B.J. Novak TV Guide blog: The Fire

From B.J. Novak’s TV Guide blog, dated October 11, 2005:

Which Office Stars Have the Write Stuff?
by B.J. Novak, aka “Ryan”

I’ve been keeping a blog here about The Office for four weeks now, and it is time to come clean. This is not a real blog. A real blog is updated at random times at the whim of the writer. A real blog has a place for people to leave comments. A real blog does not involve an editor from TVGuide.com calling you and asking, “Hey, man, how’s your blog coming along?”

I’ll reintroduce this then. This is a weekly article about what it’s like to work at The Office. I can’t tell if people have been bothered by this — after all, there’s not a space for comments, since it’s not a real blog — but I’ve been self-conscious about it.

Tonight’s episode of The Office [airing at 9:30 pm/ET on NBC] is about a fire that temporarily drives everyone into the parking lot. Jim (John Krasinski) introduces a series of games to keep things interesting outside, such as the harmless “Desert Island” questions (i.e. “What would you bring? and the riskier “Who would you do?”) And Michael (Steve Carell) decides that this is the day to start serving as a mentor to my character, Ryan the temp, which inspires jealousy in Dwight (Rainn Wilson).

Since this episode, “The Fire,” is one that I wrote — I’ll explain what that means exactly a little later — this blog/article will be my excuse to talk about how these episodes are written.

One unique thing about our show is that we have a lot of writer-actors, including me, Paul Lieberstein (Toby) and Mindy Kaling (Kelly). And a lot of our main cast members are writers in “real life,” including Steve, who cowrote his movie, The 40 Year Old Virgin; and John, who just adapted a novel. Jenna [Fischer, Pam] and Rainn are both married to successful writers. Rainn also writes poetry, but I read it and it sucked.

We start a batch of episodes with a handful of comedy writers, always in jeans and sneakers (except for Mindy Kaling, the Beyonce of our writers’ room, who is typically all blinged out), procrastinating and trying to make each other laugh with story ideas. (By procrastinating, I really mean procrastinating, as in painting chopsticks to resemble Harry Potter wands.) Then we narrow it down to the stories that are the most interesting, funny and realistic, and we start outlining those ideas as a group. Each writer is then assigned one script idea and goes off to write a first draft. Sounds simple, right? Think again. Still sounds simple, even after you thought again? Fair enough.

People ask how much of the show is improvised. I’d say a good 10 percent. We try to write the dialogue to sound natural, so a lot of the ums and pauses are actually scripted. Steve and Rainn usually improvise some of the later takes of each scene, and they often write better dialogue on the fly than the writers can come up with over days and nights of Diet Coke-fueled effort. Sometimes we ask John and Jenna to improvise some casual conversation or flirting, which they do surprisingly (suspiciously?) well. Steve and Rainn are something else, though. Whenever I am in a scene with Steve or Rainn, I feel like an improvisational genius just by coming up with simple lines like “Yeah” or “Sounds good” to stay in character with whatever jaw-droppingly original thing they’re coming up with.

This episode was a fun one to film. It’s the third episode that I’ve written that Ken Kwapis directed, which is always a fun time because 1) when Ken was a young man he directed Big Bird’s Big Adventure, which I love talking to him about, and 2) he directed The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and I have some hope that if I’m nice to Ken he will somehow set me up with Alexis Bledel, and 3) he’s an okay director. Also, we filmed outside in 100-degree weather, but we couldn’t look hot. Also, we film in a bad area of Van Nuys, Calif., but had to pretend we weren’t scared, even though every car that is left next to our set overnight is stripped to the bone for parts. Also, the firemen were real firemen. Also, a really, really unbelievably sexy thing happened, but I will have to save it for the DVD commentary.

I hope you enjoy the episode. As a writer, creating something that makes people laugh is a great feeling. And if you don’t like it…. Look, again, television is a very, very collective process. Any number of people could have messed up what was a pristine script. It was probably that Ken Kwapis guy I told you about earlier. Also, Gene and Lee (their last names are Stupnitsky and Eisenberg, FYI) pitched some terrible jokes. And did I mention Rainn’s poetry? I did, right?

Until next week…

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