Thursday night, The Office says goodbye with a one-hour retrospective (NBC, 8 p.m. ET), followed by the one-hour series finale. For Brian Baumgartner (Kevin), the table read was the most emotional day working on that last episode. “We hadn’t read it. We were all reading the words and what was going to happen in that moment,” he says. “I’d heard a rumor about Kevin, and based on what the rumor was, I wasn’t happy. But then when I read it and saw how things worked, I was very happy.”
Here, Baumgartner looks back on 10 episodes that helped define the show and remain personal and fan favorites.
“Diversity Day,” Season 1: When we were shooting that first episode after the pilot, I said to myself and others, “If people give this show a chance, it has the potential to be something really special. I felt then that really since All in the Family, network television didn’t examine hard issues like race relations in complicated ways. This was much more true five or six years ago, but I would go home to Georgia, and I would talk to my parents’ friends and [they'd say], “Oh my god, that’s so great, but I just can’t watch that show. It’s just too mean. That Michael Scott is just so awful.” And yet, I look at the demographics, and clearly that demographic is watching CSI. So it’s like disemboweled half-naked girls is totally acceptable and fine to watch as entertainment, but if something challenges you in terms of a real issue in a real way, it’s difficult for people. The show is unapologetically not nice. To me, that’s what distinguishes it from Modern Family, which was obviously born out of The Office. Ultimately, that is a nice show. It makes you feel good. The Office comedy is much more subversive, dark, and challenging in a way.
“Christmas Party,” Season 2: It was our first show over 10 million viewers. Even “Diversity Day,” you could argue was an ensemble show, but that episode was truly an ensemble. Everybody had something to do. There was the teapot with Jim and Pam, and Dwight being an idiot elf, and Michael running the Yankee Swap, and Kevin has the foot bath, and Phyllis has the mittens, and even Meredith, at the very end, exposes herself — which still may be one of the funniest moments of the show, when Michael takes a picture of her.
Everybody showed their character and had something to say, and it became a hit, not because of that episode, but it’s sort of special in that way. It was like, “Okay, this is really happening.” The thing that a lot of people don’t know, and I think it was a secret back then, was that we did six episodes in season 1, and then it was announced that The Office was coming back, and the assumption was that it was for 13 episodes. But we were only picked up for six episodes in season 2. So we came back in July and shot six episodes in a row, and then we cleared out our trailers and left because none of them had aired yet and we had no idea if we were ever gonna be back again or not. So then we came back, and then suddenly My Name is Earl helped us out. And then we built higher that than. And then by Christmas of that year, it was the Christmas episode, and everything was big, and then Steve Carell won a Golden Globe. So we were tromping along with NBC saying, “Okay, you can do four more episodes.” “You can do three more.” “You can do four more.” That winter, when they finally said, “Okay, you can finish 22 for this year,” within two weeks of that time, they gave us an order for a whole other year.
“Secret Santa,” Season 6: Michael’s so determined to be Santa, and Kevin sits in his lap. That probably is the single moment of the show that the entire ensemble had the hardest time not laughing. And I couldn’t stop laughing because I could hear Steve laughing behind his beard, but you couldn’t see his mouth. You hear in his voice that his legs are being paralyzed, but he’s fighting to ask Kevin what he wants for Christmas. I don’t think they had enough footage that they could air a version without people laughing. Mindy Kaling and John Krasinski talk about it all the time — they were just gone. That’s a really memorable one for me. We ended us doing it time and time again.
“Goodbye, Toby,” Season 4: The story line that most people remember is when Holly thinks that Kevin is slow. That was probably the table read, of all the table reads that we’ve ever had, that people laughed the hardest. Because it was a joke that was set up for four years, and finally it had this unexpected payoff. It got so much attention that there was a whole huge debate: The idea of the documentary crew — it’s happening in real-time. So it was the finale of one year and leading into the first episode of the next year. Everybody wanted to extend the joke, and [exec producer Greg Daniels] was like, “As funny as it is, it can’t go on for months and months.” Like at a certain point, it has to be called out. Speaking of breaking, I feel like that’s the only time for me it’s on air. Holly, at a certain point, is helping Kevin with the vending machine, and I’m holding money and I’m trying to decide what to do, and she thinks I don’t understand money, and she starts counting out the money. She’s so fantastic: At one point, there’s a button, and she picks up the button and says, “This is a button.” Like she’s explaining to Kevin that he can’t use this to buy something in a machine, and I laughed every time at that. There was something so ridiculous and so funny, and she was so earnest doing it. They made the laugh work, because it goes right into Kevin saying, “I am totally gonna bang Holly.” (Watch the scene below with Hulu Plus.)
