“Threat Level Midnight” is an underrated half-hour of The Office. The episode, which aired in February 2011, is one of the show’s highest-concept narratives: a meta-exercise in which the characters watch a fake movie they made themselves, from a script that they discovered five seasons earlier. It’s about a fictional secret agent named Michael Scarn, played by Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell. It’s filled with Seventies disco music, Will Smith-esque pop-rap and coordinated dances. At the time, “Threat Level Midnight” was a bold move from a show deep into its run. Now, it’s part of a Number One pop album.
Nearly a decade after the episode aired, Billie Eilish decided to sample one of its weirdest moments for “my strange addiction,” a song on her new LP, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, which just scored the year’s second-best debut week after Ariana Grande. In case you haven’t seen “Threat Level Midnight,” Agent Michael Scarn has a “Scarn Dance” in the film-within-a-sitcom. Eilish uses Scarn-Dance-related dialogue from Michael Scott (Steve Carell), Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak) and Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling) to introduce the song, then brings them back to serve as interludes throughout, punctuating the slinking, bass-heavy track.
“When we made the beat for ‘my strange addiction,’ it reminded me of the song they play when they do the Scarn dance,” Eilish told MTV News. “I thought that was really funny, so we literally just ripped the audio from Netflix and put it in the song, not at all thinking that they would say yes to it and we’d be able to put it out. Also, it’s about strange addictions, and The Office is mine, so…” The song has since amassed nearly 25 million streams on Spotify alone. It’s the sixth most popular song on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, according to Buzzangle. Most of the songs outpacing it are the singles that have been out for months.
The creators, cast and writers of The Office had no idea any of this was coming.
“Threat Level Midnight” was a final wish from Steve Carell, who was about to leave the show after its seventh season. B.J. Novak — writer, executive producer and the actor who played Ryan Howard — was the man to help Carell fulfill his final wish. “He told the writers, ‘Before I leave, I would love to finally see Threat Level Midnight,” Novak explains over the phone. “We had referenced it in Season 2, during an episode where the characters did a staged reading of Michael’s screenplay for Threat Level Midnight. It really lived on in all of our minds as some of our favorite canon of who Michael Scott was and what was funny about him. I eagerly volunteered for the task, because I’d always loved that episode. It was very much my sense of humor, and I got the assignment to write it.”
Eve Nelson, The Office‘s song producer, laughs as she recalls the emails she received from the show’s writers for this episode. She had worked with the cast members on songs in the past, but the new asks were integral to selling the absurdity of Michael Scott’s home movie.
“They said, ‘Can you give us a real authentic disco, Seventies sort of sound?’ Nelson says. “I think they referenced Chic.”
One of the overarching challenges to making “Threat Level Midnight” was the very idea of Threat Level Midnight. Daniel Chun, co-executive producer of Season 7, threw out an early idea for a rap that would bookend the show, but the room had trouble settling on how to construct a movie within a show.
“We were going into Michael’s imagination, which was very exciting for us as writers,” Chun says. “I remember one of the biggest conversations we had about it was the question of: Should the episode be about Michael showing them Threat Level Midnight? Or should the episode simply be Threat Level Midnight? Basically, is there going to be a framing device around the movie, where we’re seeing the people watch the movie and react to it? Or are we literally just, from the credits of The Office, showing the movie?”
Ultimately, the writers went with the former. “It’s just a silly movie that Michael made, so the drama is not going to be real drama,” Chun continues. “The characters’ stakes are not going to be real character stakes. We just felt that for people to actually get emotionally invested, you had to actually stick with the quote-unquote ‘real characters’ and not the fictional ones of Threat Level Midnight.”
Novak says he already had Eilish’s hit “bury a friend” on a playlist before the request to sample his vocals came in, but he wasn’t very familiar with the rest of her work. “They had to get approval of all the cast that was on it,” Novak says. (This means Steve Carell also had to approve his vocals before the song was released. Steve Carell did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.) “I was fine with it regardless,” says Novak, “but I was like ‘Wow, bonus: This is a banger.'”
Chun was even more surprised. “Until you told me about her, I didn’t know who she was,” he says. “It’s not a knock on Billie Eilish, it’s more a commentary on how old I am. It was a real double whammy, learning someone’s existence and then learning that they used [the episode]. I looked at the song and I loved it. It’s great.”
But Nelson, who composed the music for the episode, was ecstatic. She’s a fervent supporter of Billie, and seemed genuinely shocked that Eilish and company would be inspired by her work.
“Can’t say enough about that girl,” she says. “She is, to me, one of the finest young artists of today. She takes risks. She’s herself. She marches to her own drummer. I love what she did with that. I thought it was brilliant. I could hear that she got slightly inspired by the beat. I respect and admire her so much. I’m honored that I have anything to do with inspiring Billie Eilish.”
“One of the funnier meta jokes is that, in Michael Scott’s delusion, of course this would become sampled on a Number One album and done at touchdown end zone dances,” Novak adds. “You know in Michael Scott’s delusional fantasy this would happen, and in a way it did in the real world.”