Why Will Ferrell on The Office Worries Me Immensely

Why Will Ferrell on The Office Worries Me Immensely

January 26th, 2011

In my reviews of The Office’s seventh season at The A.V. Club, my focus has inevitably fallen on Michael Scott’s imminent departure. Note that I did not say Steve Carell’s imminent departure: while I understand that the actor is the one leaving the show, my interest lies in the conclusion offered the character rather than in the loss of Carell’s presence. While I very much appreciate Steve Carell, and think that he should have already won an Emmy for his work on the show, I think that the real questions relating to his exit have to do with his character. That is where my investment lies, and that is where I’ve felt the entire season has channeled its focus in order to offer final moments for Michael to interact with his various co-workers and his potential love interests.

Inevitably, however, Carell’s exit moves from the realm of the narrative into the realm of the press, as news leaked that he would be exiting ahead of the season finale (thus creating a transition period towards the end of the season) during the TCA Press Tour. To some degree, I would have rather not known this information, but I’ve sort of accepted that Michael’s final episode will feature an enormous buildup, an extensive ad campaign, and probably even a “Best of Michael Scott” clip show leading into the episode in question (which will probably be an hour long itself). Steve Carell’s exit from the series is going to be a media event far removed from the narrative, and so there was always going to be some level of distraction away from Michael Scott’s character amidst that circus.

However, news that Will Ferrell will be appearing in a four-episode guest stint in order to help send off Carell is enormously disheartening, stripping away any sense that this exit actually belongs to Michael Scott. While I enjoy Anchorman well enough, and find Ferrell to be a fine actor when divorced from his most juvenile characteristics, this pairing threatens any sense of long-term characterization simply to chase after a larger audience, prioritizing the actor over the character and the hype over the show.

And, at least to me, that seems like a huge mistake.

In the initial Deadline report, two things stand out for me. The first is that, apparently, this was Ferrell’s idea: he approached the producers in order to potentially play a role in bidding Carell a fond farewell, and they apparently jumped at the idea. The second is that Paul Lieberstein, currently running the series, offers a purely joke-driven explanation for the decision without actually addressing how precisely this is going to be integrated into the series at large. I’m hoping that someone has the opportunity to speak to him in more detail about this ahead of time, because I very much dislike the notion – even if somewhat fictional – that this decision was motivated based on “Wow, wouldn’t working with Will Ferrell be awesome?” and not any sense of creative impulse.

I think there needs to be a good reason for The Office to bring in someone like Will Ferrell, and I think that reason needs to be story-driven. The gimmicky Jack Black/Jessica Alba appearances in the Super Bowl episode were nothing but a distraction: even worked into the story as they were, their presence was purely transparent in a way that the show shouldn’t be. Part of the show’s appeal is the sense that the the delicate balance of reality in the Office can break at any moment, that characters like Michael and Dwight are unpredictable in what is otherwise a fairly predictable setting. However, when you introduce a guest star, the reality is broken instantly, and the extent of that break increases depending on the extent of the guest’s stardom. Someone like Amy Ryan arrived with limited baggage for basically fans of The Wire and people who saw Gone Baby Gone, but that’s fairly easy to remake based on characterization; by comparison, someone like Will Ferrell has enough baggage that no amount of characterization could separate our pre-existing associations from the character he plays.

Perhaps I was naive to think that Michael’s exit would make the show more introspective, but I really felt that his exit needed to be grounded in a sense of character: the show has been dancing around Holly and Michael’s relationship, offering character beats with characters like Ryan and Toby who he has been paired with in the past, and developing new relationships with characters like Erin so as to give his exit more meaning. I’ve liked a lot of this character work, and feel as though the show has been getting a subtle sense of momentum as the season goes on which has not felt as much a distraction as I might have expected.

And yet, I feel as though this will shatter all of that. I cannot imagine a larger distraction than reconciling Will Ferrell’s presence with the character being created. Even though it sounds like the character, a sort of caricature of Michael Scott, might be designed to cause us to reflect on how far Michael has come, the idea that Ferrell need be the person to play that role screams of a cheap marketing stunt or, more idealistically if not necessarily less problematically, an inside Hollywood gesture which has little to do with the narrative itself. The decision only makes sense if you remove it from the context of the show itself, and instead look at notions of casting, advertising, and promotion which NBC hopes will bring the show (and its entire Thursday lineup) an extra boost.

