'The Dinner Party' was the most brilliantly excruciating episode of 'The Office.' John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Ed Helms and more look back on its 10th anniversary
'The Dinner Party' was the most brilliantly excruciating episode of 'The Office.' John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Ed Helms and more look back on its 10th anniversary
As the first season of NBC’s The Office drew to a close in the spring of 2005, the show was on life support. Much of the press had dismissed it as a pale retread of the groundbreaking Ricky Gervais-led U.K. original, and its ratings had fallen each week it had been on the air. But over the next two seasons, the series, starring Steve Carell as the manager of a Scranton, Pennsylvania, paper company called Dunder Mifflin, gradually found its footing. Going into its fourth season, The Office had strong ratings and serious momentum, despite a looming writers' strike that would eventually shut down most of Hollywood (including a good chunk of that season of The Office). But no one could have quite predicted how great the season's 13th episode was. On April 10th, 2008, The Office topped itself with its best half-hour ever – and perhaps the best comedy episode of the decade.
Taking the action away from the Dunder Mifflin office, "The Dinner Party" provides a rare glimpse into the home life of regional manager Michael Scott (Carell) as he hosts an impromptu get-together for three couples: salesman Jim Halpert and receptionist Pam Beesly, salesman Andy Bernard and accountant Angela Martin, and party-crasher Dwight Schrute and his former babysitter/current lover, Melvina. The previous season had seen Jim and Pam finally get together after years of flirtation; Michael had also found love – with Jan Levinson, his former boss. Despite some huge differences with her new boyfriend – she was an accomplished, Type-A corporate executive, he an affable doofus – Jan moved from New York to Scranton and into Michael’s cheesy condo. The dinner party was Jan and Michael's attempt to show off their happy home; instead, they showed off how utterly dysfunctional their relationship was. The result was a master class of dark comedy that few other shows would dare attempt, as well as 22 of the most brilliantly cringe-inducing minutes in TV history.
“The episode is a crucible for the various relationships on the show,” says Ed Helms, who played Andy Bernard. “It's a tight, contained space where so many relationship issues are bubbling around between Jim and Pam, Andy and Angela, Michael and Jan. It's that pressure-cooker aspect that heightens everything, plus the decorum of the dinner party, the sort of need to rise to a different sort of social construct, as opposed to just being co-workers in an office space. It's just a boiling-hot crucible of comedy.”
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, we tracked much of the cast and crew for an oral history of the landmark episode.
I. Writing ‘The Dinner Party’
Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg joined the "Office" writing staff in Season Two, penning memorable episodes such as “The Secret” and “Women's Appreciation.”
Gene Stupnitsky (co-writer): We kind of talked about "The Dinner Party" as Who's Afraid of Jan Levinson-Gould? That was the inspiration for it. And just the world's worst dinner party, the most awkward dinner party – with your boss. We had set it up earlier, where Michael kept asking Jim and Pam for plans, and they kept having excuses.
Greg Daniels (executive producer/co-creator): In the very beginning, the episode was called "Virginia Woolf" in my notes, and the idea was to have Jim and Pam have this super-uncomfortable night seeing all the awkwardness of Michael and Jan’s relationship and watching it melt down in front of them, in a comedy version of the Albee play.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): We set it up so in the cold open Michael pretends there's an emergency. They're all gonna have to stay late that night, so everyone has to cancel their plans. Michael Scott is always the fool, but in this moment he outsmarts Jim and Pam because he so desperately wants to hang out with them. Jim has a talking head [where the actors speak directly to the camera], and he's like, "I'm starting to think there was no work thing." There's a little bit of a grudging respect to Michael.
Gene Stupnitsky (co-writer): There's a quote, "How do you make someone laugh? You show someone falling down. How do you get a comedy writer to laugh? Show a guy pushing a woman down the stairs." I'm paraphrasing, but there's something to that. The darker, usually, the funnier to us. We're such huge fans of the British Office and we wanted to write an episode more in that tone.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): An episode like this lives a lot in the awkward pauses. A line would happen and the audience, along with the people at the dinner, would just kind of sit there and let it hang. And so the rhythms of this episode are slightly different.
