process as you develop a season's worth of scripts?
Daniels: We have long meetings where we sit around and discuss the stories. Sometimes I'll give exercises, like we have to come up with five ideas in the next half hour. Anything we come up with that sounds funny, we write on an index card and put on the corkboard. It's pretty old-fashioned. We don't use PowerPoint.