Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

Writer Greg Daniels: ‘The whole world would be interested in well-­observed stories of life here’

We chat with veteran American comedy writer Greg Daniels, who was joined by fellow TV executives Benjamin Silverman and Howard T Owens, during a workshop at twofour54 in Abu Dhabi.

Greg Daniels, above, worked on hit shows such as the American version of The Office. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Greg Daniels, above, worked on hit shows such as the American version of The Office. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

Members of Abu Dhabi’s creative community jumped at the chance to brainstorm ideas for a television show about life in the Emirates, under the guidance of one of the world’s most successful comedy writers.

Greg Daniels, who has worked on a host of hit shows – including the American version of The Office, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, King of the Hill and Parks and Recreation – had been invited to Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 for the event.

He was joined by fellow TV executives Benjamin Silverman (executive producer of The Office, The Tudors and Ugly Betty) and Howard T Owens (co-founder of Propagate Content), to meet local industry figures. It was the first time Daniels had hosted an interactive workshop outside of the United States, and hailed it as a big success.

“One guy created a great character that made everybody in the room light up and say: ‘We want to play with that toy,’” he says. “I certainly hope someone in this country makes a show out of his ideas.”

Daniels likes to compare working in TV with playing with toys. He describes his adaptation of British comedy The Office for American audiences in similar terms.

“The show’s writers, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, had built this beautiful, fun toy which they played with a few times and didn’t want to play with anymore,” he says, referring to their decision to end the show after 12 episodes and two Christmas specials. “I said: ‘There’s a lot of fun left to be had in that toy – I’ll play with that.’”

His advice to budding filmmakers in the region is to ditch the rule book, as he did in 2005 with The Office, which was the first “mockumentary”-style American comedy show.

“You’re always going to be a half step behind if you’re trying to figure out what the rules are and then following them”, he says. “If you’re really truthful and specific about what you write about, the comedy becomes ­universal.”

The mockumentary format evolved alongside the global rise of reality TV. Daniels recruited Randall Einhorn, a camera operator from the reality show Survivor, as director of photography to create an authentic “real-life” look for The Office.

“He added a lot of panning and shooting techniques from reality shows”, he says. “A lot of ­multi-camera sitcoms come from a tradition of theatre and many early writers had theatre backgrounds.

“But The Office is a lot more like YouTube – people who own camcorders and are filming themselves and their friends, which is way more the DNA of people now than live theatre.”

The fresh approach paid off – The Office ran for nine seasons and earned Daniels an Emmy Award for outstanding writing in a comedy series. His next mockumentary show, the political comedy Parks and Recreation, ran for seven seasons.

However, Daniels no longer sees the mockumentary format as the way forward.

“Single-camera shows will remain popular, but I don’t think mockumentaries are the future of comedy,” he says. “There’s a new stylistic innovation out there, somewhere, waiting to be found.”

He advises Abu Dhabi’s creative community to mine their own environment for material.

“Comedy comes from characters you might know and stories from experiences people have,” he says. “This is a marvellously inspirational place, filled with all kinds of people. The whole world would be interested in well-­observed stories of life here. As long as you keep the production costs down, shows from this part of the world could be exported to the US.”

Following Daniel’s workshop on Wednesday, TV executive Howard T Owens, the founder and co-chief executive of production company Propagate, delivered a session about exporting Arab entertainment to the world.

He has already discovered one TV show in the region to export to the US.

“We’ve found a comedy game show in Turkey about relationships called My Partner Knows, which we’re taking out this summer in America,” he says.

“The show taps into that question of: ‘Well do you really know your partner?’ It speaks to creativity in the Middle East being global. Stories unite us and that’s why we’re here.”

Twofour54’s Head of Commercial Content, Jamal Al Awadhi, who teamed up with America Abroad Media to bring the top TV execs to Abu Dhabi, sees huge potential in exporting stories from the Middle East.

“Often people say that stories have been told so many times they’ve been exhausted, whereas in the Arab world there are a ton of stories that still have to be told outside the region,” he says.

“I think there will be collaborations in the future. I heard Ben [Silverman] say he wants to create something new from scratch with people here in Abu Dhabi, and then export it to the rest of the world, which I think is great.”