Greg Daniels (executive producer/co-creator): I had an expression that I used in the writers room to describe a scene where the situation was charged, where several characters had different opinions and there was an excuse for them to all sit around and fire off great lines one at a time. I called it a “killing field,” like it was just nonstop joke-joke-joke. They were usually scenes like a diversity-training seminar in the conference room. Once Jim and Pam got to the condo, this entire episode was a killing field.
Gene Stupnitsky (co-writer): There are lots of different versions of Michael Scott. Some writers would write him as childish, others would write him as incompetent, some would write for the version of Michael Scott when he was at his best. We were trying to get him at his most pathetic.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): We had a lot of talking heads that never made it to the show that went really into detail about Michael. They talked about going to his high school prom in the limo, and then you realize that Michael was the limo driver at his own high school prom.
Gene Stupnitsky (co-writer): We felt like that was the right time to break up Michael and Jan: once their world blew up in a dramatic, spectacular fashion. We let it run its course. We wrung as much comedy from it as we could.
II. The Unraveling of Jan Levinson-Gould
At the same time that Jim and Pam became a perfect couple, Michael and Jan – who had lost her job at Dunder Mifflin corporate before moving to Scranton – were coming apart at the seams.
John Krasinski (Jim Halpert): Melora was so good on our show. She was really our secret weapon, because I think it’s hard to play the straight character in a show like that. She played the severe girlfriend so well and ended up being a great comedy duo with Steve. Steve found her very funny and I think that, had she not been so hardcore, it wouldn’t have been nearly as funny. Her character had so much ambition and so much power in her, which was the exact opposite of Steve. It was almost like an S&M relationship, like he loved being tortured by her or something.
Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson): When I first started to play Jan, she was incredibly straight and serious and kind of humorless. I found that aspect of her really funny because nothing could, in any way, sway her to feel like anything had any humor to it at all. I had this ongoing story going for myself that Jan had become more hard and more masculine by climbing the ranks in a man's world and by almost putting aside her femininity.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): When Melora first came on the show, she hadn't done a ton of comedy. I felt like she was a little bit anxious, because everyone had come from these improv backgrounds. The comedy was that she's straight, and then Michael . . . she's the opposite. And then the comedy started drifting more toward her, where she actually got jokes, rather than being the straight person and being the reaction shot. Her character started to develop. She really embraced it.
Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson): Jan's boob job came from the first year that we went to the [network] upfronts [where advertisers preview upcoming shows], and I turned to Greg and said, "It's funny, I'm looking around at the females in our cast, and I'm thinking nobody in our cast has a boob job." Now, I'm not sure that I'm totally right about that, by the way, but that's what I thought. His wheels just started turning in that moment. It was just so funny to see. That was when he thought, "Ding-ding-ding-ding! Jan's getting a boob job!" When Michael broke up with her, in order to get him back, she goes and gets her boobs giant. I just think that's hilarious, and obviously the beginning of her losing her shit.
To Jan, Michael was this guy who was kind of an idiot, but also represented this possibility for her white picket fence, which is why the dinner party is so resonant. That really is Jan's moment of white picket fence. It's her moment of “here we are living together, and I'm gonna have a candle business, and we have a Warhol on the wall of me, and [Michael] adores me, and we're gonna have this perfect life.” It's her having a delusional fantasy of normalcy.
A table read is a chance for actors to get familiar with the script and for the writers to see if the jokes work. The writers approached the "Dinner Party" table read with some trepidation since it was so dark.
Gene Stupnitsky (co-writer): It started off very slow. Not a lot of laughs. Little by little, it just starts building, and I never experienced that before. The laughs kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. I remember I was just sweating through my T-shirt. It was the greatest feeling I've ever had.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): There's nothing more satisfying than having Steve Carell barely able to get through his lines. It's like a live show. You're seeing someone experience it right in front of you for the first time, which is great.
Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin): When we all first read it, we were laughing hysterically.
