It starts with the voice. If you want to appreciate the brilliance of Brian Baumgartner’s performance as the slow-witted Kevin on The Office, all you need to do is look up a YouTube clip of the actor being interviewed and marvel at the difference between the actor’s rich baritone and the character’s mushy lisp. Even on a show where self-awareness is scarce, Kevin stands out for his lack of guile. His uncomplicated sweetness provides a relief from the show’s intrigues, and his obliviousness allows some of its most outrageous asides. Although he rarely commands the spotlight, he’s the cast member most likely to knock a simple line out of the park, while remaining sublimely unaware he’s said anything funny at all. Baumgartner called up The A.V. Club during The Office’s holiday hiatus to talk about the voice, his character’s subtle evolution, and the sinking-ship feeling of the show’s early days.
The A.V. Club: You’ve talked before about how the description of Kevin in the pilot script was fairly schematic. You knew that, like his counterpart in the British version, he was physically large and a bit thick-witted, and not much more. How much did you have to bring to that initial description?
Brian Baumgartner: Well, you know, a good number of the characters on the show began as sort of American versions of their British counterparts. So there was Keith in the British version, and he became Kevin. Creatively… they both start with “K.” In the initial pilot episode, which was essentially an absolute redo of the British pilot, that was where he was, which I would describe sort of lovingly as sort of a big lump of coal. As the show progressed, and because NBC was interested in the show staying around longer than 12 episodes—because in America we need that to make all the balance sheets work—we started to find out other things about him. He really was one of those characters, fairly early on, that I felt like with my urging and the writers’ keen insight, we could start to make him a well-rounded character and not just a sitcom stereotype. That started early on in all areas of production, including wardrobe. The costume designer was like, “Okay, this guy would wear a really tight shirt and have stains all over him, and it would be untucked, and he would be slovenly,” and it was like, “Well, let’s wait a second. Let’s look at him as something else, someone who may wear Dockers, but he’s really trying his best.” And we began to find out other things about him. That he won a World Series Of Poker bracelet, that he was really good at basketball.
BB: That he had a fiancée, that he had a band. And there was this other life that was happening sort of outside of the office that hopefully made people interested in finding out more about him. The character began to transform, quite frankly, as he got more to do, and there became this child-like impishness, this playfulness, a sense that he did have something going on outside. It’s interesting, we were talking fairly recently that, other than Angela, who everyone considers a bitch, he kind of gets along with everybody. Nobody hates him or dismisses him. There’s evidence that he and Jim play fantasy football or whatever. He and Dwight enjoy fireworks together. He and Michael get along fine. He has become, I think, in a way, that maybe not overly intelligent everyman that exists, and you get the feeling will always exist, exactly in this place.
AVC: That’s one of the tricky things about the character. You want him to grow and not just say the same catchphrase for 10 seasons, but at the same time, he’s also fairly circumscribed in terms of who he is, his intelligence and his general energy level. On the other hand, that also provides the opportunity for comic non sequiturs. Our expectations are so low that it’s easy to surprise us. Does that provide a little more leeway with him than the other characters?
BB: Totally. As we were discussing fairly recently, it is not believable that Kevin would progress or change in terms of a work-related promotion, or that he would suddenly find that he’s really good at X, Y, or Z. That’s not the character that we’ve formed. But I will say, and we started this season in terms of doing that—in the wedding episode, for example, he has decided now he’s not seen as a good dresser. What if he starts to make a little more effort? Now of course with his logic, that means wearing a toupee solely for the wedding ceremony without acknowledging that he would need to begin to do that a little bit earlier, not the night before. But he begins to make an effort and find things outside of him. In a number of times throughout the show, they have used his struggles concurrently or on some sort of parallel path with Michael’s love story. So he has a fiancée, and they broke up, and there was the—[Laughs.] granted, very one-sided—love triangle with Holly [Amy Ryan].
A really beautiful episode for Kevin was the Valentine’s Day episode last year. Michael had broken up with Holly, and Kevin had been dumped in some mysterious way by his ex-fiancée, and Michael in a way really helped him find love from this other girl in the office, which at this point has been disintegrated. I think that he wants that, and I do hope that we are able to, over the next however long we have going to continue, explore ways that he finds small successes or finds a relationship inside or out of the office that does move him forward. At this point, six seasons in, there’s a joy from an audience perspective in that with him, and a lot of the characters, we know what his responses will be. There’s not going to be a whole lot of change or growth within that. I think that if the writers continue to give him opportunities to make some changes outside, that he can grow. I think the jury’s still out. We’ll see how it plays out. But I’m certainly interested in that.
AVC: One thing that might be challenging from an acting perspective is that there’s basically no subtext with Kevin. What he says is what, if anything, he is thinking.
BB: That is exactly right. I have always thought of it as, not only is it exactly what he’s thinking in the moment, but he has no real memory of what happened before, what preceded it, and no real acknowledgment of the ramifications of what he may say later. He just sort of does it. Which I think is pretty awesome. I’ve had all of these people recently bring up this fist-bumping thing, that Kevin does a lot of fist-bumping, and they’re like, “Where did that come from?” It was like something we did; I feel like it was episode eight or something, before fist-bumping was anything, and it has continued to evolve. But again, his gesture is not really going to change. That is just what he does, whether the thing is cool or not or whatever. But I think… I don’t know. You expect stuff from him and that gives pleasure, hopefully.
