He exits his car, a mid-size silver Honda, with the anticipation of praise. Hands clothed with cobalt blue mitts, he's donning a brown-on-lighter-brown ensemble with a jacket one size too small, which is evident as he trudges down the hallway of his office building to an out-of-order elevator. Undeterred, this man climbs the stairs, lugging a large, reflective pot; hours had been spent the night before preparing, and he knew what he had made was special. Eventually he makes it up the stairs, one hand gripping the left handle, the other cradling the bottom, as if it were a small animal. He pushes it up with his knee, his hand leaving the handle for the middle, and the lid immediately clatters to the ground. The entirety of the pot leaves his hands and hits the carpet. Burgundy goop pours out, creating a large puddle around him. He drops to his knees, grasping at papers, grabbing anything, to help scoop it back into the pot, but it just continues to ooze out, staining his hands, his pants and the carpet.
“It’s probably the thing I do best,” he says as he collides with the floor and into the mess of his own creation. Kevin Malone, mediocre accountant and The Police cover-band frontman, just spilled his famous chili all over the floor of Dunder Mifflin paper company.
“[Kevin] is the character that just, like all of us, wants to win one — that just is looking for very, very small victories on a day to day basis. And oftentimes when people are looking for small victories, like bringing in a chili that they're really, really proud of, it fails,” Brian Baumgartner, the actor who portrayed Kevin, told Her Campus.
This scene has become one of the most iconic from The Office, depicted on socks, gifs, and just about anything else you can print on. However, it's in the sheer mediocrity of Kevin, of his failure to successfully bring his chili to work, that has made the scene so comedic — and so meaningful — to fans.
A Living Document of The Office
Baumgartner, alongside show Producer Ben Silverman, has begun retelling the story of The Office, its significance in television history, its origins, and why it still means so much to people across America through a new podcast. “An Oral History of The Office” can be streamed on Spotify with a new episode coming out each Tuesday. The podcast begins from the inception of the American version of The Office, with Baumgartner sitting down with cast members, series creator Greg Daniels, and various other members of the crew.
The idea for the podcast came in response to music journalist Andy Greene’s bookThe Office: An Oral History, which did not speak to members of the production crew or cast before publication. Instead, Greene used old interviews for his book, and while it was factually accurate, Silverman and Baumgartner wanted a way for the cast and crew to capture their own narratives.
"We collectively, as the group of writers, actors, editors and producers involved, decided that we weren't going to participate in that book because we really wanted one of our own to make our history and record our truth,” Silverman says.
Out of that idea came 12 episodes, made up of over 100 hours of raw recordings. Silverman and Baumgartner decided to pursue a podcast – rather than a documentary or a book of their own – because podcasts are such a “fresh, intimate, new, medium,” and a “living document” to tell the story of the show.
Representative of any office in America
The second episode of the podcast, titled “Ordinary Looking Losers,” discusses the casting of The Office, and what made it revolutionary for the time. Baumgartner mentions how comedy had shifted; previously, network comedy was about that – comedy – but the actors’ looks had suddenly become a large part of network television. Daniels wanted to return to a comedy that was not based on how attractive someone was, and thus The Office casted a bunch of unknown actors and improv comics that they felt could be in any office across America. “They found actors that nobody else was looking for, because of what was born out of [this new type of comedic television]. Kevin Riley talks about it on the podcast that, you know, being attractive, [and] being hot or sexy has become a part of network comedy, and it was never a part of network comedy before,” Baumgartner says.
In creating the characters that made up The Office, the writers wanted to create individuals that could be found in any office someone worked in. This wasn't meant to be a show about a glamorized office in Scranton, but one that any watcher could see dynamics they recognized from their everyday life. “We built a cast that was much more representative of modern America and an environment that everyone can relate to, whether you're playing up those office politics in your school, or in your university, or in your workplace,” Silverman says.
However, both he and Baumgartner discussed the process of subverting these characters. While they were meant to be archetypes, the people who made up The Office were also meant to be more complex than that. For Baumgartner, he added layers to Kevin by making him both a character with “seemingly little mobility” who is also a tremendous athlete and musician.
“I created [Kevin] as a character that basically didn't swivel at his hips. If he had to turn to the right, his entire body moves to the right,” Baumgartner says. Despite these perceived limitations, Kevin golfs, is a drummer, and is surprisingly good at basketball. “What was so interesting and fun for me to play was the juxtapositions within himself,” he adds.
The Future Classic: What Made The Office So Significant To This Day
During the inception of The Office, Silverman explained that he and Daniels were inspired by classic comedies, those like Norman Lear’s from the 1970s that showcased real people and used comedy as a medium to discuss “divisive and challenging issues, and used a world that was true.”
Through office meetings and interpersonal drama, The Office confronts life in the modern American workplace, which struck fans. Almost a decade after it left the air, it remains the most-watched show on television. According to Silverman, on the first day of the COVID-19 quarantine, on March 15, The Office broke numerous streaming records — over 250 million minutes of the show were consumed on Netflix that day.
However, neither Baumgartner nor Silverman expected The Office to become the global sensation it is today. In 2008, Baumgartner remembered the show receiving the Future Classic award from TV Land. At that time, he didn't picture the show increasing in popularity since it'd left the air. Baumgartner had no idea what it meant to be a “future classic,” but acknowledged that to him that was defined by increased success, unlike the usual trajectory of a television show. “People who approach me on the street or on an airplane, wanting to talk about the show, is humbling, but it's rare,” Baumgartner says.
Silverman matches his sentiments: The Office will define his career forever. “The only thing that matters when I meet anyone on an airplane or in a subway, or to who asks me what I do is I am the producer of The Office. Every other credit, every other part of my life, every other element of my Phi Beta Kappa experience has been reduced. One sentence: I produced The Office,” he says.
Both were surprised, as well, that the show continues to resonate with younger generations. When speaking to younger fans, Silverman claims that they should continue testing the limits when thinking about television. “Never be afraid to push the outer limits of the genre," he says. "I think the best kind of shows and content, the ones that are informed by a genre and have the accessibility... I think if you can mash-up [genres], [with] that kind of avant-garde accessib[ility] you can have a massive, massive hit, and a cultural opportunity.”
New episodes of An Oral History of The Office come out each Tuesday, featuring new guests from the cast or production team. According to Baumgartner, it's the vast amount of voices within the podcast that make it one that no Office fan should miss. “I think we'll give people a depth and an appreciation, and another layer to watch the show," he says. "Watching how the show changed and adapted to help it stay on the air, the journey through the writer's strike that happened halfway through, Steve Carrell leaving and the show evolving again – I think all of those things will give people an appreciation for the people involved, and also the show itself.”