Ed Helms (Andy Bernard): Sometimes table reads are quick and easy and sometimes they're a bit of a slog, and that one had just so many laughs already built into it. Gene and Lee just had such a grasp of the voice of the show and of these characters that we knew that, yes, we're on to something special here. This is going to be a blast.
Gene Stupnitsky (co-writer): Most scripts get rewritten, and I think this was the only one ever done that didn't. The only thing that was changed was that in our first draft Jan hits the neighbor's dog and kills it on purpose.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): We decided that maybe that was going too far.
Before any show gets on the air, the network has to give notes and sign off on the script.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): We always got notes from the network, and sometimes those could be really contentious, but Greg Daniels always handled them really well and at that point we had a pretty good trust and a good shorthand with the network. So the writers got called in to the office to hear the notes. Greg gets on the phone and the executives are on the other line, on speakerphone. Only the writers have read the scripts so far and this is, you know, before the table read, and they get on the phone, and they go, "This script is really, really dark." And Greg said, "Yeah." And there's a pause and they said, "It's really dark." And Greg said, "Yeah. It is." And they go, "It's really dark." And he goes, "Yup." And then he goes, "OK, anything else, guys?" And they said, "Uh . . . nope." They hung up and that was it. They didn't offer any other notes.
Greg Daniels (executive producer/co-creator): At that time we were the number-one comedy on NBC, so we had earned some leeway. I maybe had to use up some chits to protect this episode, but I had a bunch of chits in the bank. I think we did a little to redeem Jan, like she didn’t intentionally run over a dog, she spray-painted it, but other than that I was pretty confident it was going to be a great episode. Jan and Michael were never supposed to work out, so I think there is an element of relief and hope that they break up. There are some nice moments, like Dwight taking Michael in at the end, or Jan trying to glue the Dundie [award] back together or Michael trying to take the blame with the police, so it wasn’t too dark, in my opinion.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): When you're in Season Four of a show, you're struggling to keep it fresh and make sure the characters are surprising the audience. We'd always gotten bits and pieces of people's home life. But going to your boss's house for dinner felt like, "Oh, that's an 'Office' story." That's something you can mine. We spent days and days talking about, like, "What is that apartment like? Where do they sleep? How many bedrooms is it? How is it decorated? How long is the dinner?" You just keep pitching on and turning the screws and turning the screws.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): Michael so wants to be friends with Jim and Pam, and the idea of having people over at his house for a dinner party is something I feel like he's dreamt about for years, with having a girlfriend and being proud of her and all that. He still tries to push through in spite of the fact that Jan is clearly on the edge and in spite of the fact that their relationship is crumbling. He's trying to put on this facade. At the beginning of the episode, you kind of know that the relationship isn't great, but then, as you continue to watch it, it's like, "Oh, my God. He's trying to get investors in her candle company. Oh, my God. They hate each other! Her assistant wrote a song about her." That's the peeling of the onion of it.
Beth Grant (Melvina, Dwight’s former babysitter): I had just done No Country for Old Men and I'd worked with Greg Daniels on King of the Hill. When the strike ended, he called me and said, "We want you to play Rainn Wilson's date and former babysitter." I was like, "Oh, my God, from the beet farm?" Needless to say, I said yes very quickly. I heard they improv'd a lot, but when I read the script I was like, "My goodness, they don't need any improv on this. This is just fabulous." It almost read like a [Harold] Pinter play because it was so literary.
John Krasinski (Jim Halpert): People always ask me, "Oh, man, how much of the Office is improvised?" and I go, "Ninety percent of the time it was exactly what the writers wrote." Nobody ever believes me. I mean, we truly had one of the greatest brain trusts of comedy since probably, like, early [National] Lampoon days.
IV. The Writers' Strike
Eight episodes into the fourth season, production on "The Office" was shut down along with all of Hollywood due to the WGA strike. "The Dinner Party" was slated to be the next episode shot whenever the strike was settled.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer):: On the second day of the strike, they hadn't shut down production yet, so we picketed where The Office was shot, where the actual sets were. Then we picketed our [set] the second day, and then finally they shut it down, which was just terrible.
Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin): I had friends that when the writers’ strike happened, their shows folded and that was it. It was really devastating for a lot of people.
Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly): I remember that Steve didn't come to work. There was a script that had been already written and I remember there were certain rules, which was like, if you have a script, you can film it, but you can't have a writer on set to help it along, which is really typical in television. Steve was a member of the WGA, and he's also a member of Screen Actors Guild, but as a member of the WGA, he wouldn't cross the picket line. And we all really respected him for that. The whole production had to shut down until the end of the strike, and I feel like we ended up losing something like six or seven episodes that year. It ended up being a 14-episode season.
John Krasinski (Jim Halpert): In the writers we trusted. They were our lifeblood, and we wanted them to get whatever they wanted.
Paul Feig (director): I directed a few episodes every season. "The Dinner Party" had gone to some other director, and I'm reading it like, "Oh, my God, I want to direct this episode!" They were like, "Well, it's already been promised to this other guy," so I was like "Oh, fuck!" To me, the cringe-ier the better in comedy. My favorite thing is to make an audience really uncomfortable and make them laugh at the same time. So I was super-bummed out.
Then the writers’ strike hits. We were all bummed, but then I was like, "Oh, I wonder if I can get this now." Everybody's schedule got mixed up because of the strike, and the director who was supposed to do it got busy on another job, so I came swooping in like a vulture and got it. I was just so happy because, honestly, it's one of the best scripts I'd ever read in TV, movies, anything. I just so completely saw it in my brain.
V. Setting the Stage at Michael's Condo
Viewers first saw Michael Scott's condo in the Season Two episode “Office Olympics,” where he bought it from a real estate agent played by Carell's real-life wife, Nancy Carell. The interiors and exteriors were shot at an actual condominium located at 7303 Bonnie Place in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Reseda, eight miles from the Van Nuys soundstage where "The Office" was shot. "The Dinner Party" was the first time viewers saw the interior once Jan had moved in.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): When Paul Feig came aboard, we scouted the location with him and it was this pretty nondescript condo. Paul said, "I want to paint the walls here, I wanna do this and I wanna do that." At the time, we had pretty much just been on the office set, and when we did locations, we were on a location for half a day. You know, at a grocery store or something. We never knew that you could kind of transform a place like that.
Paul Feig (director): My first episode was “Office Olympics,” which, ironically, involved finding Michael's condo. It was fun making it look the way that it would look when he was buying it. And so I always felt very connected to the condo, because we shot a lot of episodes in there. It's around Woodland Hills, where we shot a lot of Freaks and Geeks, and so I've already had a really great like with the Woodland Hills area, just because it looks kind of Midwestern.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): We talked a lot about the decor. There's that kind of Andy Warhol picture of Jan. What does the bedroom look like? You don't want to point to the jokes too much. You try to kind of throw away as much as possible. There are just little touches, like the beer sign in the garage, and Michael having that hand-shaped chair. We talked about this idea that Michael buys a lot of things that he sees late at night on TV, so he has a Bowflex and he has a Soloflex. He has an Ab Roller. He never uses any of them, but his garage is filled with that stuff. We talked about him having a tiny, tiny flatscreen TV that's 14 inches. That was written in the script. He's very proud of it, because it's a flatscreen.
Paul Feig (director): It was such a rich storyline to play with, productionwise, because of all this stuff. The whole candle business was just so funny to us. It was also the challenge of "How do you get the joke across that the room just absolutely stinks of candles?" Krasinski was so brilliant at conveying just how badly the room smelled. You can't put a big flashing red light on and so it really came down to a ridiculous amount of candles and then John's performance.
John Krasinski (Jim Halpert): Paul was always and still is one of my favorite collaborators to work with because he just so understood the idea of using us as the tool to help him get wherever he needed. He is such a brilliant director, and one of the things he knows how to do is get the best out of everybody. So he's very nice for saying that, but I'm sure that part of it was him telling me to do that.
