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“It’s a fine line between laughter and tears”: Behind the scenes of The Office’s messiest cold open

“It’s probably the thing I do best”: Brian Baumgartner brings some of “Kevin’s famous chili” to The Office (Screenshot)
“It’s probably the thing I do best”: Brian Baumgartner brings some of “Kevin’s famous chili” to The Office (Screenshot)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Twelve years ago, an episode of The Office made its best use of food as a prop, and the carpet at Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch never smelled the same again. Brian Baumgartner’s Kevin Malone, an accountant at the paper company, decided to bring his famous chili to work in the season five episode “Casual Friday,” which aired on April 30, 2009. What could go wrong? (Answer: Everything.) The under-a-minute cold open became instantly iconic in a way that no one, especially not those who worked on the show, ever imagined.

It is the simplest of gags, really. A man excitedly brings the dish he cooks best to his workplace but ends up making a huge mess. It’s an ultimate act of physical comedy that Baumgartner pulled off like a pro. The short scene is such a fan favorite that it’s no wonder his face is now synonymous with chili. The Office’s popularity has only grown since it ended its nine-season run on NBC in 2013, finding new life on Netflix, and now as one of the cornerstones of NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock. Even Baumgartner is invested in learning how the show turned into such a pop culture mainstay. He digs into this question with the show’s creators, cast, and network executives in his podcast, The Office Deep Dive, a must-listen for fans, much like Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey’s delightful rewatch podcast, Office Ladies.

Why does the humor of this series, including seeing Kevin writhe in spilled chili, continue to delight? According to Baumgartner and the director and writers of “Casual Friday,” this scene strikes a chord because it’s one of the most relatable moments from The Office. This embarrassing private incident for Kevin elicits sympathy as well as laughter. To better understand the origin of the scene, its challenging execution, and the long-lasting adulation for it, The A.V. Club spoke with Baumgartner, episode director Brent Forrester and writer Anthony Q. Farrell, Office writer Aaron Shure, and first assistant director Rusty Mahmood.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

By the time season five of The Office rolled around, the Steve Carell-led sitcom was already beloved. The show’s cold opens, brief sequences at the start of each episode, had a life of their own, often featuring Jim’s pranks on Dwight or Michael’s office shenanigans. They were intentionally unrelated to their respective episodes, as they gave the writers and performers a chance for a brief, stand-alone scene featuring different characters. The “Casual Friday” cold open with Kevin’s famous chili was the first such solo outing for Baumgartner.

Anthony Q. Farrell, episode writer: It gave me the chance to do my favorite thing The Office did, where it feels like we’re sitting in the corner and watching how everything is playing out. For this cold open, we had a bunch of great ideas on a board that we could go to sometimes. It was like our “in case of emergency: break glass.” We were looking for one of those, and it was Aaron Shure who had come up with the idea for the chili.

Aaron Shure, staff writer: I was watching this rock opera movie Tommy and through some surreal ’60s-motivated reason, Ann-Margret was rolling around in beans. I like to think that had an impression.

The Office had a talented staff, and by season five, I knew this would be a legacy show. As an older writer, I felt a bit insecure, so I would keep pumping out ideas every day and I ended up having a streak. A lot of my ideas for cold opens went through. It became my strong suit.

Brent Forrester, director: Oh, you were the king of cold opens, Aaron. Your ideas got into the show one after the other.

Aaron Shure: I tried to base them on simple ideas. The speedometer cold open [from season five’s “The Duel”] was something I got the other writers to do while I was a writer for The New Adventures Of Old Christine, for example. A lot of stuff from our life got in. Season six’s “Koi Pond,” which Warren Lieberstein and Halsted Sullivan wrote, is based on a meeting they were going to and then Warren fell into a koi pond.

Kevin’s chili was also a general slapstick idea I had, and then I thought who would it be funny with? I first thought it would be Michael Scott. As we dug into it, I thought Kevin would be an unusual and good choice. He has to juxtapose the visual with the voice-over. Kevin isn’t known for being eloquent. He is a slow talker, so it was most fun to have him be the one who brings it in. There were a few people who thought at the time it was maybe a “beneath us” type of joke. It’s a lore in the comedy writing world where the executive says it’ll never work but when it does, they say, “Well, if you do it like that, it will work.”