“Casual Friday,” Season 5: It was really fun to do, but it always surprises me that so many people mention the cold open we did where Kevin spills chili on the floor. We worked a long time on that, and ultimately had a big battle about whether it’s funny or just too sad and pathetic. Ultimately, I said, “I think that if it plays real and true, you will feel for him, but the moment will be so big and ridiculous that we will have earned that and we’ll also get the laugh in addition to feeling badly for him.” [Laughs] And Oscar [Nunez], Angela [Kinsey], and I had a dinner planned for a long time at Mastro’s, this great steakhouse in Beverly Hills, for that night. I spilled a ton of chili all over the floor, so they had to rip out carpet — it wasn’t like we could do it in the morning. It was a Friday night, and I remember going to Mastro’s and sitting there after showering and showering and smelling like chili. My skin had just absorbed all of this chili. It was so disgusting and horrifying. But at the time, it was fun. I was like, “Yeah, let me slip around! Let my plant my hand right in the middle of this stuff!”
“Stress Relief,” season 5: “Stress Relief” aired after the Super Bowl, and Dwight does the fake fire and locks everybody in. There was a moment that really happened, and it was just so awesome it stayed in: At the time, Randall Einhorn, who’s now a producer on Wilfred, was the DP, and he was holding the camera as we were trying to do a continuous shot. I think I had just raided the vending machine by throwing a chair, and I turned around and started running through. He was backing up, and he tripped and fell. The camera assistant was this huge football-player looking guy, and he literally takes him by the shoulder and picks him up, and Randall keeps shooting and runs through. And that was in the final cut. Just the chaos that created — that’s unique to our show. Because it’s handheld and documentary-style, it worked.
“Nepotism,” Season 7: Like the fire, the lip dub is special because it felt like theater in terms of the way that we rehearsed it. We rehearsed that for a couple of days. It’s one continuous shot. We were running from this place to that place while the camera was here resetting. Strapping Meredith on my back to turn around, and then take it all off, and then come out and jump up on the desk.
“Casino Night,” Season 2: The care the show always put into really treating the camera as another character and the perspective of the documentarian: It was so frustrating because we would be sitting there for hours sometimes while they would be having these discussions in terms of to what degree the cameras are present or totally hidden and on a long shot. It’s the crazy juxtaposition that makes moments become so intimate: you know people are talking, and the cameras are way far away but they’re capturing something. Just the shot that they do when Jim finally comes into the office, and Pam’s crying on the phone with her mom — it literally gets me every time. He comes in, and the camera jerks in this perfect way and zooms in. The camera is surprised like we’re surprised watching it. It’s just beautiful to me. (Watch the scene below with Hulu Plus.)
“Goodbye, Michael,” Season 7: I think that’s extraordinary television and really showed what The Office does well: It was constructed that there was a moment for him to say goodbye with everybody there. It was really emotional, and — in some ways, and everybody has talked about this — more emotional than the end of the series finale. I think because we had gone through it with him, it made the series finale easier. I can’t give away the end, but the characters are all sort of in a different place and they’re responding to what happens differently. And this was a collective we-are-all-saying-goodbye-to-him. I would say the greatest ensemble-building thing that ever happened off-set was Steve alone winning the Golden Globe. We were all at the Beverly Hilton, but we weren’t in the room because we weren’t nominated. We were peons from this other little show on NBC. We were on a rooftop of a parking garage where they had set up a tent. There was a party up there, and that’s where we were watching it on the monitors. When he won, it was like we won the gold medal, the Emmy, everything combined. There’s a great picture that was taken of all of us in this booth with him. They were looking for unknown people when the show started, so it all just sort of happened to all of us — whatever happens to Steve happens to us. When he said goodbye, it was the first piece that went away from the old gang.
Any episode with a band: I think in the first episode with Amy Adams, “Hot Girl,” there was a reference where I’m like trying to impress her talking about my band. But maybe it didn’t make it on air. Originally, the band was called Jokers & Tokers, and it was a Steve Miller tribute band. We filmed me singing a Steve Miller song for the episode where Jim and Pam are looking through band videos for Pam’s wedding to Roy, and they’re like, “This one’s from Kevin,” and they put it in. Something happened, and they couldn’t end up making a deal. We didn’t reshoot it, but I went in and ended up singing a Police song over top of it. Then the band became Scrantonicity…. It was really difficult for me because I don’t play the drums. I’m not a musician, and I’m surrounded in my cast by a ton of amazing musicians. Ed Helms and the banjo, and Craig Robinson on keyboard — you start humming a song, and Craig will start playing that song that he probably never played before but then also improvising in a way that makes it better than what it was. Phyllis’ wedding — I don’t know how many songs got on the air, but for the episode, we learned six or seven songs and I was petrified the whole time. There was an episode where Kevin, Andy, and Darryl start our own office band with James Spader, and we’d done a couple of episodes doing that, and every time a script came out, I’d go to the producers like, “You guys have to remember that I don’t play the drums, so whatever we do, we need to schedule practice time.” We show up for practice, and Ed and Craig are talking about, “Just go into the B minor chord of C, and we’ll do it at 3-2 time.” “I don’t know what the hell you guys are saying.” But every time we did one of those episodes, I wanted to go get electric drums because it’s superfun. And then a week passed, and I’m like, “What are you doing? You’re an idiot. You’re not gonna learn how to play drums any better than you know now. So forget about it.”