AVC: Is that difficult from an acting standpoint? You can’t Stanislavski that. There’s no motivation.
BB: Right. I don’t know. This sounds a little cheesy or whatever, but we know the characters now so well. To be given a… The longest run that I had in a play was a year, and that was interminable. I thought it was so difficult, and would think about people who would run shows for years. Now granted, that’s every night or whatever…
AVC: And the same material.
BB: Exactly, of course. We just know the characters so well now. Everybody’s fairly good at improv, and we do change some stuff around. Knowing the characters so well and how they will respond is for us, part of the fun. And, I think, a difficulty for the directors, because it becomes difficult at times to tell a character not to do something, that they would know somehow better or something. It’s a very difficult balance in that way.
AVC: How much of an effect do directors have on The Office? So many of the decisions a film director would make—casting, setting, visual style, tone—are made before they even get there. How much does it change from week to week depending on who a director is and whether they come from within the world of the show, or if it’s somebody like Joss Whedon?
BB: You know, I think every week is different in a lot of ways. Television is certainly a writers-led medium. They’re the ones who are there, they’re the ones that are conferencing or whatever, with directors coming and going. You really have to make this choice at this point, because we’re setting up four episodes from now or whatever. Obviously the cast is all there, as you indicated. But I do feel like that a good director who comes in can continue to add something. We’re really lucky. We’ve had the same director of photography, who holds one of the cameras, and the other guy who holds the other camera, we’ve had the same guys since episode two. So in terms of a large part of the job on our show specifically, what makes the show complex and interesting and funnier are the conversations about “Where’s the camera?” and “How aware are the characters of the camera? Are the cameras hidden for this shot? Is it a spy shot from far away? Or is it really close and in their face, and they sort of have to play to it in an embarrassing situation?” There’s a whole other level of questions and choices that come into play on our show that are not even a factor in anything else.
So I think directors can help and add and enhance that stuff, but we have our director of photography and other camera guys who understand how the cameras move, and understand some of the basic choices that we made, and that we’ve found to be effective that can help and guide someone who’s coming in for the first time. You have directors who are much more interested in camera and that stuff, and you have directors who are much more interested in characters and quote-unquote acting stuff. I don’t really know what that means, but much more focused on working with the actors and the specific choices that are made. It’s totally different. Because of the success of the show, the directors have come in for an episode or two or four or whatever, J.J. Abrams, Harold Ramis, and Jason Reitman, just some amazing people who’ve come in, and obviously our own writing staff and so forth has become very skilled, and understands the show as well as anybody. So it’s cool.
AVC: One of the unusual things about the show is that so many people from the writing staff are also in the cast. Do you have a sense of how that affects the dynamic on set?
BB: Greg Daniels, who created the American version of the show, one of the things he did was Saturday Night Live, and I think that the collaborative model was there from the very beginning. I think it started as giving writers who—except for B.J. Novak—giving writers who are also actors an opportunity to play little roles as they came up: Mindy Kaling is a good example, or Paul Lieberstein as Toby. And then they evolved into being characters and wanting input from the actors in terms of the direction of their characters for writing or improv-ing specific moments, and the idea was that it was an ensemble on every level. There are some difficulties in that [approach] when you start talking about the volume of episodes we’re doing now. We’re talking about 28, 27 episodes a year. There was a period, I can’t even remember what season, where because all of the specific writers of the specific episodes are on set every shot when we’re shooting that episode, it was like, “Uh, guys, there’s nobody in the writers’ room anymore.” [Laughs.] So the pragmatic thing that happened was, if you notice, everyone who is a quote-unquote full-time writer—I mean, other people have written other stuff or whatever—is back in the back room, so they’re needed on most episodes 50, or 70, or 80 percent less. Back in that annex, which is really just B.J. and Mindy and Paul.
AVC: Sometimes they write good things for themselves, but a lot of times, if, say, Mindy’s name is up front, that means Kelly isn’t around so much that episode.
BB: That’s true. I think to a large degree, that is based on to what degree the story they’re writing is a quote-unquote group episode, group meaning all of the characters together all the time, which happens quite often. Part of it depends on that, but part of it is about that other thing I said, which is that the writers who write a specific episode are shepherding or overseeing that episode, so they’re busy doing other things. There were some jokes early on, I think it was season two, the booze-cruise episode, and I know it’s sort of an easy joke to make, because Michael hates Toby or whatever, but there’s one shot where Toby missed the boat and they left without him.
BB: Well, that meant he was off for that week. Let’s take one little joke and then free him up to be able to write the next episode, or whatever it was.
AVC: It also isn’t a cast that looks like other casts on television. The documentary framework allowed them to cast people like Phyllis Smith, whose previous experience was mainly as a casting director.
BB: Well, funny how the show’s been fairly successful. It is kind of another way to do it, right? [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have a sense of how that affects the dynamic on set?
