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The Office Joke That Cost NBC $60,000

Not all jokes are created equal, and some come with a price tag to prove it.

NBC's The Office started off as a quirky adaptation of a British format from comedian Ricky Gervais, but grew into a cultural force with its own voice and an enduring influence on TV comedy still felt to this day. The series, adapted for American television by Greg Daniels, ultimately ran for nine seasons and over 200 episodes between 2005 and 2013. The concept was a simple one: A documentary crew examines the inner workings of a mid-sized paper company based in Scranton, Pennsylvania to produce a special segment on the American workplace. It's a credit to Daniels and his stellar creative team that they were able to squeeze so many laughs out of the premise for so many years. In some cases, those laughs came easy. In others, they required distributing network NBC to pony up some serious capital.

During the show's imperial phase in the late 2000s, the writers had really hit their stride and as a result began flexing their creative muscles with increasingly convoluted and outrageous plots. The Office even briefly expanded from a standard half-hour comedy format to a full hour of chuckles just to pack in all the story ideas that were being generated and take advantage of those devoted eyeballs. 

It was during this time that The Office accidentally went way over budget on one episode — and it was all in service of one, brief joke.

Office Christmas parties have a tendency to go over budget

The pricey gag occurred during a season 3 episode entitled "A Benihana Christmas." Fans will no doubt remember the show's consistent facility with Christmas specials, among which the Benihana episode ranks well.

This holiday romp opens with Carol Stills (Nancy Walls) showing up at Michael's (Steve Carell) office to dump him just before the holiday party. While there are many good reasons we can think of to break up with season 3 Michael Scott, the last straw for Carol is a doctored Christmas card created by Mr. Scott in which he spliced his own head on top of an image of Carol's ex-husband from an old ski trip she took with her family. Michael is now stuck with two tickets to Sandals Jamaica, and no one to enjoy the trip with. On top of that, he has to show his face at his own office Christmas party without a date.

Office suck-up Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) decides to take the heartbroken Michael on a boy's outing to Benihana to help him forget about Carol. With Dwight (Rainn Wilson) and Jim (John Krasinski) in tow, they head out to an awkward (and boozy) hibachi lunch that actually results in them picking up two young waitresses. Michael and Andy bring their "new girlfriends" back to the office Christmas party, and hilarity ensues. Memorably, Michael has to make a mark on his girlfriend's arm with a Sharpie so he can remember which one is his.

Although a nice hibachi dinner can certainly start to add up — especially if you order too many of those onion volcanoes — it wasn't the food that pushed the comedy bill into five-figure territory on this one. While the use of Benihana's corporate trademarks came cheap, a different intellectual property issue required NBC to pay the piper.

Song clearance broke the bank on The Office

On a recent episode of the Office Ladies podcast — a delightful bit of weekly fanservice hosted by Jenna Fischer (The Office's Pam) and Angela Kinsey (The Office's Angela) — former staff writer Jen Celotta stopped by to spill the beans on the expensive gag. According to Celotta, it was a four-second joke where Michael sings a couple bars of "Two Tickets to Paradise" by Eddie Money to pitch his Sandals Jamaica vacation that ultimately had NBC reaching deep into its corporate pockets.

"I wrote a joke where Michael says, 'I got two tickets to paradise.' And he says, 'Pack your bags we leave day after tomorrow,'" Celotta said. "At the sound mix, I found out from [producer Kent Zbornak] that was a $60,000 joke ... I was like, 'It's a fine joke, but none of my jokes I've ever written have been $60,000 jokes.' But I remember not so long after that we had some of our music budget pulled away from us, and I can't help but think ... the song had to be cleared, and that joke was $60,000."

Song clearance is a notorious pain in the entertainment business, and it can easily wreck a budget. Lawyers representing the network (in this case, NBC) have to work with the music label that holds the publishing rights for a song that's featured during an episode — no matter how small or incidental the feature. In this case, Eddie Money's publisher (Columbia Records, for the record) made $60,000 off of Michael's brief cover performance — not too shabby.

As an interesting aside, "A Benihana Christmas" had another issue with song clearance, and this one implicated an actual karaoke machine. One scene from the episode features an office party performance of John Mayer's saccharine love song "Your Body Is a Wonderland." Office star B.J. Novak, who plays Ryan the Temp, is actually friends with Mayer in real life, and was able to negotiate a pretty reasonable settlement after overcoming some initial apprehension. The cost of Mayer's song?

One personalized Dundie Award statue for "Tallest Music Dude."