Interview: ‘The Office’ showrunner Paul Lieberstein on James Spader and more

Senior Television Writer
08.02.11 18 Comments


The last time I ran into “The Office” showrunner Paul Lieberstein at an NBC press tour party, he couldn’t say much of anything about the show’s plans for life after Steve Carell. Last night, though, Lieberstein and I were able to talk openly about the hiring of James Spader and the role his character, Robert California, will play within the world of Dunder-Mifflin.

On the other hand, Lieberstein didn’t want to discuss the other shoe that will drop with Spader’s hiring, but we did talk quite a bit about what a Carell-less “Office” will be like, why certain characters went in the direction they did last season, the population boom at the Scranton branch, the cameo by Lieberstein’s brother (and “Office” staff writer) Warren as Toby’s brother Rory, and more.

Going into the finale, knowing all of the actors that you had, there were all these reports that Catherine Tate was the favorite. Was there actually a favorite at that point?

Catherine Tate was a proven comedy actress from a comedy background with great taste. I knew her work, and was an incredible fan. So just thinking comedy for comedy, I liked her a lot. But not necessarily for the role. It could’ve been. James Spader had no intention of joining our show, and we didn’t think he wanted to do anything else but come out and play. We hadn’t been told otherwise by his agents or anything. But he clicked. He brought out a cool side of Jim. I love what he did with Dwight. His walk through the office, his relationship to camera. I thought, “This is different.” This is a new side to the office, and I like him.

So at what point in negotiations did you realize, “We don’t want him to replace Michael. We want him to replace Jo”?

It’s not just replacing Jo. He’s on many episodes.

I know, but he has that job. He’s not the branch manager.

That was from the very beginning. It kind of built together: his interest and willingness to increase his time grew as we started talking about the character. At first it was just for a few episodes. He also got to see our process, which is something he didn’t know about going into the show. You don’t wait around for an hour and a half of four takes. You wait 15 minutes for lighting and do 10 takes.

What does having him as the new CEO do for you as opposed to having him as the branch manager?

We’re having him have family in town, so he’s up a lot. And I think when he’s in it, he feels like the manager. He’s there in the conference room. Whoever the manager is, I’m not saying who, but when your boss is there, your boss is there. That’s the boss. That’s the person who makes the announcements.

So you said you’re not going to tell me who the new branch manager is. Can you at least tell me that you’re not bringing anybody else in from outside?

Not saying.

Okay, then I’m just going to say a few things, and you can just respond to them or not.

(laughs) Okay.

You did the episode where Dwight was in charge, that was a wonderful episode. But at the same time, Dwight comes across as an utter lunatic, and appears ill-suited to it. Was that your intention for that episode, and/or what you took out of it?


Okay, then you have Jim, whom you’ve said to me in the past that, when you did the co-manager thing, you didn’t feel was very good for the character.

(Nervous laughter)

And yet he seemed to be moving towards a leadership position in the finale and he worked well with Spader.

(No response)

You’re smiling a lot, and yet you’re saying nothing.

That is true. However, I don’t know if I should play this game with you. Because you’re very smart and you’ll go through everyone and it’ll be over. Here’s the thing: I’d like to do this for the audience. I want them to find out in the fall.

That’s fair. Because you ended on a cliffhanger, and my reaction was, “That’s silly. The casting is going to be announced in Entertainment Weekly, or Deadline or whatever, and it won’t be a surprise by September.” But now at least this part may be a surprise.

Yeah, as long as somebody else doesn’t leak it. I mean, it’s not the story of the century! It’s not a White House scandal. But if people can keep quiet about this television show, we’d appreciate it.

I want to get back to the episode where Dwight was manager, because that’s the one episode you did there at the end that was not with any stunting. No Will Ferrell, no guest stars, and that seemed to be the episode – unrelated to Michael’s exit – that people were most satisfied with from the season. When you look at that episode, what did that make you think in terms of the ensemble you already had?

I was really happy. That’s exactly it. It was the only one where we truly tested out the idea of life without any outside people. We’d always been telling each other, “Gosh, we love this cast, everyone can do it. We can move forward with them.” And then there it was, and it totally worked. We were really relieved.

