Paul Lieberstein of 'The Office' on Steve Carell's Exit & the Star-Studded Season Finale
by Joel Keller, posted May 18th 2011 12:00PM
On the seventh season finale of 'The Office' (Thurs., May 19, 9PM ET on NBC), it feels like everyone on the planet is coming to Dunder Mifflin Scranton to interview for Michael Scott's old job. Jim Carrey, Ray Romano, Warren Buffett, Ricky Gervais, Will Arnett, James Spader and Catherine Tate will all be appearing in the episode as possible replacements.
Paul Liberstein, who's best known for playing hapless HR rep Toby, is also the showrunner of 'The Office.' He talked to AOL TV about the challenges of Season 7, Carell's farewell episode and where the show goes from here.
What was the feeling around the set the first week after Steve Carell's departure?
It was weird. It felt weird around here. The last week with Steve had been so emotional that it really felt like ... it was just very odd to be here without him. It was like oh, life goes on, OK. I guess we'll just keep doing our jobs. But it didn't take long for the mood to switch to kind of this very hopeful, excited and anticipatory feeling that anything could happen now. And that turned out to be very creatively exciting for everyone.
Where does that feeling come from?
Well, we had come to understand what an episode is with Michael, you know. And we played a lot of them -- we played about 150 of them. I think he got to episode 149. So it's a little bit different when you don't have someone taking the majority of the lines for an episode. When you don't have the show centered around a buffoon who tends to make a bad decision and then spends the rest of the episode trying to dig his way out of something. It was kind of a feeling that we get to do something new again, that we are kind of reinventing the show a little. And granted, not much. It's the same people that you've seen before, for years and years. It's just someone's role, I guess, is a little slightly different when the show is centered around them.
Was the whole move of having Steve leave before the season ended to give you guys a couple episodes to find your way a little bit without him?
That came from the idea that what we would do is continue to tell a story about an office. And what happens in an office when the manager leaves is about, if we were making the spring about that, it doesn't end with the manager leaving. There's quite a bit of fun afterwards in the struggle to find an appropriate successor.
But does that parallel what you guys are trying to figure out in the writer's room a little bit?
Um, not as much, really. No, it's not happening here. I mean, I would think that at NBC ... well we witnessed a few regime changes in our seven years here. And it's a little closer to what happened over there. Steve was the star of the show, but he wasn't the president of the show, you know what I mean? It's not that type of leadership.
For fans and critics who think the show's emotional center has been taken away, how is the void going to be filled?
Well, it's on us to provide you with a new heart. It's our job to win you back, win you over. It's not something we don't know. We know that Steve provided a lot of heart, and we know we're going to have to come up with it from places you haven't seen yet.
Is this the type of thing where we might not see some of that until next year, perhaps?
Um, yeah. That's fair.
How emotionally wrung out was everybody by the end of Steve's last week?
It was incredibly real. There were takes where we call it a reaction pass, where the camera isn't even pointed at Steve, and Steve was crying. When I did my last scene with Steve, it felt monumental. And I'm sure it did with John [Krasinski] as well. It was kind of great that we all had a private scene with him to end that way. It felt very cathartic.
Is that the reason why you guys wrote it that way, so he could have a last scene with everybody?
No, we didn't write it that way for personal reasons. But we felt like the audience would like to see that. We wanted to do something that felt like a real last day. It wasn't a giant "TV last day," but closer to the last days that we've had in offices, where it's, you know, sometimes we loved it, sometimes we didn't, but it's a big deal to leave people.
Before Will Ferrell signed on to help transition Steve's exit, did you have a different scenario in mind for those four episodes? And what might that have been?
We did have a plan. It wasn't so shockingly different than what you saw, although we didn't have anything like ['The Inner Circle'] in mind, where Will just kind of juggled his way through the episode. Yeah, I mean, Steve's exit was going to be the same. But we had known about Will for a while, for months before we'd put it out. So he was part of the plan for a long time.
What were the interesting parts and challenges about writing for Will?
We really embraced what he was and who he is, which we love. I do. I'm incredibly entertained by Will Ferrell. I'm a giant Will Ferrell fan. So I saw it as, let me just gather up all my favorite Will Ferrell things and try to create a character that can let him do what, in my opinion, he does best. I feel he grounds the outrageous. And he embraces it, too. And commits like nobody.
If he had seriously thought about staying, how would you have embraced that?
Oh I would have taken it. Oh sure.
You would've taken it, no problem?
No problem, yeah. He'd be a great addition to the show. (chuckling)
It would kind of quell the questions about who's going to replace Steve, at that point.
Oh yeah! I mean, for every person we lose who is not into the Will Ferrell thing, we would gain three.
How did knowing there was going to be a lot of publicity and a lot of attention put towards Steve's departure and his replacement affect you, the writers and the actors? Did you guys feel more pressure?
Well, I guess there was an idea about a very quiet, soft exit for Steve that we abandoned, to really downplay it. And we realized there was no downplaying this. It was that people are interested, that's where the excitement is, so let's go ahead and make the season about a manager leaving. Or at least the second half of the season. And the first half of the season about slowly adjusting his character to someone who can go.
Someone who can emotionally become more mature ... that was, from the first day, he kind of transformed a little bit in every episode.
Yeah. Yeah, thanks. I'm glad you caught that. Because we were trying to do that.
It seemed like from the beginning, the obvious scenario would be that Holly would come back and they'd fall back in love and they'd get married.
Yeah. It wasn't the surprise scenario.
Was there any temptation to go away from that and say "Hey, that's what everybody thinks we're going to do"?
