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How The Office Made The Dinner Party Episode

The Office hit a ton of different high points during its momentous, nine-season, 201-episode run on NBC. Any fan worth their salt can rattle off their favorite episodes, from "The Injury," in which hapless Michael Scott (Steve Carell) burns his foot on a George Foreman grill, to "Niagara's" emotional wedding, to its pitch-perfect finale. The Office had plenty of unforgettable episodes, but one particularly tense half-hour installment stands out from the pack.

If you ask any Office fan, casual or obsessed, which episode they like the best, many of them will likely say "Dinner Party," the thirteenth episode of the show's fourth season. In it, Michael, who has long tried — and failed — to get Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer), who he clearly views as the "cool couple" in the office, to come over to his condominium for dinner, finally manages to overcome their excuses through trickery. Jim and Pam find themselves trapped in a nightmarish dinner party with Michael and his erratic boss-turned-girlfriend, Jan (Melora Hardin), along with their coworkers Andy (Ed Helms) and Angela (Angela Kinsey), and the night only gets weirder from there. In Andy Greene's new book The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History, the cast and crew dish on how they made this incredibly uncomfortable, uproariously funny episode.

The genesis of 'Dinner Party'

The episode, which was written by Lee Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg and directed by Bridesmaids' Paul Feig, came to the writers as a sort of spin on the Edward Albee play and Elizabeth Taylor film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but with Jan and Michael as the central couple. As Stupnitsky explained, "just the world's worst dinner party, the most awkward dinner party — with your boss." Once they figured out how to get Jim, Pam, Andy, and Angela into Michael and Jan's home, the fun could finally begin.

Right from the beginning, the table read for "Dinner Party" was a smash hit. As Krasinski remembered, "There were definitely episodes where I remember the electricity that went through my body in the form of laughter, 'Dinner Party' being one of those episodes for sure." Kinsey agreed, saying, "When we read it, we were laughing hysterically, hysterically." Ed Helms was on the same page as well, saying, "Sometimes table reads are quick and easy and sometimes they're a bit of a slog, and that one just had so many laughs already built into it. Gene and Lee just had such a grasp of the voice of the show and of these characters that we knew that, yes, we're onto something special here. This is going to be a blast."

Even the network knew better than to interfere with this particular episode; Eisenberg remembered getting notes from the network and, other than one executive saying the episode was "really dark," the creative team of The Office was given the green light to get as cringey and weird as possible, which they definitely achieved.

Behind the scenes on the set of 'Dinner Party'

After the production team transformed what Eisenbeg described as a "nondescript condo," filming began, and though it was uncomfortable thanks to the space being incredibly tiny and hot, the cast still found time to laugh, ruining more takes than ever before.

Fischer recalled, "I couldn't stop laughing when we shot the scene where Jan catches me eating. It was insane. There's a scene where they're giving us a tour of the house, and Steve explains that he sleeps on the little chaise lounge at the end of the bed, and we could not get through that scene [...] the biggest one was when he's showing us his flat-screen television. And it's so tiny. We laughed so hard, like, tears were streaming down our faces." Hardin agreed, saying, "I don't remember that there was anything particularly funny, but we just got on a laughing jaunt, and we literally could not stop. Every time they turned on the camera, either [Fischer] or me would just absolutely be in fits of laughter." According to Fischer, this sequence even broke Carell, who would sometimes get frustrated when his castmates couldn't keep it together.

Hardin also remembered the surprise she brought to the scene, saying, "In the sequence where I sort of dance inappropriately, I purposefully did not do that in rehearsal, just so that John Krasinski could be particularly uncomfortable [...] which is why it's such a great, ridiculously uncomfortable moment." This wasn't the only improv on set, even with such a tightly written script; according to Feig, Carell improvised Michael's "snip-snap, snip-snap, snip-snap" line during his monologue about how many vasectomies he's gotten for Jan.

'Dinner Party''s soundtrack has its own story

If you love "Dinner Party," you also probably love the song that plays throughout the episode, which Jan puts on multiple times. "Performed," by her former assistant, Hunter, is clearly about Jan's inappropriate relationship with him, and even though it was really written and performed by The New Pornographers guitarist Todd Fancey, it was designed to be as bad, weird, and awkward as possible.

Stupnitsky said, "We liked the idea that Michael was clueless and it was clear to everyone else that Jan took her ex-assistant's virginity. He wrote it clearly about Jan and how she made him a man, and it was a terrible song. Watching Carell, just kind of looking like there's nothing in his eyes, just kind of bopping his head along slightly. He likes the song. He has no clue."

Eisenberg, however, disagreed with his co-writer. "I have a different read on the Carell thing, which is that I think he does know and he's just hoping against hope that he's wrong," he said. "When he's listening to it, on some level he does know that [Jan and Hunter] had something."

The legacy of 'Dinner Party'

For his part, showrunner Greg Daniels views the episode as an incredibly important installment of The Office, especially when it comes to Michael. "Once Jan had gotten together with Michael, I always felt like it would play out like some kind of Greek tragedy for her," he said. "She was so together and superior to him in the beginning, and this one weakness that got her entangled with him would eventually destroy her and drive her mad. That was the arc for her, and for Michael we were enjoying the comedy while protecting him where we could, like his strong desire to have children and his romantic yearnings, so that one day he could find someone else more appropriate."

The episode — which also serves as Hardin's final appearance as a regular role, though she would reappear regularly throughout the series — remains one of the most-beloved and frequently-cited episodes of the entire show, and in 2018, it even got its own oral history for its ten-year anniversary. If you want to watch "Dinner Party" for the thousandth time or somehow haven't seen it yet, The Office is still streaming in its entirety on Netflix, though it will soon move to NBCUniversal's new streaming service, Peacock.