Q&A with Michael Schur: Part 2

In Part Two of my conversation with The Office’s Michael Schur, we talk about character development and what it’s like to work with the other writers.

Things get a little out of hand.

Tanster: You mentioned earlier that “most of what I’ve written needs to be thrown out” and that it “takes a while to remember how to write these characters.” Can you elaborate? Which characters are hardest to write and why? Would you really “throw out” stuff before it’s read?

Michael: I was just being panicky. But the process of writing this show is very laborious … if there’s a fun way for something to be laborious. The plots are really complex (if we’ve broken the story well), and there are a ton of characters, and the dialogue needs to be funny (ideally) and also naturalistic and “real”-sounding. And every one of the actors is great, and you start to freak out if you get to page 27 in the script and realize you haven’t written one good line for Stanley or Andy or something.

So, yes, in the initial writing stage, the writer will throw a ton of stuff out. Sometimes in the group-rewriting phase someone will suggest something that you threw away before anyone had even seen it, and you’ll say “Oh — I actually wrote a version of that scene and threw it away,” and they’ll say, “Why did you throw it away? It sounds way funnier than what you wrote,” and you’ll say, “Shut up, Mindy, why do you always pick on me?” and she’ll snarl, “Go to your office for fifteen minutes. You need a time-out,” and then you’ll go to your office and cry and cry and she won’t even come in to check on you because she is mean, Tanster. Just flat-out mean.

Tanster: You know Mindy is gonna read this and then kick your ass, right?

Michael: She abuses me, physically, every day anyway. I’m used to it.

And to answer the other question, none of the characters is “hard” to write for. It’s like you’re a kid and you have fifteen awesome toys to play with. The only bad thing about it is there is just not room in every script for all of them to shine, and that bums you out sometimes.

That’s why an episode like “Traveling Salesmen” was so fun to work on — the story of all the salesmen going out on sales call, which Greg came up with I think, gave a lot of different characters a chance to get some meaty scenes.

Tanster: “Traveling Salesmen” was one of my favorite episodes of the season! This episode shows, perhaps for the first time, why the Dunder Mifflin crew is still employed — because they’re actually competent salespeople. I was beginning to wonder …

Michael: That was always one of the big goals we had for Michael — to show that he was a great salesman, who was just promoted one level too high for his skill set. Second season we specifically designed “The Client” to be one of the first few episodes, in order to get that idea across. The British show could have David Brent be a complete boob right from the beginning, because they knew 12 episodes in he was going to be made redundant, but we (hopefully) need Michael around for a long time.

I think it was also nice to see Phyllis coming through with a sneaky little sales strategy. And the shot of her and Rashida in the car after the make-overs is one of my favorites from last season.

Tanster: Is it easier or harder to write scripts, now that you have more fully developed characters to work with?

Michael: I’d say it’s easier because the characters are more fully-developed, but harder because we’ve already done so many episodes. We are now at the point where we find ourselves pitching ideas that are just too similar to ones we’ve already done. Maybe we’ll just write them and hope nobody notices.