Comedy writer Greg Daniels: ‘The Office was pretty big – but The Simpsons will probably go on my tombstone’
There’s a certain comedic irony in the notion that Greg Daniels, with his glasses and quiet, geeky demeanour, bears a passing resemblance to the character in The Simpsons that he says is his favourite – Millhouse.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for Millhouse”, says Daniels, who joined The Simpsons writing team in 1993 and contributed to seasons five, six and seven.
“I’ve created a bunch of shows – The Office was pretty big – but The Simpsons will probably go on my tombstone.”
But although the long-running show, which last month completed its 27th season, remains resoundingly popular with families around the world, Daniels says his own four children never took to it.
And his own favourite Simpsons moments came before he joined the show.
“Season three is my real favourite”, he says. “I felt like by the time I joined the team, I’d missed the party. But The Simpsons is still going strong. I sometimes do panels with the guys who are making it now, and I can’t believe how quick-witted they are.”
Daniels left the Simpsons in 1997 to co-create another animated sitcom, King of the Hill, with Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge.
“I rewrote Mike’s initial draft for the show”, he says. “I made Dale a conspiracy theorist and gave him a wife who was having an affair, and a son who looked exactly like the guy his wife was having an affair with.”
The tone of King of the Hill – which ran for 13 seasons between 1997 to 2010 – was edgier than that of The Simpsons.
“It came from the drawing style that Mike has, which is far more realistic, so it made sense to try to match the drawing style with the writing”, says Daniels.
Every year, Daniels took his entire writing staff of more than a dozen people with him to Texas, notebooks in hand, to find potential storylines for the show.
“Dale was an exterminator and the voice actor who plays him, Johnny Hardwick, knew an exterminator in Texas with a crazy conspiracy theory, so we paid him a visit,” he says. “He thought a species of stinging ants had been changed by chemicals that big companies had dumped, and they’d become super-intelligent. We used that in the show.”
Daniels also used such research methods to come up with material for The Office, which he adapted for US TV from the British show created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. As a result, the writers got to experience the reality of modern office life.
“I used to say to the writers that we should be like anthropologists and figure out what this unique culture is”, says Daniels.
“Everybody is very uptight in the office world – you have to dress in a suit and tie and follow certain codes, and that’s true all over the world. Here I am in the UAE and it’s the same office culture – everybody’s professional and behaves themselves.”
But despite the similarities in global office cultures, the audience didn’t initially take to the American version of The Office. Daniels realised it was because the manager Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) was too unlikeable, modelled closely as he was on “boss from hell” David Brent, as played by Gervais in the British original.
“British people have much greater tolerance for failure in their leads, whereas Americans like winners”, says Daniels. “So we made these little tweaks to his character over season two and Americans liked him better. I wanted to show he was a really good salesman but a bad manager, so he wasn’t just a compete idiot.”
Daniels was the showrunner for the first four seasons of The Office, then left to focus on his political comedy Parks and Recreation. But he couldn’t resist returning for The Office’s final farewell during its ninth season.
“I loved that show so much, I felt like I went through such an adventure with the cast”, he says. “I wanted to control the ending because I’d been thinking about it for years.
“We were thrown a wonderful goodbye parade by the town of Scranton [where the show was set] and a lot of fans came. The audience was so invested in the characters, and it was very emotional.”
• For more with Greg Daniels, click here