The American version of The Office has arguably the best and deepest supporting cast of any sitcom in history. Beyond stars Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, and John Krasinski there's an entire galaxy of rich secondary players, from Eeyore-like human resources guy Paul Lieberstein to moon man Creed Bratton to gay accountant Oscar Nuñez. An alumnus of the seminal Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings, Nuñez scored guest spots on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Reno 911! before landing the role of the uptight accountant Oscar in 2005. Nuñez picked up a Daytime Emmy when the online spin-off The Office: The Accountants scored the first-ever Emmy for Outstanding Broadband Program. In 2007, Nuñez executive-produced and starred in Halfway Home, an improvised Comedy Central comedy about the wacky denizens of a halfway home. The A.V Club recently spoke with Nuñez about his ribald past as a game-show contestant, his infamous kiss with Steve Carell and his character's life as a conservative gay accountant in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
AVC: Your Wikipedia entry lists your first television appearance as being Match Game.
ON: I did Win, Lose Or Draw, too, I think years before that. Match Game was fun, it was funny. I didn't win a thing. I lost. The people on the panel were… I remember George Hamilton was there, and Vicki Lawrence, and I think Nell Carter, and some other people. It was pretty funny.
The question they gave me was, "George Hamilton is so vain that when he swings through the jungles of Beverly Hills in one hand he holds a vine, in the other a _____." And I said, "mirror." Of course, right? And nobody matched me. I got so mad. The girl next to me got like four or five matches. Then it came back to me and the thing was, "Sally was a pet masseuse, but instead of giving you a massage job, she gives you a _____ job." And people said "Shih Tzu," whatever. I knew I wasn't going to win, and I said "Blow." And the director yelled, "Cut! Cut!" They stopped the shoot, they stopped the taping. And they came down, like, "What's wrong with you? Why would you say that?" "I don't know. I don't know why I said it." I don't know if they bleeped it out or what. I don't know what they did with that.
AVC: It would seem to be a lock for those Craziest Game Show Moments specials.
ON: Yeah, kind of. I was mad, I was so mad. I knew I shouldn't have said that, I was like "Oh, whatever." I'm not going to win anyway, there's no way I can catch her in points. I'm like, "blow."
AVC: You also did Celebrity Family Feud.
ON: It was great, it was Celebrity Family Feud and they called us. They're like, "We want you to do this, and we want you to be in character." And we were like, "We don't want to be in character, we just want to go as ourselves." So they said, "Okay, come as yourselves." We went, and we played the American Gladiators. We were cocky at the beginning, before we started, "We're gonna beat the Gladiators, who do we play next?" And the Gladiators almost beat us. It was like 186 to nothing, we were shell-shocked. And luckily we came back and won, ad we won the whole thing, but man it was close.
AVC: Would you say you underestimated the American Gladiators?
ON: They just got us on our heels, right away. And we weren't hitting the buzzer. I'm like, "Guys, we have to hit the buzzer. Forget about if you know the answer, it doesn't matter. Just hit the buzzer and the answer will come to you. Don't let them hit first."
AVC: Does that bring out the competitor in you?
ON: Absolutely, I hate to lose. And I'm kinda good at game shows. I like game shows.
AVC: Does playing a character with your first name on a hit television show make life easier or harder for you?
ON: Neither. It's just kind of cool. When you're on the street and someone says "Oscar!" you have to look at them and figure out, "Do they know me, or do they just know me from the show?"
AVC: So it can get complicated.
ON: Yeah, cause they're like, "Oscar!" and you're like, "Do you know me? Are you saying Oscar Martinez, or Oscar me?"
AVC: People who are on a very popular television show, there's this risk of people always associating them with that show, confusing them for the character. And I would imagine that would be even more likely to happen when you share a name.
ON: They don't confuse you for the character so much. People just feel they know us because of the show, they just love the show. It's been on for five seasons. We have really fanatical fanatic fans. They're really loyal, and they know all about the show, and all that stuff.
AVC: Speaking of fanatical fans and the Office cult, did you go to The Office convention in Pennsylvania this year?
ON: Yes we did, it was crazy. It was amazing, it was amazing. You would have thought The Beatles landed or something. It was crazy, we got driven around town with police escorts. And the people were just so great.