Now, some might argue that Will Ferrell and Steve Carell are very funny, and that The Office is a comedy, and thus complaining about this casting seems counterproductive. However, while I accept that I tend to view the show through a more dramatic lens than most viewers, I feel entirely comfortable claiming that this is a case where the show needs to be seen through that lens. Michael’s exit can be funny without Will Ferrell, but I am not sure if it can be as dramatically resonant for Michael as a character if Ferrell is present. Perhaps more details would reveal that Ferrell’s character will be closer to Stranger than Fiction than Anchorman, or perhaps we’ll learn that he’s actually just a figment of Michael’s imagination ala Fight Club, and there might be some way for the series to make this work. However, I can’t keep from being incredibly disappointed that the show would risk undermining its own characters for the sake of casting a movie star, and can’t help but wonder whether it seems wise to have everything but the narrative motivating casting decisions at such a key moment in the series’ life.

I am, however, reserving judgment. This is simply my gut response to this news, news which will come to fruition in the months ahead and will certainly result in some intriguing conversation. I would love if this turns out to be a proper sendoff, and if the show somehow reaches new comic heights in the process I will be willing to give them credit for proving me wrong. That being said, though, I am simply having trouble imagining a world where Will Ferrell on The Office is anything but a colossal mistake which threatens to undermine a moment which would be best served without such distractions.

Cultural Observations

  • As some pointed out on Twitter, there is a distinct possibility that this could boost ratings for Parks and Recreation, and so this means there will be something of a silver lining even if the actual episodes of The Office are terrible.
  • I’m really hoping that someone gets a chance to speak to Lieberstein – I’m also hoping, of course, that it’s an actual critic and not someone who will just fawn over the decision without asking how they feel this fits into the series’ reality.
  • Curious to know what others are thinking about this – my Twitter feed seemed largely in agreement with my take, but my Twitter feed is somewhat of an echo chamber when it comes to this show.


Filed under The Office

18 responses to “Why Will Ferrell on The Office Worries Me Immensely

  1. When I first heard this news, the first thing I thought of was Greg Daniels’s comment on the season 4 DVDs that Carol Burnett had approached him with a pitch to play Michael’s mother, and he turned her down. Why? Because she’s “too famous” to be non-distractingly integrated into the show’s world.

    Now here we are three years later, Daniels is off working on another show, and he took that dedication to verisimilitude with him. Ferrell is far more recognizable to most of the show’s audience than Burnett (and his predecessor-in-gimmicky-stunt-casting Kathy Bates). And yeah, it makes me sad that Lieberstein is throwing that tradition away without even bothering to explain why he thinks this is a good idea.

  2. brian

    I know it’s your gut reaction but a lot of what you are working off of is that Lieberstein provided a joke-laden response to the press.

    That seems like a bit of a reach. I don’t remember a lot of shows that are forthright with what a big guest star is going to do on their show. I would expect a comedy writer to respond much in the same way Paul did to the story.

    The reports indicate that Ferrell will play a character similar to Michael. My hunch, and hope, is that Michael sees what Ferrell has become and decides he needs to leave the company and “grow up.”

  3. alynch

    I’ve never been very receptive of the notion that casting famous people is overly distracting, particularly when it’s being put forward by people who write about film and television regularly (don’t mean to single you out here), because there’s really not a very wide spectrum of recognizability on an individual level. Once you know a face and are immediately able to put a name to that face, that person really can’t become any more recognizable to you. Now I watch a fair amount of TV shows and movies, so I know a lot of actors, and whenever one I recognize shows up, my immediate reaction is, “Hey, it’s [insert name],” whether it’s Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Richard Jenkins, Timothy Olyphant, Rich Sommer, David Koechner, or anyone else whose work I’ve become familiar with over the years, even if some are more famous than others. And that initial reaction always dissipates after a matter of minutes provided that the writing and acting is good enough. I gotta think people who watch this stuff for a living, which presumably entails watching a lot more stuff than I do, have similar reactions. Or to put it more succinctly, this Ferrell mini-arc will only be as distracting as the writing and performance allow it to be, and if it’s ultimately a failure, it’ll be a failure on those fronts rather than on a conceptual front.