VI. Hunter's Song
Near the end of Jan's tenure at Dunder Mifflin, she had a young, eager assistant named Hunter Raymond, who moonlights as a singer-songwriter. Michael was jealous of his youth and good looks from the second he laid eyes on him. In "The Dinner Party," we hear one of Hunter’s songs, "That One Night." From the opening lines – “You took me by the hand/Made me a man” – it’s clear to everyone in the room what (and who) the song is about. Everyone but Michael, that is. The lyrics for the song were written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, but for the music and voice they turned to New Pornographers guitarist Todd Fancey.
Gene Stupnitsky (co-writer): We liked the idea that Michael was clueless and it was clear to everyone else that Jan took her ex-assistant's virginity. He wrote it clearly about Jan and how she made him a man, and it was a terrible song. Watching Carell, just kind of looking like there's nothing in his eyes, just kind of bopping his head along slightly. He likes the song. He has no clue.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): I have a different read on the Carell thing, which is I think he does know and he's just hoping against hope that he's wrong. When he's listening to it, on some level he does know that [Jan and Hunter] had something. We couldn't remember exactly how it got to Todd. Basically, we wanted it to sound good. We had some relationships with some musicians, and some other people on the show did, and we sent out the lyrics to a bunch of different people. People we had actually heard of and bands we had heard of took the time to record it, kind of on spec, I think?
Gene Stupnitsky (co-writer): There were some crazy versions. There were some metal versions.
Todd Fancey (“That One Night” songwriter, New Pornographers guitarist): I got a call from my friend Alicen Schneider, who was vice president of music creative services for NBC. I was a huge fan of the show, and she said, "Do you want to give this a shot?" I said, "Sure, I'll do it," and the producers sent me the lyrics. I was living in Vancouver. I just went downstairs to my other apartment – I had two at the time – and boom. It came really quick. I wrote it on acoustic guitar. I went into a studio in suburban Vancouver and recorded it. My direction was "Make it sound kind of amateur. He's a struggling musician."
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): Todd's version just made us laugh the most. We ended up going with that one.
Todd Fancey (“That One Night” songwriter, New Pornographers guitarist): A few months later, after the writers' strike, the New Pornographers were on tour in Houston. I had almost completely forgotten about the song. I got a call on my cell from a production assistant on the show. They were like, "We really liked your version, but we want it to be smoother, more polished. And we need it to be Tuesday." It was a Saturday. I hang up the phone and was like, "Shit. How am I going to do this?" So I booked a studio in Denver with these complete strangers and did a more polished version. I got it in by Tuesday and then they called and said, "We're going to use the original one you sent. This new one is too polished." I got a lump-sum payment, and every quarter I get money wherever it's played.
Fancey dug through an old hard drive under his bed to find an alternate, unheard version of "Hunter's Song" with many verses not used on the show. For the first time anywhere, you can hear it right here.
VII. The Shoot
On February 26th, 2008, the Writers Guild of America ended its strike, and the cast of "The Office" could finally descend on the Reseda condo to film "The Dinner Party."
John Krasinski (Jim Halpert): Because the writers had written such good stuff for "Dinner Party," it was like tons of gunpowder being in one room. As soon as you walk into that set, you knew why it was funny and how it was going to keep getting funnier.
Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly): We loved any time that we got to go on location, because we spent most of those 10 years in [the main Office set]. I mean, we were excited every time we filmed in the parking lot. So the fact that we actually went on location was superduper-exciting. It was like the kids got to go to Disneyland.
Ed Helms (Andy Bernard): It's always fun to kind of go on field trips, especially if it was a little bit of a smaller group. Those locations are always a little more social because you don't have your same comforts to go back to your trailer and the lot. You just wind up socializing a bit more, and those group scenes are the same way. You wind up just sitting there at the dinner table with all these wonderful people and you're just kind of killing time between setups and shots and making each other laugh. They were fun bonding experiences, in a way.
Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson): It was a tiny condominium deep in the Valley, and so it really was uncomfortable. You really couldn't get away from anyone. You had your dressing room, but it was, like, a block away, because they couldn't park it right there. It was perfect for the episode, it really was. I kind of used that a lot and used the heat. It was just scalding hot, I remember. I mean, the place was air-conditioned, but it was hot outside. It was just scorching.