Well, there was talk about it. But I didn't really want to send him off. I mean, the other way to do it is the more Ricky Gervais way where we fire him. But you know, to me, that's just a different kind of cliché. I mean, if we're going to send him off realistically, and we're going to do it in a way that's familiar, we weren't going to completely rewrite how someone can leave a show. Or if we do, I just don't think it would be satisfying. It's not who we are. We're not a farcical show with these giant story moves.
You told me over the summer that you had thought about and dismissed an idea where he'd be caught up in some sort of investment scandal or something like that?
Oh yeah. Well we thought of all the ways that Michael should have been fired, for all the reasons. None of that matters; something little that happened, he gets blamed for and fired. We thought that was kind of a fun, ironic thing. But ultimately, I don't think it would have been as satisfying.
Because people were rooting for Michael and Holly to get together?
Yeah. I don't know. For me, to follow someone over seven years and see them grow enough to just embrace the beginnings of happiness is kind of a great, you know, Dickens-like story. You know, Michael Scott as the guy who couldn't get a friend, you know, really gets a life.
And it did also seem like the latter half of the season, you were trying to de-emphasize Michael and Steve as the center. Like you had a lot more stories about the other people in the office. I'm guessing that was on purpose, trying to kind of ease the transition.
How well do you think that worked in setting up the departure?
I have to say, I think it worked. Because I mostly hear from people who are very excited about the future of the show. They're wondering what we do, and they say they love our characters and they want more of them. So that's mostly what I hear.
That's good. What characters would you say that people have wanted to see more from?
People always say, generally someone starts off with their favorite character, which is one of our smallest characters. They want to see more Creed, or more Gabe. And then it comes around to one of our major characters, like Darryl, Andy, Dwight.
Anybody requesting like Kelly and Ryan? They work very well in those 'Subtle Sexuality' webisodes.
I'm really excited about putting more of that on the air. And the truth is that we've shot a lot more, and it didn't quite make it into the episode, because of a big center story that just requires more scenes. So I think now we'll get a chance to actually air more of this show that we shoot, and air more characters. Sometimes they make deleted scenes, or sometimes we hold it off just because we think, oh look, we'll try to come back to it and do it for another show, another episode.
Do people actually come up to you and talk to you as if you're the guy playing Toby, or do they talk to you knowing that you're a writer and you're one of the big producers of the show?
Most people only know me as Toby. And while I was out, when Holly was here, people asked what am I doing these days, am I going to do movies? Yeah, they don't really know I'm running the show.
Now the finale. Obviously, we've been hearing so many different names -- it's like night of 100 stars in this finale. Is this basically just going to be like the montage of people applying for a job, and you're just going to see them ...
No, it's not a montage.
Then how are we fitting all of these people into this, what I'm guessing is only going to be an hour episode, right?
Yeah, it's just an hour. It's just an hour. Well, you know, you don't see a tremendous amount of the interview, but no, it's more than a montage. It's a number of scenes. We fit it in. We stuff it in. (laughs)
Is there anybody that hasn't been mentioned so far?
No, there are no secret surprises. There aren't. We tried, but they all got out. It's hard to keep a secret these days.
Are we going to see the next manager come out of that episode? Or is there going to be more searching next season?
Um ... uh ... I'm not saying. I just think you won't enjoy the episode as much as you could.
What are you looking for in someone to replace Steve next season?
I think we're looking for an addition to the ensemble. We're not looking to fill a star's role with another star, or really just like continue to center the show around the manager. I think it'll be much more of a shared experience.
What would you tell the fans should look forward to in the finale and season 8?
That's such a great question. I'm personally looking forward to so much. You know, we're such in the beginning stages of talking about season 8. This is really our first week. I feel like I can go so much deeper into the lives of our characters that we've just been kind of skating the surface for a while. You know, we got to know so many levels of Michael. As a writer, I'm looking forward to delving into all the levels of Jim and Dwight and Andy and Darryl, you know. We did Michael. And I'm interested in writing episodes that center around a different person in each episode. So I guess I would say look forward to more of what you liked in the show of our cast. There just is more. (laughs)
Because of the nature of Michael's character, can you bring the level of discomfort he brought, using these other characters? Can there be another 'Scott's Tots'?
I really think we can. And they have different aspects of ... It'll be in a slightly different way, but I do think we could have pulled the 'Scott's Tots' story with Andy. And there are other episodes that you could point to, that you could say ah, I could see that we would've done that with Dwight. Or that one could have been Jim. You know?
By the way, any rekindling of Andy and Erin?
We'll be exploring that for sure. Yeah.
Can you see the show going on beyond next season?
I can see us going for a few more years.
Is it because of this renewed sense that you're telling everybody else's stories?
I think so. You know, I think we probably could go longer than we could have gone before. In the way that 'Cheers' went longer than it probably could have gone, had the cast not changed.
Are we ever going to see the documentary that these filmmakers have been making for the last 6 or 7 years?
When Pam got through security and talked to Michael at the airport, did she have her microphone on?
Well, I'd imagine that maybe they had her take it off at security. I don't know. Maybe.
Because you wanted to have that mystery of what they said to each other, right?
Yeah. Well, no, you don't really. I mean, Pam tells you.
It wasn't more than what she said at the end of that, right?
Yeah. No, I think that was basically it.
It was all a good reminder to people that this is still a documentary that's being shot.
Yeah, which a lot of people don't know. I think people are so conditioned to watching reality television that they just don't think twice of somebody talking to the camera.
'The Office' airs Thursdays at 9PM ET on NBC.
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