    Beyond that, I’m having a bit of trouble seeing how visualizing a character’s hallucinations within a documentary format would be a better alternative if we’re talking about maintaining a sense of reality.

    Now here we are three years later, Daniels is off working on another show, and he took that dedication to verisimilitude with him.

    I’d say Parks & Recreation has already used more well known guest stars in its two season than The Office has in its entire run, and Rob Lowe is close, if not equal, to Ferrell so far as fame goes.

  4. Cullen

    My fear is that Ferrell’s character is going to be used to give Michael Scott his motive behind leaving the company (and thus the show). Unfortunately, I’d suspect this is what the show is going for and I’m expecting a plot along the lines of what Brian said above me.

    My issue with this idea is that I think it’s cheating us as the audience. After all the time we’ve spent over the years watching Michael Scott’s journey it would be wholly unsatisfactory for the character beats that result in his departure to be the product of a self-contained four episode arc involving a character we’ve never met before. I’d much rather see the show use existing character beats to reach this same point and perhaps use Ferrell’s character (who sounds like Season 1 Michael Scott) to demonstrate how the show doesn’t want to retrace the same route with its new boss but rather try something new.

    If the show uses Ferrell to motivate Michael to leave the show that will definitely raise some major red flags for me, as if the show can’t even properly send off its main character what chance does it have of telling quality stories with its remaining characters?

  5. The worst thing about Lieberstein’s comment is it’s a joke based on a false premise. Steve Carell was not a movie star before The Office. He had scene-stealing moments in Anchorman and Bruce Almighty, but that’s a far cry from “movie star”. It’s almost like Lieberstein is trying to convince people that the show was born by hiring a huge star in order to make Ferrell’s presence less egregious. Unfortunately for him, reality says otherwise.

  6. Brendan

    Seems to be a lot of mountain-making out of this tiny molehill. Unless you are just plain predisposed to dislike Will Ferrell regardless of whatever character he’s playing, all this fretting is pointless. Also, this all seems to be based on an assumption that the makers of The Office jumped at the chance to work with Ferrell simply to work with Ferrell and the the possible rating boost he’ll bring with him. Maybe, just maybe, they jumped at working with Ferrell because he pitched them a GOOD idea that will work within the context of how they plan on ending Michael Scott’s run. I’m sure they had given it some thought before Ferrel pitched in and wouldn’t completly toss whatever they were planning on the scrap heap just to add Ferrell into the mix. And the “too famous” argument seems silly. We know we are watching a “show” with “actors” speaking “dialogue”. A recognizable face with “baggage” doesn’t break a show’s reality simply by existing. It’s how that character is written, performed and worked into the existing show that determines that. And that can’t be deteremined until we all see the episodes. Until then… relax. Geez.

    • I don’t think pessimism is an unreasonable response to this news. Yeah, like you say, things could work out: Ferrell might have a tremendous idea and deliver an incredibly nuanced performance that proves a fitting conclusion to Michael’s arc.

      However, there’s no evidence of that. And I’d argue there’s plenty of evidence in the early news surrounding the role to suggest that this raises a number of red flags for me personally. I’m reacting both to the idea that Ferrell’s existing persona will be a distraction (not unlike Kathy Bates) and the more basic idea that a guest star is necessary in order to send off Carell. I don’t claim these as absolute concerns which everyone else shares, which is why I’m glad to see you expressing a more optimistic poor of view.

      I just felt I needed to write out why this felt so immediately wrong the moment I heard it, so that I could move on to the point of preparing myself to give it a fair shake in a few months’ time.

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  8. Jay S.

    “…the idea that Ferrell need be the person to play that role screams of a cheap marketing stunt…The decision only makes sense if you remove it from the context of the show itself, and instead look at notions of casting, advertising, and promotion which NBC hopes will bring the show (and its entire Thursday lineup) an extra boost.”