Brent Forrester: We have this phrase that ran through The Office, which was “small, real, relatable.” We were always pushing back against broad, big comedy or anything unreal. This did violate that core principle a bit, but like Aaron says, it was done well, it was super funny, so it worked.

Aaron Shure: I think I wrote it for episode 23 of season five, “The Michael Scott Paper Company.” It was common for cold opens to move around if it wasn’t tied to the episode’s story. We moved it maybe because we wanted to give Kevin his moment in this episode. I also have the original pages. I had initially written an extended version of the scene when Erin walks in after the spill. Kevin has tried to fix it, and he runs out of the room. She sees a giant stain and footprints going into the kitchen. Jim and Andy then enter and Andy asks about the smell. Jim responds, “Smells like Kevin’s famous chili.” I’m glad we cut it short to this being just Kevin’s private moment though.

Anthony Q. Farrell: I was also just trying to figure out spices for Kevin to say that’d be fun in his deep voice. It’s one of those rare things where the content is mundane and the way Brian spoke in character, all slow and deliberate, it’s perfect for naming ingredients. We looked up recipes to see if there was something special to add but we ended up with something simpler.

Brian Baumgartner, actor: It felt different to me even then—not just in terms of it being focused on one character, but stylistically, it’s different from anything that existed on the show. It’s exclusively done in voice-over. I remember reading it at the table read the first time and thinking it was funny. What I do also remember is immediately having a conversation with department heads about the practicality of pulling it off. My recollection is that the scene didn’t change at all. There were no big rewrites from what was on the script, which was nice.

Brent Forrester: I remember reading the script and immediately thinking this was going to be great. It may not sound tailored to Kevin, but it was to Brian. More than once, I remember him being anxious because he wanted to get out and go home and cook for a dinner party or something. It was the only time he would look at his watch. I knew he would have a personal response to this scene because it was his area of expertise.

I also directed The Office web episodes centered on Kevin and discovered that Brian is really good with physical comedy. I knew that’s the core of the joke, but it is a contrast of a deliberately snobby recipe voice-over with the visual that undercuts it. A lot of the physical comedy was Brian’s contribution.

Once the script was final, the biggest task was to assemble the pot of chili and the set. Spilling it meant the reception area was sure to suffer the most, so the assistant directors, set designers, and prop team had to find a way to minimize the damage, while the director and DPs figured out where to place the fictional documentary crew to best capture the accident.

Rusty Mahmood, first assistant director: The cold opens were usually very prop-intensive and whenever I’d read the scripts, it was stressful. I didn’t read them and enjoy them like an audience member might. All I could see was all the time and effort it would take to make this happen, and usually it was short notice. The thought process for this one in particular was “How do we drop a huge vat of chili without destroying our office?” We did a prop meeting and when I saw how big the vat was, I thought, “If he doesn’t do the fall just right, we are going to create a disaster in the office.”

We came up with a plan to have a large section of the carpet on top of our carpet. We put plastic down to protect the base and put the exact large piece of carpet all the way from the front entrance past Dwight and Jim’s desks just because you never know where the chili is going to go and soak. I pushed for that plastic. We had three pieces of carpet as I recall, so we had the potential to do three takes. I thought, “If the drop isn’t correct, I have to get Brian a new outfit to change into, he’ll have to shower, and we’ll have to redo the carpet. That’s a lot of time for take two.” Thank goodness Brian was a one-take wonder.

Brian Baumgartner: As an actor, it was also important for me to make sure I’m holding something heavy. Personally, it drives me crazy when you’re watching TV and someone’s holding a cup that’s clearly empty. I think for going up the stairs, it wasn’t chili in the pot yet, but we did put double sandbags from the props so it would give it weight.

Rusty Mahmood: The stainless steel container itself also had a lot of weight, so we made a false bottom. As seen in the take, there’s still a shitload of chili in the pot. If we had filled the whole thing, it could’ve weighed 40 or 50 pounds. It’s been so long now, but I think the false bottom had foam underneath it. Normally, whenever we do food stuff, we try to get a food stylist, but this was not a sit-down meal. Since there is no chili until the spill and no one was eating it, we just got cans and cans of chili to add.