But you’re still bringing in somebody from the outside in Spader. Was there a sense that Steve leaves a big void and it would be nice to bring someone in? Is it that it gets the show attention at such a late date?

It really wasn’t that. It was more about just getting excited about something new that we wanted to write about. I do this all the time. I keep bringing people in. I went into the season thinking we didn’t need any new writers, and then I ended up hiring three, because I just loved their work and got excited about them.

That’s something that’s come up: that office is very heavily-populated at this point. Gabe is still part of the show, and you, and whoever’s the branch manager is the branch manager, and Pam is the office administrator, and there’s Erin, and is the executive secretary whom DeAngelo hired sticking around?

No, no.

So that’s one less person, but there’s a lot of people in that place, including Darryl up from the warehouse. You had a big cast to begin with, going back to the season 2 cast, so how do you make that work?

Here’s how we do it: we need to have some episodes where some people don’t have much. We need to move it around, and “this episode highlights Pam” or “this episode doesn’t have Andy much” or “Darryl has two lines in this one and has an A-plot in this one.”

What was the thinking behind Pam as office administrator?

It gave her more to do. It made her interact with more people. Also, her character started to feel like she couldn’t be a receptionist anymore. She had gone out, had tried to do other things that hadn’t worked. It had got a little sad, and it felt like a failure when she wanted more.

And is this enough for her for now with the kids?

Yeah. At this point in her life, her direction is much more family-oriented.

I want to get back to Darryl, and this is not me trying to suss out whether he becomes manager. But the last time we spoke, there was a lot of momentum among the people I knew that if you were going to promote from within, Craig (Robinson) would be great. And then we come to the finale, and Darryl proves himself to be spectacularly unprepared. What was going on there?

We wanted to even him out. He couldn’t be a frontrunner. Otherwise, he’s too competent and would be an easy pick. It was an attempt to bring a bunch of people to the same level. In an effort to do that, we took a look at the guy, he’s a competent decision-maker. He’s not schooled, he doesn’t have what Andy has: a fantastic resume and an ability to interview well.

And once Michael leaves, Toby is very happy. When Dwight shoots the gun, Toby is very excited to bust out all those forms, and he no longer has Michael to deal with. What will the Toby Flenderson of season 8 be like?

There’s going to be a reckoning, I think. I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to break my arc (laughs), but either someone’s got to start to hate him again, or he’s got to be lost without the hate. Just an existential existence.

How did it take you 7 years to cast your brother as your brother?

It’s amazing. And oddly enough, he’s the actor in the family. He acted in high school and college and came out here to act for a while. He did Groundlings and other improv.

Will we be seeing Rory again? Or can we not, because that would bring Michael back into things and Michael’s gone?

I don’t know. We could see Rory again, maybe a glimpse.

How many episodes do you have Spader for?

We have him for 15.

Even in episodes where Michael wasn’t the central character, he was always driving the action in some way. Michael would do something that would cause reactions by others. Spader isn’t going to be in every episode, and he’s in a slightly different role. Is there someone else in the current cast who can fill that function? Will you have to spread it around?

I think there are a few characters who are story starters. It will move around. Dwight and Andy are definitely story starters.

Steve was great, obviously. But is it easier in a way that you can distribute that kind of thing around now? Or is it harder to break stories because you don’t have Michael?

It feels harder right now, but there’s a learning curve. We got to know the show very well. We really knew how to write him. But we have a few models for how to kick off the show.

One of the things that was always interesting to me about Michael was that, depending on which one of you was writing the episode, there were 4 or 5 different Michaels. They were all recognizable as him, but different kinds of him. You’re very early in writing Robert California, but do you think that’s going to be the case as well, or that the guy we saw in the finale is the guy we’ll see all the time?

It depends what you feel like you saw. I feel it’s very important to let individual writers’ voices come through. But the character has to be consistent. So if you felt like we were inconsistent with Michael, that’s not so good. But if you felt like, “Here’s a guy who sometimes acts smarter and is sometimes less smart,” then we’ll be doing that as well. I think the show gets boring without it. How do you watch this many years of a show without variation.

And I guess Robert can’t be that omnipotent all the time, right?


Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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