AVC: I imagine you're royalty in Pennsylvania.
ON: Especially in Scranton. It was great, man. People came from all over, not only the country but… There was a couple on their honeymoon, they were from Ireland. And they went to the Scranton Office convention. On their honeymoon.
AVC: Have you read any of the online Office fan fiction?
ON: No, what is that?
AVC: When people are big fans of shows they write their own stories, involving characters from the show. And I guess the Office is successful enough that there's a lot of fan fiction there as well.
ON: I still use quill and parchment. I do e-mails, and I write, but I don't go around surfing too much.
AVC: There was a stretch on The Office where your character went on vacation. Was that so you could do Halfway Home?
ON: Yeah, that's exactly what it was. Greg Daniels was nice enough to let me go and do that for 10 shows.
AVC: But first you got an amazing send-off. Was that always the idea, that they would create a very memorable rationale for you to be gone?
ON: They always said, "We'll take care of it," and I had no idea what they were planning. Greg just kind of wrote that script… [Someone yells, "Oscar!"] Someone just yelled "Oscar." They are not personal friends, they're just some kids in a Prius. And Greg Daniels was anxious about that script. He was anxious about it, and I'm like, "Greg, this is wonderful, man." And it was, it was a great script.
AVC: Was Oscar conceived as a gay character originally?
ON: No. They just had him as a character. And I think halfway through the first season or something, there were rumors that the writers were going to make him gay or something like that. And then, sure enough, the script went there. And then Greg came up to me and was like, "Do you mind if we make your character gay?" I'm like, "Greg, I already saw the script, it's already written. What does it matter what I say at this point?" [Laughs.] But I don't care. So.
AVC: Do you think they would have nixed it if you had said, "No, I don't like that, I do not want to make my character gay?"
ON: I think they might have sent me to anger management or some homophobia course or something, if I'd said, "No! How dare you!" I think they kind of knew I'd say yeah, but it was just a courtesy I guess.
AVC: Could you talk about the famous kiss during the "Gay Witch Hunt" episode?
ON: It was great. Just to have a lot of scenes with Steve, is great. And then he wasn't supposed to kiss me, we were just supposed to hug, and he kept hugging me. And that particular take he came in really close, and I'm like, "Where is he going with this?" Oh, dear, yes here we go. And then I'm just thinking, "Oh God, nobody laugh so we can use it." And they didn't, and it worked perfectly. It was a lot of fun.
AVC: Do you think if that happened in real life people would have laughed? Just because it would have been such a tense moment, it would have been an awkward cathartic kind of laughter?
ON: If in real life you had on office manger who did that? Dude, I don't know. I think that man would have been fired so long ago if that were real. [Laughs.] I don't know. I don't know how people would react. I'd love to work in a place like that, with a boss like that. Every day you've got stuff to talk about when you go home, "You won't believe what he did today."
AVC: In The Office there's this constant tension between wanting to go for laughs and be kind of broad, and yet at the same time trying to stay true to the characters, and trying to stay grounded in reality.
ON: Yeah, that's part of the fun. The fact that he's this authority figure, so you can't… You can make fun of George Bush all you want, but if you were in a room with him you have to hold your laughter. He's the President for crying out loud. And the same thing with Michael, he's your boss. No matter how dumb he is, you're like, "Oh, gosh."
AVC: Your character on the office is very introverted. Your character on Halfway Home was very loud and extroverted. Which is more fun to play?
ON: The latter, because it's just insane. Halfway Home. I'm pretty much a straight guy on The Office. We can't all be crazies. You need some balance. Michael and Dwight are the crazies, and everyone else is pretty much normal. Pretty much, not entirely. Ed Helms is pretty out there too.
AVC: Between shows like Reno 911!, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Halfway Home, and Judd Apatow's movies, it seems like there's a golden age of improvisation in comedy. Has that been a boon to you in your career?
ON: I guess, yeah. I've always loved improv. It's my thing. I really like it, but I also think it has to be done well. And Larry David kind of set the bar on Curb. And Curb was a wonderful thing for improv, because it showed it could be done well, it could be done properly. And I think we did a pretty good job on Halfway Home too, all those people there, I've known them for years, all of them. And we've done improv for a long time.