Paul Feig (director): Since the episode all takes place at night, we had to tent the place so that it looked dark outside. So that just adds an extra layer of insulation. You can have air-conditioning hoses running in, but, you know, we do long takes. When we start to shoot a scene 'cause it's the mockumentary style, we turn on the cameras and then we never turn them off until we finish the scene. So it was a little bit of an ordeal in that way.
Greg Daniels (executive producer/co-creator): The condo is pretty cramped just for four couples, but you have to consider all the crew right behind the cameras and the hot lights. I remember the camera operators getting jammed in the tight halls. Plus we often had air-conditioning ducts running in to cool stuff off, but you couldn’t run them during the takes because of sound, and we had long, enormous takes with very little breaks between.
Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin): It was a very small condo, which I thought was great. It was a very small living room, and we were all sort of wedged in on the sofa together and more people kept arriving. It was definitely a great foundation for this awkward comedy setting. You know? This very awkward dinner party in this very small space.
Paul Feig (director): To shoot the testimonials, they had to be crammed inside this little bathroom. We just shoved a camera in there that we could barely fit in the room. I was, like, up on the sink and the cameraman was sitting back on this tiny countertop. It just gave it that feeling of there's no escape, like they're just trapped in this place. Also, our director of photography and cameraman had come from Survivor. That's the genius of Greg Daniels. We'd set the scene up and then they would just shoot it the way they would shoot a reality show.
Greg Daniels (executive producer/co-creator): My goal was to direct the camera operators as if they were actors, since they were really in the scene too, since it was a documentary. For instance, instead of saying, “Start wide and then pan left and push in,” I might say, “You know that Jan is jealous of Pam, so look for evidence of that, and make sure to check in on Dwight’s weird date, I think she is doing something with her fork,” and then let them decide when it was interesting and appropriate to find the action, using their instincts from covering reality. Sometimes I would tell them to close their eyes and spin around so they didn’t know where they were, and then on “action” open their eyes and try to find the scene.
The party begins with Jim and Pam arriving at the condo and Michael and Jan giving them a tour. They are eventually joined by Andy and Angela, plus party-crasher Dwight, who brings along his old babysitter, Melvina, in an attempt to make ex-lover Angela jealous. Jan is cooking ossobuco, which takes hours to prepare. Tension builds as Michael and Jan are unable to conceal their hatred for each other. Jan accuses Pam of having had a past relationship with Michael, and eventually gets into such a nasty fight with Michael that the police are called in. Dark stuff – but also so funny that the actors often had trouble getting through their scenes.
Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly): I couldn't stop laughing when we shot the scene where Jan catches me eating. It was insane. There's a scene where they're giving us a tour of the house, and Steve explains that he sleeps on the little chaise longue at the end of the bed, and we could not get through that scene. Every time he went to explain that that's where he slept, the way he delivered that was so funny, and then he would, like, curl up. . . . We couldn't get through it. The biggest one was when he's showing us his flatscreen television. And it's so tiny. We laughed so hard, like, tears were streaming down our faces.
Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson): I don't remember that there was anything particularly funny, but we just got on a laughing jaunt, and we literally could not stop. Every time they turned on the camera, either [Fischer] or me would just be absolutely in fits of laughter. It probably took the longest of any of the other scenes, because we had to literally take a break and walk away to stop laughing. And I don't even know what we were laughing about. I think we were hot and exhausted.
Beth Grant (Melvina, Dwight’s former babysitter): When I first arrive, I'm standing in the doorway holding a cooler. Steve went on this wild riff that just killed me. I was trying so hard not to break. Especially as a guest star, you don't wanna waste everyone’s time and money. The dinner scene was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I was physically dying inside from holding back laughter. I had to hold a beet on my fork and suck on it. I put everything into that.
Paul Feig (director): The thing with the bench on the edge of the bed was based partly on an experience I had when I was an intern working for a producer. I became friends with one of the women in the office and I would go kind of hang out with her occasionally. One day she took me to her house. She was living with a guy, and she was showing me around the house, and we look in the bedroom and there's a little cot next to this king-size bed. I was like, "What's that?" and she was like, "Look, you're a single man. You should learn from this. This man I'm with has issues with someone being in his bed." And so basically, after they had sex, she had to roll off onto this cot. I was like, "That's the saddest thing I've ever heard in my life."