BB: You know, the way people look, I don’t know. I would say it’s more the ensemble was born pretty quickly, very early, when you consider that really, nobody was known when the show started. Which is almost inconceivable now, when you look around.
AVC: Well, Steve Carell.
BB: Well, Steve… let’s be honest. The Daily Show was not what The Daily Show is now.
BB: Steve was a correspondent and he had one, what was in my mind supporting-role-stealing movie role, which was Bruce Almighty. And that was kind of it. Rainn had done Six Feet Under, but again, when you’re talking about network television, he had done that for a year or whatever, and let’s face it, not a whole lot of people knew who he was, either. And everybody else was kind of not [known]. So we were all in this ship that early on was sinking pretty quickly. We were together, and all we could do was be locked in this room for 14 hours a day and try to come up with something funny. It was sort of no ego from the very beginning, no ego, none of that stuff. You take a show like House, and essentially it’s Hugh Laurie with this character, and Hugh Laurie with this character, and Hugh Laurie with that character. And they come in a day a week—I don’t know what their schedule is, but you know what I’m saying. For us, we were all there all the time together, which I think established this closeness and trust and all of the cheesy arty words. But I really feel like that was true.
AVC: Even physically, the environment of the open-plan office means that you’re required to be on set even if you’re not officially part of the scene, because we’ll see characters working in the background all the time.
BB: Exactly, and we are. There are no fake walls. It’s truly a real-looking office. When we first started shooting, we were in a different location the first six episodes. We had a soundstage and there was like a basketball court setup that we eventually did the basketball episode in, and that’s where we had lunch. That’s where we shot, and the production offices were upstairs. It’s pretty confining, that conference room with 16 people in it. There’s no fake holes for the camera guys to be in. We’re literally just in there.
AVC: One of the things that jumps out immediately when you start doing research is how different your voice is from Kevin’s. Where did the voice come from?
BB: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s really difficult to say. It goes back in a way to what you were talking about, which is that we all came from different backgrounds. And it’s true. You have improv: Kate Flannery, Angela Kinsey, and Oscar Nuñez came from the improv world. And then you have stand-up people like Craig Robinson and B.J. Novak, and Steven is sort of a conglomeration of theater and improv, with his Second City stuff. And I came from the theater, so for me, what I knew early on, not that I hadn’t done improv, but it was really about constructing a character. It being the first significant thing I’d done on television, nobody said, “Hey dude, what if this thing runs six years?” [Laughs.] “You’re going to be stuck with this little Dutch boy hairstyle and this construction of this voice you’ve come up with.” That was just sort of what I knew. Obviously, I get it a lot from whoever walks up to me on the street about the voice or whatever, but I really don’t know how else to say it except that’s just what made sense to me. In terms of creating who the character was, and I say with as much humility as I can, I’m kind of proud that it’s lasted six years. When you look around on television, by and large physically and vocally, the characters you see are really versions of [the actors] themselves. Not that they would necessarily behave the same way. But I do think it is a different and unique situation. But in terms of how it came about, it was just a construction of what the character description was. And it’s difficult, because he speaks really slow.
AVC: And sort of… wet.
BB: Yes. [Laughs.] Yes, yes he does.
AVC: One of the reasons people speak the way they do on TV is for clarity. Kevin is not something you could get away with on a show that didn’t have that pseudo-documentary background. You can’t imagine someone speaking like that on a more traditional single-camera show.
BB: I know. It’s tricky with those talking heads. They’re like, “Okay, now can we try to speed it up just a little bit? If we want it to stay in the show, it can’t last two and a half minutes. So let’s just try to have him speak fast.” It’s a unique challenge, but we’re stuck with it at this point.
There’s two things that I think are fun that have now developed. This storyline that was wildly successful was probably the greatest single table-read joke and continuing story that happened, which was Holly thinking that Kevin was slow. And really the reason behind that, which wasn’t conscious, it was essentially the payoff of a joke that was set up for four years. Only through all of that time and seeing him in all of those circumstances that you could see how someone would think that. It just paid off in this amazing way, and she was so great and played it so well. So there was that. It was funny, because we still watch the show. They always turn out slightly different than what you think. So I was watching it last night, and there was a joke in the episode last night [“Murder”] about how slow Kevin talks. But a joke not like a sitcom joke. When Michael says you’ve got to pretend to be these different characters, and if you talk really slow, maybe you got kicked in the head by a horse.
AVC: So much of sitcom style comes from screwball comedy and always keeping the pace up, and Kevin goes in completely the opposite direction.
BB: I think so. In the British version, the transition in between scenes was a copier going, and just the mundane and the slow. I think that early on, Kevin was born out of that idea, that we don’t need to hurry for anybody. But let’s be honest, at this point, our show doesn’t do that, it doesn’t try to do that. It does move from one thing to another much more quickly, but some of the greatest moments still are some of the moments when there is just a stop. Nothing happens, and the camera looks around and gets the reaction of Phyllis and Stanley and Andy, and we move on. I think it was born out of that specific thing. There wasn’t a network executive standing around going, “Louder, faster, funnier!”