Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.
Despite its current elevated status in the annals of television comedy, The Office was neither a rating juggernaut nor an awards magnet for much of its run. In the full-season Nielsen ratings series rankings, The Office never cracked the the Top 50. It claimed the Emmy for outstanding comedy series in its second season, but none of its performers ever won an acting trophy. Across nine seasons, The Office won only four other competitive Emmys: two for editing, one for directing, and one for writing.
The writing Emmy was awarded to Greg Daniels, who took the BBC version of The Office, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and developed it for U.S. television. The episode that won was “Gay Witch Hunt,” the third season premiere. In addition to placing a trophy in the hand of the person who was arguably most responsible for the overarching creative decisions that shaped this workplace comedy into a surprisingly enduring product, “Gay Witch Hunt” is a suitable choice as a singular representation of the series. The episode has all of the touchstones of the program’s most successful stretch. It even includes a “That’s what she said.”
The script by Daniels begins with a classic blunder by Michael Scott (Steve Carell), the regional manager for the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Michael used the word “faggy” when referring to Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nunez). The normal problem with that offensive language in compounded by Oscar’s identity as a gay male, a detail previously unknown to Michael or anyone else in the workplace. With characteristic hustle-bustle, the office goes through a rolling meltdown. Multiple characters chime in with their idiosyncratic views, and Michael keeps pushing to rectify the situation, even as he struggles to push past his own clumsy ignorance to find the language to express conciliatory acceptance of Oscar.
Several characters get strong, funny lines, but, as with all the best episodes of The Office, the core of the comedy is Michael’s struggle against himself. What set The Office apart from its British predecessor — and what famously took Daniels and his cohorts a few episodes to figure out — is the manager’s fundamental morality. In the original, Ricky Gervais’s David Brent is a narcissist and a dolt. Michael Scott carries mild versions of those qualities, but mostly he genuinely wants to do well in his position. It’s not malice that trips him up, but his own ineptitude. That he lacks the skills of introspection to help him identify the self-sabotage is the foundational ingredient of the long narrative’s comedic success.
I noted the episode included all of the flashing lights cast by The Office disco ball, and that of course includes the lovelorn saga of Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). As the season premiere, “Gay Witch Hunt” had some heavy lifting to do. The finale of the previous season ended with Jim and Pam tilting the will-they-or-won’t-they question by kissing in the office, but the Moonlighting Dictum insists that it can’t be that easy. Pam, still engaged to another man at the time of the kiss, insisted she couldn’t pursue anything with Jim, leading Jim to transfer to a different branch, where, as it turns out, his usual prank shenanigans and mugging-to-the-camera aren’t appreciated. Except for the subversive mockery of the Jim Halpert tropes that were already becoming a little tiresome, the thread isn’t that interesting (and it includes the introduction of Andy Bernard, played by Ed Helms, which stands as the first droplets against the windowpane that signal the thunderstorm of ill-conceived creative decisions on the horizon for the office). But the soap opera needed to be served, and so there it was.
There’s one more reason “Gay Witch Hunt” is an exemplary selection for the sole instance of The Office winning a writing Emmy. The episode’s signature moment, which likely contributed mightily to its victory in the category, is Michael going too far in his fervor to signal appreciation of Oscar’s homosexuality. Michael stiffly, awkwardly gives Oscar a kiss as the capper to an impromptu all-call meeting of office personnel. Reportedly, that action wasn’t in the script and was instead improvised by Carell. It’s entirely in keeping with the tone of The Office that the series won a rare trophy because of an act of almost accidental excellence.
Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.