AVC: When you're filming The Office do you deliberately shoot more footage than you need for the sake of having deleted scenes for the DVD's?
ON: Tons. Tons. Tons. Tons. Every show could be an hour. At least 30 minutes. Every show could be at least 30 minutes.
AVC: It seems like a lot of the deleted scenes are funnier than what makes it into a show because you don't have to move the plot forward. You can do stuff that's gag driven, or exploring the minor characters.
ON: A lot of times, as you said, the story has to be pushed forward, so that's what the scenes concentrate on. But that doesn't mean we didn't shoot a bunch a funny stuff that's just funny for the sake of being funny. Like I said, if there were no commercials, if it was like HBO, each show could stand on it's own and be 30 minutes and it would be so hilarious. Even the awkward scenes, where nothing is happening, where everyone is just uncomfortable, could go on longer and become even funnier, because the level of discomfort just rises.
AVC: Are there any particular deleted scenes you're particularly sorry didn't make it into an episode?
ON: Yeah. There was the episode where we went to a job fair and then [John] Krasinski and Ed Helms and Brian went to play golf. There was a scene at the job fair—I had a scene with this girl, and she wanted to come work for us. I'm like, "Come work for us!" And she's like, "Oh, I never thought about it," I'm like "Yeah, come do it." And then when she comes and she's about to sign up, I change my mind, I'm like, "Isn't there something you really like?" And she's like, "I can play guitar." "That's it! Be a musician, please don't come work for us, find your soul, and be, live!" And I feel good about myself, and I kind of sit down and I look over and she's signing up with another paper company, Kinko's or something.
AVC: Your character seems to have a lot of frustration and buried rage. Do you think Oscar is a fundamentally happy or unhappy person?
ON: I think he's fundamentally content but possibly leaning towards melancholia. I think he'd be happier if he was in San Francisco or New York City. But he's too lazy to get up, he's too complacent to get up and move. So he stays in Scranton. He's got a good job. He's got good pay. He's probably got health insurance. Has his whole life laid out, and he probably ain't going anywhere.
AVC: There's a certain comfort level to it. Do you think Oscar hates Michael Scott?
ON: I don't know. I think he hated him maybe his first year, and now he's just okay with it. "This is Michael, my boss…he's a special needs kind of person."
AVC: He's resigned himself to his fate?
ON: Yeah, I think he has. I think a lot of people, they don't love their jobs but they don't hate them enough to quit. So they're like, "Eh."
AVC: And it seems like he can live his life outside of work and then just suffer through eight or nine hours of drudgery.
ON: And I really think he's kind of… Even though he's gay I think he's kind of conservative. He might go to the Gay Pride Parade, but he'll be wearing khakis and a button-down shirt, and drinking a soda, waving. He's not going to be on the float with hot pants. That's not him. He's gay, but he's conservative.
AVC: He's not going to be wearing chaps.
ON: Nah, he's not. Maybe on like a Saturday night in the privacy of his own house. He's not going to be walking around with it on.
AVC: Were you initially skeptical about the idea of remaking The Office for American audiences?
ON: Absolutely. I thought we'd shoot the pilot, cash our checks for the pilot and that's it, and it won't get picked up. Luckily I was wrong. When I found out that Steve Carell was cast as the lead I thought, "Okay, we have a shot at this." And then I found out that indeed we're not going to use the laugh track, and that was another huge plus. I was like, "Well this is great." And Greg Daniels did a great job.
AVC: There was a sense before The Office aired that doing an American version was vaguely heretical, like doing an American Monty Python.
ON: Yeah, cause Ricky Gervais is so funny. The Office was so great. And I was like, "Wow, how can we do this?" And we did it, we did it. I'm very proud of the show.
AVC: There was also a sense that The Office trafficked in a very British vein of humor.
ON: I don't know how many of us there are, last count I think there was 250 million Americans, and there's probably more than that now. There's so many of us that you don't need even half the country to get it, and it'll still be successful. So it's okay if a lot of people don't get it, because a lot of people do.