    Myles, this is what it’s all about. NBC is a ratings disaster. If Will Ferrell can bring in several weeks of big ratings and help launch Parks and Recreation to hit status, they won’t care in the least about the impact on Michael’s storyline. It’s entirely possible that this was forced on Paul Leiberstein and that he has no idea how this will work itself out on screen.

    So yes, as an Office fan you should be very concerned. This is a decision that is, as usual, driven by potential for revenue and not by what is right artistically or to do right by long-time fans. So what else is new?

  9. Dustin

    Couldn’t agree more with your apprehension- Will Ferrell is often hilarious, but his comedy more often than not tends to funnell 100% of attention to Will Ferrell on screen. At its most extreme with Michael Scott, so much of the Office’s comedy is multi-character- its never just funny because Michael is doing something ridiculous- its his ridiculous behavior and how it affects other characters and their reactions in the scene.

    Putting Will Ferrell into this story arc, I’m afraid, might make it a Will Ferrell month, not an Office month. And since a huge part of what makes the Office enjoyable…even as its gotten less funny over the last two years, are the bonds we have with the characters and the fact that underneath some of the over the top gags and quirks, we all know some real life coworkers that correspond to those on the office.

    I’m looking forward to some melodramatic, introspective moments when Michael says goodbye…and Will Ferrell, as larger than life as he is, I really don’t think he fits in with the Office dynamic even during a normal story arc, much less this one.

  10. You raise an interesting point over whether a guest actor that’s high profile ruins a story. I think that argument needs refinement.

    No one ever turns down Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman for a movie part because they’re filmographies are too long. This argument as a blanket statement is ordinarily ridiculous, although somehow it holds weight with The Office.

    Sometimes, there have been cases of actors with a rigid screen persona being turned down for a role because it’s not what the director is looking for and it causes some publicity. For example, George Clooney was turned down for Paul Giamatti’s role in Sideways. Some people said Alexander Payne was a fool for doing so and he got flak, but he didn’t think Clooney would do it. This is because Clooney doesn’t have much range so people associate him with a screen persona like Cary Grant.

    Many comedians like Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson have pretty rigid screen personas, I could see Vince Vaughn playing Vince Vaughn have some effect of being distracting, but unless you think Ferrell being Ferrell is the problem, it’s not a good argument to say that no famous people should be on the Office.

    If Peter O’Toole showed up on the set and volunteered to play Pam’s British grandfather, they’d be a fool to turn him down because he’d outact the shit out of anyone else.

  11. Tom

    I would have much rather seen this 4-episode arc done with Gervais instead of Ferrell. As the show is hiss baby I think he would have readily agreed to it. David Brent went through much of the hardship that Scott has gone through and dramatically, something Gervais is very good at, could have filled Scott’s departure with more resonance. All you have to do is watch the final episode of the UK Office Christmas Special to know that.

  12. RMJ

    It seems to me that Ferrell is a good idea. He is broadly and energetically funny in a way that the Office has often lacked (or failed to execute) in the last two seasons. YMMV, but I’ve always responded very well to Ferrell, and he has an excellent rapport with Carrell. I actually feel that this may be something that Carrell and Ferrell have been planning for a while, and you know, better late than never.

    The Office in seasons six and seven have gotten tired, and there has been a distinct lack of ambitiously funny moments outside of cold opens. Characters and relationships have been completely overworked. The show needs a shot in the arm. Kathy Bates was an attempt to deliver that, and it was not particularly successful because Bates isn’t particularly funny. Ferrell might punch up a tired show in a necessary way. The Office didn’t need a big star like Ferrell in seasons 1-5, but it kind of needs it now.

    It could definitely fail, but it’s an ambitious move, and that’s better than the going-through-the-motions vibe of the first half of this season and most of season six.

    And I had never heard about the Carol Burnett idea, and personally? I think Daniels should have gone for it. Season 4 was the first weak Office season, and she might have tempered the distinctly misogynistic Jan arc in that season.

  13. Ben

    You are an idiot. This is going to be hilarious. Leave the show with a bang. I didnt read all this cuz its an absolute waste of time writing a serious essay about a show that is a comedy. relax.

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