The thing is, pots with false bottoms don’t exist in real life. We had to think of these things, props and special effects work together to create it, then we test it with chili to make sure it has the right look. This can only happen if there’s prep time. Whenever there were any last-minute changes to the script for any episode, sometimes into the weekend, it would cause stress for me and the prop department to figure out.

Anthony Q. Farrell: As writers, we had to keep in mind this was a faux documentary while figuring out the funniest gag or character moment that also fits into this concept. Luckily, we had an amazing director. This was Brent’s first The Office episode, but he was present in the writing room, so he knew how he wanted to shoot the moment. It made everything easier.

Brent Forrester: Directors are trained to wear kid gloves with performers sometimes if any stunt is involved, so we did ask Brian what he’s comfortable with, but he wanted to go all in. Thankfully, the prop department worked their magic. We were also aware that we couldn’t keep replacing the rug, but Brian’s attitude to it and the single take helped.

Before filming, the team did a few rehearsals without the chili to ensure that the efforts of the prop team would pay off. Forrester and his team set up the cameras to figure out exactly where Kevin would drop the pot. It all led to Baumgartner giving the perfect shot in one take—although the resulting mess meant a lot of time spent cleaning up.  

Brian Baumgartner: It’s an interesting show because the relationship with the camera is always mapped out. It’s a weird dichotomy because unlike most TV shows, we didn’t have marks on the floor on The Office, so it doesn’t look too perfect. This was a stylistic choice. But for this scene, there was a lot of detail on exactly how I would go in. Six steps in, I turn the corner and two steps in, I take a left, or something like that. If I’m close to Dwight and Jim’s area, then the camera cannot see it well and you also don’t want it too far back by the door.

Brent Forrester: In terms of directing the performance, the key was to really play up the contrast, so what I told Brian was to project a snobby pride when talking about the ingredients. The stage direction is, he is smarter and above the listeners; he’s more sophisticated than you, and in the act of seeming better than everybody, he ends up feeling worse.

Anthony Q. Farrell: The writer of the episode is usually always on set when they film. This is where the bittersweet part comes in for me. Right before we shot this scene is when I found out I wasn’t coming back for season six. It was one of those things where it was right during the housing crisis and recession, and it was four writers, so I didn’t take it personally. But at the time it was like, “What am I going to do?” I had a baby who has just turned 2, and I had just gotten used to writers checks. Anyway, that’s what was going on inside. I was in a bit of a daze, no one else knew then. I went to set and we are shooting Kevin’s chili. I held the slate, called it, and clapped the board. I had never done that. It was cool. I loved this cold open then, and I love how much people connect with it even now.

Brian Baumgartner: For me, more than anything, what matters is the moment the chili spills. It should look real and true. I was focused on that and so I was able to do it in one take. One of my favorite Kevin lines is from season four’s “Chair Model,” when he says, “It’s just nice to win one.” It was about the small victories for him, especially where he was in terms of the hierarchy. He has a ton of failure, so for him, I was focusing also on the pride he has in the expressions when he’s bringing this dish. It’s what he does better than anyone else, according to him. That’s the heart of the scene. After that, once I’m on the floor, I just went for it and started grabbing the folders, clipboards, paper, and whatever to try and save the carpet and chili. Once I am messy, I was able to do a number of things, a lot of which was improv.

Brent Forrester: Brian completely nailed it in one take. He went on and was sliding around in the chili. It was Brian’s idea to grab these non-absorbent pieces of paper. It’s a metaphor for the futility of his problem. If we were to just make one full cut of the comedy he gave us, it would easily be like a five- to seven-minute scene. That the editors had to cut it down so much to under a minute is just heartbreaking.

Rusty Mahmood: Once we got the shot, I would say it took us at least an hour to just do initial cleaning. We didn’t even anticipate the time it would take for Brian to get rid of all the chili on him. Ruining the set in any form takes up a lot of time. In the episode when Michael proposes to Holly, we had to completely rebuild that annex set.

