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Production and writing staff of ‘The Office’ talk comedy, careers

When Greg Daniels and Paul Lieberstein spoke at Stanford in 2003 about their experience writing for “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” Carrie Kemper ‘06 was in the audience. Things came full circle for Kemper, now a staff writer for “The Office,” Friday afternoon when she joined Daniels, executive producer and developer of “The Office,” and Lieberstein, executive producer, writer and cast member, on a panel to discuss “Boy-Men at ‘The Office’ — the Petty Comedy of the Dysfunctional Workplace,” hosted by the Program in American Studies.

Scores of “Office” enthusiasts filled a lecture hall in the geology building Friday to hear Daniels, Lieberstein and Kemper talk about their work, jumping between topics from how characters develop on the Emmy-award winning comedy series to the show’s future after Steve Carell’s scheduled departure at the end of the current season.

Kemper, an American Studies major and editor in chief of The Stanford Chaparral while at Stanford, commented on the success of “The Office” as pulling from common life experiences such as a tough economy.

“People are able to make fun of their own lives,” Kemper said of the NBC sitcom chronicling the Scranton, Penn., paper company Dunder Mifflin, now owned by Sabre due to hard times.

The show is also known for its pioneering use of the “mockumentary” format.

“Sitcoms were ready to be married to the reality show format,” Lieberstien said.

Daniels said of the show’s success that different audience members watch for different reasons.

“Most people come for Toby,” Kemper added, referencing Lieberstein’s role as the beloved and ordinary human resources representative Toby Flenderson.

Lieberstein later commented on his experience bridging producing, writing and acting.

“Being on set so much has influenced the way I write . . . and helped me as a producer, too,” Lieberstein said, describing how actors “float around in the dark” when they receive limited direction.

Kemper, commenting on the symposium’s theme of immature men, described how certain characters, such as Dwight Schrute, played by Rainn Wilson, and Michael Scott, played by Carell, are boys in adult bodies.

“What have you got against men?” quipped Lieberstein.

Daniels said that “boy-men” are a staple of comedy and, when asked about a narrative behind “The Office,” said, “We all have enough to eat here in America now. Maybe we’re frivolous.”

When asked about Carell’s impending departure from the show, Lieberstein said, “We’re not going off the air.”

Discussing the collaborative process of writing an episode, Daniels said, “It all boils down to one thing: if the person running things listens to the other people.”

The panel also commented on the nature of careers in television writing and production. When asked about advice for aspiring writers and producers, the trio showed a YouTube clip of girls tripping over hurdles in a track race, followed by the tagline “The courage to continue.”

“Good luck,” Kemper said as the clip ended.

Jokes aside, Lieberstein elaborated on his career path from an economics major at Hamilton College.

“I never thought this was available to me,” he said.

About specific strategies to get in the mindset of a different human being when writing, Daniels asked, “What if that ugly behavior were part of our characters?” He added that he finds it easier to write for the parts of Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott than Erin, the secretary played by Kemper’s older sister, Ellie.

Kemper commented that she finds it easier to write for her sister because she can imagine her delivery of the lines. Clearly, comedy runs in the family, as younger brother Billy Kemper ’11 currently edits The Stanford Chaparral.

The first episode Kemper wrote for “The Office,” titled “The Ultimatum,” will air Jan. 6.

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