book excerpt

An Oral History of The Office’s Insane Fire Drill Episode

An excerpt from The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s.

Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix

On February 1, 2009, nearly 100 million Americans sat down to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers squeak out a 27- to-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The second it ended, the action went from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, to Dunder Mifflin for a special double episode of The Office. The show was already NBC’s most popular comedy, with upwards of 9 million viewers a night (even though it never came close to Friends-like numbers), but this was a chance to introduce it to a new mass audience.

Ben Silverman, producer: I was running the network at the time and I was talking to everyone about what we should put on after the Super Bowl. They’re like, “Should we put The Apprentice on?” I’m like, “No, The Apprentice is fine and it’s got that audience already. It’ll do well, but it’s not gonna do that much better there. What asset do we have that can also grow, sustain, and help really drive the night?” Everyone came around to the idea of it being The Office and said, “Let’s do this and let’s figure out how we stunt it and make it big.”

Jen Celotta, writer: We wanted people who didn’t know about The Office and who were watching the Super Bowl to enjoy it. That caused us to think a little differently than we normally would about the show. We ended up throwing out a bunch of story ideas and we never did that before or since.

Halsted Sullivan, writer: We were tasked with making it a stand-alone episode, but making it something that fans who have been along for the ride all five seasons could enjoy, but also people who tuned in to the show for the first time would be able to enjoy. It was very important. We were given a lot of mandates and they didn’t even come from NBC. They came from Greg [Daniels, producer]. He was like, “Look, this is our opportunity to sort of re- pilot the show and introduce a whole new group of people to The Office. It’s very important to have a really grabby opening.”

Warren Lieberstein, writer: It needed to be an electric opening because we were concerned about channel switching.

Gene Stupnitsky, writer: That was a very stressful time because Greg came in one day and he had a big idea inspired by some French film he saw. Basically the idea was that Jim loses Pam in a poker game. He was like the father of us all and we were like, “Dad … Your idea … We’re not so sure about it.”

Lee Eisenberg, writer: But we started breaking the poker game episode.

Gene Stupnitsky: We went pretty deep into it.

Lee Eisenberg: It was a show that needed to be small, real, and relatable. And then it was like, “Okay, he loses her in a poker game… .”

Greg eventually came to his senses and approved an idea where Dwight stages a mock fire to test everyone’s safety response time, causing Stanley to have a heart attack. The fire drill took place seconds into the episode and was a scene of absolute mayhem, complete with Angela desperately hurling a cat into the air, Oscar crawling through the ceiling for help and falling to the ground, Kevin breaking into the snack machine and stealing all the candy, and everyone else desperately trying to find a way out.

Ben Silverman: The fire drill was insanity. Greg and I talked about it and were like, “Okay, let’s make this one hundred percent like a movie, like a stunt. When it happens, how do people not change the channel?”

Kate Flannery, actor: That scene was a big deal. It was so fun, but I also knew that it was expensive, so it’s like, “Don’t fuck this up.” It was definitely like a little nerve-wracking because you just didn’t want to be the one that messed it up for everybody else.

Anthony Farrell, writer: Greg was like, “It’s the Super Bowl episode. We need it to be big and crazy and wild and this is the first thing they’re gonna see, so we want people to stick around.” He said to me and [fellow writer] Ryan Koh and some of the writers’ assistants, “You guys work on this cold open.” We knew it would start with Dwight setting off the fire alarm and Greg was in a place where he was like, “We need it to be bigger and crazier.” So we just started adding all sorts of crazy shit happening with the mayhem and the melee, like them using the photocopier as a battering ram and cats falling out of the ceiling. A lot of it wound up getting shot.

Randy Cordray, producer: All of the characters think they are going to die. Oscar jumps up on his desk and climbs up into the drop ceiling and Angela pulls out a cat from her file cabinet and says, “Save Bandit!” And she throws Bandit up to Oscar, who doesn’t want anything to do with Bandit. And then moments later the cat crumbles through a panel of the drop ceiling and falls back down. This was a big sequence that Greg really wanted in the show. Well, you can’t injure an animal, and so we had to figure this out. We had to build a stuffed animal to match Bandit. It was about $12,000 because seamstresses have to match the coat of the cat, they have to meticulously paint furry fabric and create the exact shape and size of Bandit.

Jeff Blitz, director: In the original script, Oscar was already in the ceiling when Angela threw up the cat. They had thought that it would just be like a stuffed cat. Oscar would extend his leg out from the ceiling to kick the cat back down. I thought that that would seem really mean-spirited. I thought it would just be really funny if the throw is just a little too strong and so the cat went too far and then came down. And then I was convinced that we couldn’t use a stuffed cat because it would look like a stuffed cat being thrown. We ended up using two real cats. There was one trainer who was standing in the ceiling to catch the first cat and another trainer to throw an identical cat back down. Then there was a cat thrower who had an Angela wig and Angela wardrobe on that we had to bring in for that.

Randy Cordray: I worked with a wonderful animal training company at that time that provided us with the cats. We talked at great length with them. They absolutely will protect their animals. The animals are their livelihood. And you just don’t want to hurt an animal in filming. It’s illegal, it’s a felony, it’s unethical, and none of us want to do that.

Jeff Blitz: The trainer had said that she was comfortable with us only doing it like two or three times. Greg wanted to know why that was and she was like, “Well, because the cat gets scared of doing stunt work and can’t do this kind of work anymore and then it will need to be retired.” Then Greg wanted to know what the lifetime income of a cat like that might be so that if they wanted to do more takes they [would] just buy it out forever. When Greg floated it, Randy was like, “No way, can’t do that.”