Brian Baumgartner: As bad as you might imagine [the smell or the cleanup was], it was worse. I didn’t expect it. My hands were stained in an orange-brown shade. I don’t even know where that color comes from. It wasn’t natural. I used a shower in the studio that connected to the place where they could do laundry because I had to go meet Angela Kinsey and Oscar Nuñez after that. Us three accountants would frequently go out for dinner after packing up. I remember props, hair, and makeup just handing me towels after towels. That part was horrifying.

As funny as the cold open was, it was meant to be more than a mere gag. Everyone involved in creating this scene wanted to highlight how emotional it was that this moment of glory literally slipped away from Kevin. They wanted to tie it into how The Office provided its characters with grounded, heartfelt personalities along with the humor. It’s why everyone thinks the scene has lived on—much like the show itself—and is cherished more than a decade after it aired.

Anthony Q. Farrell: As a fat guy myself, I always have a bit of a problem with the fat guy wallowing in chili, but I get why it’s connected with people. It’s a fine line between laughter and tears. It plays on the discomfort and awkwardness that The Office is built on. A lot of people see themselves as the underdog or the person no one else is looking at, so they can relate to Kevin, and here the invisible character who had their moment in the sun. It wasn’t for the reasons he wanted but that’s relatable, too.

If that scene had lasted any longer, it would’ve become unfunny. It would’ve switched from comedy to heartbreak because this is more personal for him than we would imagine. While watching it, it’s like if I don’t start laughing at this now, I might cry because this guy has lost on the one thing that’s so important to him and he’s struggling to save it. That resonates. It’s a small microcosm of what the show was for nine years.

Rusty Mahmood: This is the first episode of The Office I rewatched in a decade for this oral history. I’m so glad I did. When it aired live, I didn’t get to enjoy it much because I was too close to it, and while I was happy to see the things that made it in, it used to make me sad when all the scenes we worked hard to create got cut. But when I looked back at it now, I was just proud of it. My 15-year-old daughter watches it now, and a whole new generation is freaking out about The Office. It’s nice to see because achieving the complexities of this gag or all the others, it’s not easy.

Aaron Shure: At the time, it felt like we achieved something competent because not everyone was as gung-ho about the scene. There was no doubt everyone was in awe of Brian, too, but I don’t think anyone thought this is the cold open everyone will talk about. But it makes sense that they are. It was lightning in a bottle with all the elements that came together to create this scene. It’s also not mean. People from his workplace aren’t laughing at him. We see his private moment, but no one else does. We’ve all been there. Just about three weeks ago, I spilled soup in my kitchen hot out of my microwave. It landed and went off everywhere. We experience this one way or another. It’s relatable. When I wrote the idea for the cold open, I didn’t know it’ll be my legacy and what reporters will be asking me 12 years later.

Brent Forrester: I felt this might be the death of us at the time and that the snobs would have our jobs, so I thought we were getting away with something that was different from the sense of what our show was. I did not think the cold open would be considered a classic. It’s a metaphor for the human condition and undying spirit, right? This character is, for once, about to have a high-status moment but it goes in the opposite direction. He doesn’t give up and he’s desperately trying to solve it when you can see there’s no possible way he can.

Brian Baumgartner: This is the scene I get asked about the most. There’s not a day that goes by without someone referencing it to me. Even recently at the golf club with my mask on, I passed a man wearing a Dunder Mifflin T-shirt who yelled, “I love your chili,” to me, or this morning when I went to the bank. I was traveling for work to Pittsburgh once and I went to the hotel bar to have dinner. I was sitting in this corner, ordered food, and immediately the bartender came back and put a dish in front of me. It was a bowl of chili, and someone had sent that to me instead of buying me a drink. When the GIF of Kevin spilling started taking off and was put in iPhones, I was surprised, but I think I’m a bit numb to it now.

I also don’t know if I have ever said this before, but to me there are two types of people depending on how they respond to that scene. Some people think it’s just pure physical comedy with him rolling around in chili. Other people feel badly for Kevin and that this happened to him. I think it exists in the middle. I’m proud of the physical comedy, but if you ignore the other aspect, you’re ignoring something larger about the show.

In my podcast, I think it was Ricky Gervais who said something along the lines of “You come for the Michael Scott/David Brent character, but stay for the heart that comes from the ensemble.” That’s the subversive nature of the show, and it brings depth while genuinely making people laugh.