I can't even remember if it was in the script or not, but we just had that bench and Steve had to roll off onto it. My favorite thing that I've ever contributed in the editing room was as we were editing I said, "Don't cut when he gets on that bench. That has to last as long as it can before everyone broke." And so we stood there with him curled up on that bench way longer than you should. Jan was just like, "See, he fits, he's comfortable." That just destroys me.
Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson): In the sequence where I sort of dance inappropriately, I purposefully did not do that in rehearsal, just so that John Krasinski could be particularly uncomfortable [when I tried to dance with him]. I waited until we were filming to do that so that he would be completely surprised and have to deal with it on camera, which is why it's such a great, ridiculously uncomfortable moment. And he doesn't get up from his seat. I'm a dancer, but I really tried to just dance a tiny bit off the beat. It was so much fun to just be a little bit wrong.
John Krasinski (Jim Halpert): That’s where the 10 percent of us getting to improv comes into play. The writers were always so supportive of those tiny decisions being up to you. I totally remember that moment. As soon as she started dancing, it was that thing, you could feel the energy in the room, and we were already at maximum, and it just felt ridiculous. It was amazing.
I remember Angela and Ed coming into that episode, and Jenna and I and Steve just looking at her being like, "Oh, no. Not another one.” It was like you couldn't bring another funny person into the room because it was just exploding with fun and hilarity. When they arrived, it was like, "Oh, my God, I don't even know if we can handle it. I don't know if this episode is going to be able to handle it."
Ed Helms (Andy Bernard): If you've ever watched Office outtakes, you know it can be a disaster when we start laughing. Oscar Nunez was legendary because he was unbreakable. He never, ever broke. On the other end of the spectrum, you had me and Krasinski and Angela, and we were just like giggle maniacs. If something tickled with us, it was over. And we would ruin take after take after take and burn a lot of film.
The moment that caused the wildest fits of hysteria was when Michael proudly shows off the tiny plasma-screen television to his guests.
Ed Helms (Andy Bernard): I had never laughed so hard as I did than during that scene. I had my little trick: If I was really laughing, I would began to look at Steve's ear. That was my trick. I couldn't make eye contact with him because I would laugh, so I would either look at his chin or his ear or even something behind him and just focus on that, just so that I could get through something and keep a straight face. There was probably plenty of scenes where I'm stiff as a board not even acting, so to speak, but just trying not to laugh.
John Krasinski (Jim Halpert): I think that's probably the hardest I've laughed during the entire run of the show, and it's very evident. I was not professional enough in those scenes because I cracked every time one of those jokes happened. One of the funniest things I've witnessed in my life was Steve showing us that flatscreen TV and saying, "When . . . when people are over you can just do this" [pulling the screen out from the wall]. The TV only moved, like, a half an inch. Sometimes Steve would get frustrated when we couldn't keep it together because he didn't think he was as funny as we thought he was and also he's more professional than all of us. But on that one, he couldn't come back. There was something in the room there that was like an untamed animal, and we were just getting demolished by laughter.
Ed Helms (Andy Bernard): Then there is this little side table that Michael hand-built that looks like it was built by a three-year-old. There are little throwaway jokes, but they say so much and they're so dense. There are just so many beautiful elements like that.
Perhaps Carell’s greatest comedic moment of the episode comes when he reveals that Jan has forced him to undergo three vasectomies because she kept changing her mind about whether or not she wanted children.
Paul Feig (director): We shot that exchange, like, four or five times, and it was really good but it was superheavy. I remember we were all like, "This is a little . . . this isn't as fun as we wanted it to be." So I went over to Steve and said, "It's awesome, we just need to make it a little more fun." And so that was the take that's in when he said, "Snip-snap, snip-snap, snip-snap." That all came out of Steve being such an amazing actor and going, like, "OK, I know how to take it and make it Michael craziness." [The cast] were just laughing so hard and going, like, "God, this guy is such a fucking genius."
Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson): There’s that scene when we're all sitting in the living room and I'm telling this story about Michael running through the glass because he heard the ice cream truck. He said something like, “Well, you know, she put the glass there," and I said, "Yeah, I'm the devil," and I put my fingers on my head like little horns. I just thought of it in that moment. Steve's reaction, he almost cracks up. If you watch him, he's laughing and saying, "Yeah, yeah, you are the devil!" He was sort of simultaneously almost losing it, because it was funny. When we cut, we all burst in laughter. It's just one of those really alive kind of moments, and that kind of stuff happened all the time, where we're just always improvising.
Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin): Steve Carell and Melora Hardin could not have crushed it more. They were so amazing at that dysfunctional couple peeling back the layers. They both had such a handle on their characters that they really could play, and it was so fun to watch them.
Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly): Angela Kinsey was very pregnant when we shot that episode, and she was having to, like, carry weird items or sit with her purse on her lap to cover her pregnant belly.
Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin): My pregnancy wasn't written into the season arc because it didn't exist for part of the season. Then, after the writers’ strike, I came back very pregnant – and I'm a petite person. So then it was, "Oh, my God, how do we hide her belly?" because if you're just picking up where we left off, you can’t have a pregnancy overnight. One of the reasons why Ed Helms shows up with that enormous bouquet of flowers is because it was hiding my belly.
Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin): I'll never forget when we were filming the scene where we finally get to try to eat. My daughter was kicking like crazy. I reached under the table and grabbed Ed Helms' hand and put it on my belly. He turned to me and his eyes got so big because he could feel her kicking, like, "Oh, my gosh."
John Krasinski (Jim Halpert): Almost every time we were all laughing so hard, and I was obviously doing my squeal, Angela was saying, "Please stop. I'm going to pee."
Paul Feig (director): One of my favorite visual gags on that episode was that Dwight brings wine and wine glasses. I said, "He's gotta fill those wine glasses to the top. He's a guy that never drinks wine, so to him it's like a water glass." So the fact that those wine glasses are filled right to the top just makes me laugh so hard.
Ed Helms (Andy Bernard): Certain episodes kind of hum with this vibration where you just feel like it's working in a way that's very rare. The enduring memory for me of that time is not so much about any discomfort on set, even though it was hot, but just that feeling of giddiness you get when you feel part of something so special that's working and that's making you laugh so hard so consistently. I couldn't wait to get to set every day.
VIII. The Aftermath
Gene Stupnitsky (co-writer): NBC was doing supersize episodes around this time, so some of The Offices are 44 minutes. That one, for whatever reason, could not be that long. We supersized it, but we didn't air it; it was like a producer's cut you could buy on iTunes. It was the single hardest episode we ever had to edit down to time. It was the most painful editing process. There's a lot of scenes that we had to just keep cutting away, so there was a 29-minute version that exists where you can feel a little bit more of the [tension] we were trying to convey.
Lee Eisenberg (co-writer): If you didn't feel awkward and tense enough in the 21-minute version of the show, there's a 29-minute version of the show that's out there somewhere.
Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly): Two years ago, I was shooting a movie, and when I walked into my trailer, there was a tiny flatscreen television mounted to the wall. It looked like a computer monitor, but someone had mounted it. It was exactly like in the show, so I took a picture of it and I sent it to the cast, to Ed and Angela and Rainn and Steve and Melora. And then we were all on this e-mail chain cracking up and remembering that episode together, because we were like, "Oh, my God, that's the hardest I've ever laughed. My God, that's amazing."
Paul Feig (director): Ironically, right before I heard you were doing this oral history, I was on a plane just kinda going through my iPad. I hadn't watched “The Dinner Party” in years, and I just made a fool of myself laughing so hard. There are so many things I forgot about. It's my proudest thing I've ever done in TV directing, outside of Freaks and Geeks. It led to the greatest thing that's ever happened to me professionally, which is I won the Directors’ Guild award for that episode. To get honored by your fellow directors was just so cool. It will always have a soft spot in my heart.