The Writer-Actors of The Office: Mindy Kaling, Paul Lieberstein, and B.J. Novak
If you want to write for The Office, the funniest show on TV right now, you have to know some specialized technical terms. Like “chuffa.”
Writer Mindy Kaling, who also plays the bubbly, inane Kelly, explains: “Chuffa is filler that seems like it’s funny but isn’t really a joke. It’s just kind of an attitude. I watch Entourage and Weeds, but they have a lot of chuffa. I don’t mean to denigrate them, but I don’t think I’ve laughed once watching them. 30 Rock and Arrested Development are anti-chuffa.”
Chuffa is ruthlessly pruned from The Office: for all its famous awkward pauses, the show is crammed full of jokes. Showrunner Greg Daniels–who learned the term when he was writing for The Simpsons, the anti-chuffa gold standard–has discovered that the faux-documentary format is the perfect environment for replacing chuffa with actual comedy.
“As a fake reality show, the lighting doesn’t have to be perfect,” he notes. “A normal show might take half an hour to light, then they might shoot for twenty minutes. We take five minutes to light and then we shoot for fifteen minutes.” That gives the cast, led by master improviser Steve Carell, plenty of time to do the scripts as written, down to the last awkward pause, and then also make up new bits, screw around, and generally blur the distinction between writer and actor.
Three members of the cast pull double duty as senior members of the writing staff, shuttling between the soundstage and the writers’ offices. Aside from Kaling, there’s B.J. Novak, who plays Ryan–formerly a hapless intern, now promoted to the corporate offices in New York. And Paul Lieberstein plays Toby, the office’s mumbling, awkward human-resources manager.
“It was a conscious decision to have a lot of writer-performers,” Daniels says. “We were looking for funny people who didn’t have to be glamorous or particularly self-assured in front of the camera.”
Of the three of them, Lieberstein is by far the most uncomfortable with his thespian status. A former slacker accountant, he quit his day job and started writing for shows like The Bernie Mac Show and King of the Hill. “I’m not a very loud person,” he says, accurately. “I get even quieter on set, to the point where the boom guy cannot pick me up and they have to mike me specially.”
Writer Mike Schur says, “The second that he wraps, Paul comes upstairs to the writers’ room and starts talking about how miserable it is to be an actor. If you told him right now that he could never act again, there would be palpable relief on his face. And yet, honestly sometimes I think Paul Lieberstein might be the greatest actor in the world.”
Unlike Lieberstein, Novak and Kaling were both performers before The Office. Novak was a prankster on Punk’d and wrote for Raising Dad, a short-lived Bob Saget vehicle. He saved all his jokes that didn’t make the show, and they became the basis of his stand-up act (“You know what I like about porn? Everyone’s a star!”), Kaling was the co-author and star of Matt and Ben, a play about the Damon/Affleck relationship. (On-camera, Kaling has the speech cadences of “a twelve-year-old girl from Encino”; off-camera, she sounds pretty much the same.) On the show, Kaling’s and Novak’s characters dated–and worked in the office “annex,” providing an excuse for them not to appear in background shots, so they could spend more time in the writers’ room.
The day after the Emmys, Lieberstein is directing an episode for the first time, shifting his weight nervously from one foot to the other, but smoothly leading the cast through his script. Actress Angela Kinsey has already dubbed him “The Mumbling Director.” (She’s married to Lieberstein’s brother; Daniels is married to Lieberstein’s sister.)
About ten feet away from the set, Kaling and Novak sit down in a newly decorated green room. Kaling is clutching a paper bag with a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of diamonds that she wore at the Emmys and now needs to return to the jeweler. “I usually have five to six million, but this is a smaller shipment,” she cracks.
NOVAK: On our show, the writers are very actorly and the actors are very writerly, but it just feels more like family when I’m doing something with Paul or Mindy. We have the disposition of writers. We wear the sneakers and jeans and zip-up sweatshirts every day and are obsessed with what snacks are coming. So when we’re on set, it sort of feels like we don’t belong, and I think we huddle together in that shared experience.
KALING: I’ve always thought that B.J. was the quickest of the writers. I will say something, and he’ll say something very quietly and quickly that exactly encapsulates why I was lame. And then I’ll do something dorky like hit him.
NOVAK: We’ve known each other for so long, we can have a really vitriolic fight without even thinking it’s a big deal.
KALING: One time we had this fight because I was being mean about somebody. He was like, “Why are you being mean about her?” And I’m like, “Why do you have to be so nice about her?” And one of the editors and one of the P.A.s walked by, and they’re like, “Weird. Dysfunctional.” And I was like, oh yeah, I bet it does look that way. But then afterwards we held hands and went over to craft services.
NOVAK: We did? I don’t know about that.
Novak went to high school in Massachusetts with John Krasinski, who stars in The Office as Jim–neither of them knew the other was auditioning for the show until they saw each other at the final callbacks. Senior year, Novak had cast Krasinski in a play he wrote. “I hadn’t really acted, other than in sixth grade,” Krasinski. “I had no inclination to do it. I don’t know what he saw in me, but I think I owe him ten percent of my checks.”
Today, the three writer-actors have different approaches to featuring themselves as actors in the scripts they write. Lieberstein, of course, is happy to avoid acting altogether. Novak says he thinks Ryan is better when written by other people, but has nevertheless scripted several episodes that feature him, such as “The Initiation,” where Dwight prepares him to become a salesman by leaving him in a field.
Kaling, however, confesses, “The first thing I think is ‘How much Kelly can I put into this episode without appearing like it’s disgusting self-favoritism?’” Lately, though, she’s rethought this approach. “You have to factor in that the more you write for yourself, the more you have to get here at 5:30 am. Then your boyfriend says ‘We never get to have sex anymore, don’t be in your scripts as much.’ And then you’re like, ‘Well, I guess I won’t.’ I can’t believe I’m saying all this, but it’s totally true.” Kaling shrugs, with the offhand confidence of somebody who knows she’s funny on-camera and off. “You get paid the same if you have a small part or a big one.”
Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a somewhat shorter version) in Rolling Stone 1037 (October 18, 2007).