Randall Einhorn, director/cinematographer: That whole scene was pandemonium to shoot, but really fun.

Jeff Blitz: There’s a moment when they start to run and the camera goes down. I think that’s an actual take where Randall didn’t mean to fall, but we just used it.

But a zany fire drill scene wasn’t enough for NBC. They wanted the episode to feature big-name guest stars to draw in a bigger audience.

Lee Eisenberg: The network was insistent that we get celebrities, and that was really complicated. I remember wanting Matt Damon or Ben Affleck to be on it. I was like, “Okay, we’ll get somebody who has a blue-collar feel to be running a warehouse or they’re gonna go up against Michael somehow. It’s Matt Damon or Ben Affleck versus Michael Scott.” For a lot of reasons, people just decided that putting someone like that in just takes you out of the reality of the show.

Randy Cordray: Greg was really at odds with NBC over this. His point was, “How does that fit into a show based in an office in Scranton, Pennsylvania? What would celebrities be doing interacting with a paper company office in Scranton, Pennsylvania? Why would you pitch that idea? That makes no sense. What would celebrities be doing in Scranton?” His way of doing that was to make a movie within the movie. Andy had access to stream a movie on his laptop and so we created this movie. That was our way of satisfying the network creative people and putting promotable star talent into the Super Bowl episode.

Halsted Sullivan: The Office always shied away from stunt casting. At the time, Will & Grace would have someone like Cher or J.Lo on every episode, and the episode [would be] about that person. What we didn’t wanna do is have some stunt casting in our opportunity to showcase The Office as a new pilot to the world and say like, “Oh, you’re gonna get Jack Black every week if you tune in.” So, instead we had Jack Black and Jessica Alba in that stand- alone movie so we could promote them. They were in the show, but at the same time, at no point did our characters get outshone by these big movie stars.

The pirated film that Andy shows Jim and Pam, Mrs. Albert Hannaday, is about Jessica Alba taking her boyfriend (Jack Black) to meet her grandmother, played by Cloris Leachman. Black falls madly in love with Leachman and they furiously make out in a bathroom.

Jeff Blitz: In one of the early drafts of it, the movie itself had a martial arts spin to it. But then they landed on this weird Mrs. Robinson thing. The day we shot it felt very un-Office-like. Jack Black was very into it, but nobody was ready for the energy that Cloris Leachman brought to it. At the time we shot that, Cloris Leachman was in a frame of mind where whatever was on her mind, she would say. In no way was she restrained and she let everyone there know she was excited about the idea of making out with Jack Black.

Warren Lieberstein: I love the Harold and Maude dynamic. Just knowing the two of them were going to be making out, it was worth the price of having that in there.

The second half of the episode centers on Michael’s thinking it would be fun to stage a Comedy Central–style roast of himself in the warehouse, but he grows deeply depressed when everyone takes the opportunity to viciously insult his intelligence.

Halsted Sullivan: This was probably the most difficult episode to write that season. It took longer than any other episode because it had to be an hour and it had to be stand-alone. I remember for a long, long, long time we did not have an ending. And I came up with the idea for the roast. That’s because I grew up in Atlanta and my father was president of a medical school. Every year, they had a follies where all the students would make fun of the professors and we would go to that. It was a fun evening, but it was also like, “Oh, is this really what you think of me?” And that turned into the roast of Michael, where he was able to bring the office together again and restore order after all this chaos by becoming the victim. Of course, it did really hurt his feelings, but in the end it brought the office back together.

On a more serious note, Pam’s dad decides to leave her mom after having a private talk with Jim. Pam is freaked out and wonders what Jim could have possibly said to him. She finds out in the end. “He said that you told him how much you love me,” a teary-eyed Pam tells Jim. “About how you feel when I walk in a room, and about how you’ve never doubted for a second that I’m the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with. I guess he’s never felt that with my mom, even at their best.” The Jim-and-Pam scenes are as dramatic and heavy as the rest of the episode is goofy and absurd.

Jeff Blitz: There was a lot of talk with Greg about whether Jim and Pam’s emotional stuff should play with as much drama as it does. I remember Jenna and John felt strongly that the truth of it meant that they had to go to a place of drama and that seemed so right to me.

Warren Lieberstein: We definitely were aware that there’s a certain part of the audience that very much likes the Jim-and-Pam stuff. And there’s a huge swath of people that liked the antics of Dwight. We knew in that particular episode we had enough time, an hour, to really satisfy and hit all different kinds of viewers that we could possibly hit that enjoyed our show.

Twenty-two million people watched the full episode and 37.7 million people watched at least some of it. It was the highest-rated NBC show in nearly five years in the coveted eighteen-to-forty-nine-year-old demographic.

Paul Feig, director: My greatest regret from The Office is that I so badly wanted to direct that one. I had just directed the Meredith’s-intervention episode that I don’t think the network liked, so they wouldn’t let me direct the hour-long episode, and then that ended up winning an Emmy for Jeff Blitz. I always feel like, “Oh, I almost had an Emmy.” Jeff did a great job though. It’s a really good episode.

Ben Silverman: That really propelled the show. It exposed it to a whole new audience that showed up and kept watching and grew.

From The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene, published March 24 by Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Andy Greene

An Oral History of The Office’s Insane Fire Drill Episode