Space force

Greg Daniels on Office Reboot Talk, Space Force Season 2, Global Deals – The Hollywood Reporter

Greg Daniels never intended to do a dating show. Then the pandemic hit, and he and his 26-year-old daughter, Haley, found themselves pulling one.

Admittedly, Haley Daniels – an Illumination employee by day – was a much bigger fan of the genre than her father, but they had both watched the island of love and, as he recalls, “started joking about what it would be like if people my age did it instead of these incredibly attractive people his age.” Before long, they found a twist – single parents, named by their children, would be gathered in one house to find love, while their children watched and pulled the strings of a second home – and sold Your mom, my dad to HBO Max, where it debuted earlier this year.

For Daniels, a Harvard grad who got his start on shows like Saturday Night Live and The simpsons before running Office, Parks and recreation and king of the hill, it was an entertaining exercise in trying to bring his brand of “laugh with” comedy into a space best known for its “laugh” fare. Still, he’s much more comfortable doing it in the scripted realm, where he has space force (Netflix) and To download (Amazon) back for second seasons.

Within an hour at the end of January, the father-of-four explained he was forgoing a mega-deal, preferring Zoom pitches and the professional perks of having outgoing YouTube executive Susanne Daniels as his wife.

You’re back to running two shows, like you did at one point with Office and Parks and recreation. How is it easier and more difficult today?

At the time, I think Parks had 22 episodes and Office I was 28, so I had 50 episodes, and I will never be in that position again. But the staff was bigger then too, and they were all year round. One of the reasons it’s a lot of work now is that when the [episode] orders dwindle, the editorial team leaves. So the editorial team is there for 20 weeks and I for two years. Back then, when you were doing 22 a year and the average writer’s contract was three years, [you could take] the first 20, 22 episodes just to train them to write in the show’s voice. Then they repay the following two years. One of the difficulties these days is that you don’t get that training period.

So what are you doing about it?

Most of the time, people make a deal and then tag their lieutenants on a show. Then these guys are also put on a deal where it is understood that they will continue to work for whoever hired them. I’m not in that position, because I’m not on a deal. I spend more time on showrunning than on empire management. But I did that with the contract I had with NBC 10 years ago, and I didn’t like it then.

Daniel’s Office characters, like The Simpsons characters, reminiscent of two crucial shows on Daniels’ resume.
Photographed by Yasara Gunawardena

Why not?

There’s more value in one great thing than there is in three average things, and you get more pleasure out of it, anyway. The problem with volume is that it’s harder to maintain quality.

We’re in an era of nine-figure showrunner deals, which must be at least a little alluring?

Oh yeah, because it gives you a house and a bunch of executives trying to bring you projects. So there’s less development, there’s less of a studio feel, so you kind of have to operate like a studio.

And even …

And yet I don’t do that. (Laughs.) I leave so much money on the table. What’s wrong with me?

That’s actually my question.

When I left the contract with NBC, I really thought, like, “How can I take advantage of this new universe of streaming to be more independent?” Since then, I think the business has become less entrepreneurial for writer-producers because there’s no other window to sell something. You basically get paid up front and then Netflix owns it forever, or whatever. Most of my experience was somewhat understated at first and then reversed in the long run. [Both The Office and Parks and Recreation struggled in their first seasons.] So, for me, it actually works better to do some sort of profit-sharing arrangement where they’re more willing to be like, “Yeah, whatever, give him some points, this thing isn’t going anywhere.”

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A drawing of Daniels in the alley with his king of the hill characters, framed by his wife for his 40th birthday and signed by the cast and crew.
Photographed by Yasara Gunawardena

In today’s market, it seems like it’s better to be overrated than underrated, right?

Yeah. And my personality is to try to say things and then see if people find it funny rather than announcing up front that I have the biggest and best idea in the world. Anyway, what I like [not being in a deal] is all I’m working on, I really like. But yes, we are aware of the negatives. (Laughs.) I’m not going to rule it out, but I think it would be better if people could be free agents.

When it came to space forceyou made a lot of changes before season 2 like you did once on Office and Parks

Shifting and changing is really important for comedy. It seemed really important to Steve Carell and me at first that space force don’t look like Office too, so we tried to be Stanley Kubrick-y in our cinematography. The downside to paying so much attention to the cinematography is that the cast is amazing and they haven’t had so much chance to improvise with each other.

We have talked a lot about a Office to restart. If you were to present one today, what would have to change for it to sell?

When people hear “restart” they think it’s the exact same show. I don’t think that would work. I also think the content was presented very well for that time when people weren’t as sensitive to what offends people so you could have a boss who keeps stepping into it. You could feel that the content was somehow helping people see things as offensive that they might not have seen as offensive before, because they were just used to it. Now everyone is much more aware of how offensive certain things are. We are at a different place in the awareness cycle.

Could you present a Michael Scott today?

I don’t think you would. The part I would take is the documentary format and the idea that this is a review from a documentary filmmaker’s point of view. I wouldn’t try to do it again.

You and Mike Judge recently announced an animation studio, which was likely driven by or at least speaks to the current appetite for animated fare.

During my time at NBC, the only people putting on cartoons were at Fox. I was like, “I wrote Fox shows. Now I write NBC shows. It’s the same kind of writing and the same kind of audience. I had all of that in my deal to start a lively night on NBC. i had a show [in development] with Alan Yang and another with Mindy [Kaling]. NBC has never been there. They would buy, like, two animated shows out of six animated slots or something.

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Daniels keeps a wooden version of the Pawnee seal he designed, which was part of the Parks and recreation together.
Photographed by Yasara Gunawardena

You have been married to a programming executive for much of your career. How does his background influence what and how you pitch?

When she talks about how hard it is to get the marketing department excited about something or how she tries to give a note to that person making the same mistake she’s seen 12 times – and they think she just try to fuck them from their point of view – it helps when I hear the notes from the executives I work with.

Speaking of pitches, they’ve been virtual for two years now…

And I never want to go back there again.

Is this the way to go?

I feel like it’s better for everything to be on Zoom because the personal charisma of salespeople is diminished, so [buyers] have to look a little more at the idea than the cheerful artist who makes everyone happy on the sofa. By the way, the season Office came out, the thing that NBC was betting everything on was this cartoon called father of pride. It was a sitcom about lions and tigers that belonged to Siegfried and Roy. I remember hearing that Jeffrey Katzenberg flew all the NBC executives to Las Vegas to meet Siegfried and Roy and see the tigers. It was the field. If he had to do it on Zoom, they might have seen that there were holes in the idea. (Laughs.)

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.