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How The Office Pulled Off These Amazing Celebrity Cameos

When it comes to network television shows, stunt casting is one of the oldest tricks in the book. If a sitcom needs a boost or a ratings bump, network heads love to bring on huge stars to entice viewers — think Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez on How I Met Your Mother or Billy Crystal and Robin Williams on Friends. While stunt casting can be fun and amusing, it can also be pretty distracting, especially when the performer in question is so famous that it takes you out of the story entirely. For that reason, it's easy to imagine that some showrunners and writers shy away from the concept, much to their network's chagrin.

One example of this is The Office, which managed to become one of the most beloved and popular shows of its era without engaging in stunt casting... for the most part. After starting out with mostly lesser-known actors, the stars of The Office — particularly Steve Carell, who played boss Michael Scott for seven of the show's nine seasons — got more and more famous, but showrunner Greg Daniels and his crew mostly resisted the urge (or order from NBC) to cast super-famous people as a sight gag. However, there were a few high-profile celebrity cameos throughout The Office's run. Andy Greene's new book The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s — An Oral History, details how they pulled them off, and how they managed to make these celebrities fit into the small town of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The Office found a way to work celebrities into their narrative

During the show's fifth season, The Office ended up scoring that year's coveted post-Super Bowl slot, so NBC wanted the episode in question, "Stress Relief," to feature some super famous guest stars to boost its visibility even more.

Writer Lee Eisenberg recalls, "The network was insistent that we get celebrities, and that was really complicated. I remember wanting Matt Damon or Ben Affleck to be on it. I was like, 'Okay, we'll get somebody who has a blue-collar feel to be running a warehouse or they're gonna go up against Michael somehow. It's Matt Damon or Ben Affleck versus Michael Scott.' For a lot of reasons, people just decided that putting someone like that in just takes you out of the reality of the show."

Producer Randy Cordray was much more direct, remembering the strife behind the scenes: "Greg was really at odds with NBC over this. His point was, 'How does that fit into a show based in an office in Scranton, Pennsylvania? What would celebrities be doing interacting with a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania? That makes no sense. What would celebrities be doing in Scranton?'" Luckily for the network, Daniels had a solution.

During the second part of the episode, Jim (John Krasinski), Pam (Jenna Fischer), and Andy (Ed Helms) all watch a pirated movie together in the break room, and as Cordray recalls, "His way of [including celebrities] was to make a movie within the movie. Andy had access to stream a movie on his laptop and so we created this movie. That was our way of satisfying the network creative people and putting promotable star talent into the episode" — specifically, Jack Black, Jessica Alba, and Cloris Leachman.

The Office kept stunt casting to a minimum

Writer Halstead Sullivan remembered, "The Office always shied away from stunt casting. At the time, Will and Grace would have someone like Cher or J.Lo on every episode, and the episode [would be] about that person. What we didn't wanna do is have some stunt casting in our opportunity to showcase The Office as a new pilot to the world and say like, 'Oh, you're gonna get Jack Black every week if you tune in.' So, instead we had Jack Black and Jessica Alba in that stand-alone movie so we could promote them. They were in the show, but at the same time, at no point did our characters get outshone by these big movie stars."

Throughout the years, The Office brought on some pretty famous faces, but the showrunners and writers clearly went to great lengths to help those stars fit in as well as possible. Guests like Idris Elba, Kathy Bates, and James Spader all appeared in multi-episode arcs — with Spader in particular having a major presence that wasn't without its own behind-the-scenes controversies — and comedian Will Ferrell popped up as a temporary replacement for Michael when Carell left the show. For the most part, though, The Office kept things low-key. Perhaps its biggest stunt casting moment was in season seven's "Search Committee," which saw Spader, Catherine Tate, Will Arnett, Ray Romano, and original Office creator Ricky Gervais vying for Michael's job. Even then, it felt naturalistic rather than distracting.

If you want to relive The Office's best celebrity cameos — as well as its movie within a movie — you can rewatch the entire series on Netflix before the show moves to NBC's forthcoming streaming service, Peacock.