The Office: The Frustrating, Moving Story Behind Steve Carell Leaving

Michael Scott didn’t need to leave Dunder Mifflin after season 7, but the network reportedly dropped the ball with Steve Carell…

The Office (US) on NBC
Photo: NBCUniversal

Warning: contains spoilers for The Office: An American Workplace.

On screen, Steve Carell’s departure from The Office was pretty perfect. His farewell episode ‘Goodbye, Michael’ and those running up to it, were emotional and satisfying. They showed branch manager Michael Scott finally getting the love he’d always craved, and crucially, deserving it too. Once a thin-skinned, desperate-for-approval man-child, Michael had been redeemed into somebody who didn’t take himself too seriously and no longer needed the spotlight. After a long, hard (that’s what she said) journey, his future with Amy Ryan’s adorably dorky character Holly Flax was set. Michael Scott had grown up and it was time to go.

However well-played Carell’s farewell was, it didn’t have to be the end of his time on the show. Speaking on the ‘An Oral History of The Office’ podcast presented by Brian Baumgartner (who played Kevin Malone on the show) producer Ben Silverman and editor Claire Scanlon explained that Carell was prepared to stay on for more, but the network frustratingly fluffed it.

When The Office started, its cast signed the customary contracts holding them until the end of a potential seven seasons. (By no means a sure thing early on. The show’s pilot is famed for being one of lowest-rated ever tested at NBC, early viewing figures weren’t strong, and it wasn’t until 2005 movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin made Carell a comedy star that NBC really sat up and took notice.) As the seven-season deadline approached in 2009-10, everybody but Carell renegotiated for a further two seasons. 

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For showrunner Greg Daniels, that made it pretty clear Carell was planning to leave, but according to Silverman and Scanlon, it wasn’t so. Editor and director Claire Scanlon told the podcast, “Steve said he would have come back, they didn’t even try!”

Silverman, who spearheaded the US remake of the British mockumentary series and was co-chairman of NBC Entertainment between 2007 – 2009, told Baumgartner, “When I heard the story of how the network went about its process with him after the fact, it made me so depressed how they had kind of blown something that they could have saved.” 

Scanlon describes feeling cross about the way things went, telling the podcast, “I feel like NBC dropped the ball, because I knew the story behind it, which was they just never even bothered, which was just like so dumb. I don’t know what was wrong with them.” 

One thing wrong was that during the 2010 – 2011 season six to seven period, Comcast bought a controlling share in NBCUniversal, and replaced network chairman Jeff Glaspin with Bob Greenblatt. According to Baumgartner’s podcast, the feeling was that the new broom had little affinity or familiarity with The Office and didn’t realise what a boon it was to have Carell (by this point a major movie star) leading the cast. 

The rise in streaming and proliferation of new media during this period also made the sitcom’s relatively strong viewing figures appear to be on the slide. After original showrunner Greg Daniels left at the end of season four to start the spin-off that turned into Parks and Recreation, and The Office’s producer-champion Ben Silverman had left NBC in 2009, there was nobody at the network to fight the show’s corner, or to impress the importance of re-signing Carell. 

Then in April 2010, when season six of The Office was in its final months of airing and the network should have been laying out the red carpet to get Carell to re-sign, it blanked him. Carell was in the UK promoting Date Night with Tina Fey. Speaking to DJ Greg James at BBC Radio One, Carell was asked about his future on The Office and said publicly that his contract was due to end after the following season. Asked if he’d stay on, Carell told James, “I don’t think so. I think that will probably be my last year.” A lead of Carell’s fame would expect a public statement like that to reach the network and prompt an overture followed by a series of ‘what can we do to convince you?’ meetings. But no overtures came. According to ‘An Oral History of The Office’, NBCUniversal simply let Carell go without a fight, leaving Dunder Mifflin Scranton without its regional manager.

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Carell reportedly discussed leaving The Office with original showrunner Greg Daniels on the set of season six finale ‘Whistleblower’. That episode’s director Paul Lieberstein (who also played HR manager Toby Flenderson on the comedy show) told Baumgartner that Steve and Greg went into the plane on which they were filming Carell’s scenes with Kathy Bates as Sabre CEO Jo Bennett and held up filming by not coming out for a while. “I think that’s when Steve told Greg he’s not coming back,” Lieberstein told the podcast. 

Greg Daniels took the news graciously. “You couldn’t be mad,” he told Baumgartner. “[Carell] was so graceful and full of integrity that you could never be mad. Because he became a huge star in season two. The fact that he was still doing 28 episodes of TV some years really put a crimp in the number of movies that he did, and it’s, I think, testament to his integrity that he went ahead and completed the whole series according to his original contract of seven years.”

Carell’s integrity was cited multiple times by his co-stars and the creatives on the podcast. During the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike (prompted in no small way by the first webisodes NBC asked the writers of The Office to produce unpaid, as ‘promotional material’), Carell led from the front and showed solidarity by, amicably, refusing to go on set and film until the writer-producers were back in the job. During that same period, incidentally, Greg Daniels paid crewmembers from his own chequebook, so the integrity clearly ran both ways. 

Carell’s reluctant decision not to extend his contract having gone uncontested by the network at least allowed plenty of time to plan just the right exit for Michael Scott. Cue the return of Amy Ryan. The character of Holly was only intended as a temporary paramour for Scott, designed to see him interact with his first real romantic peer (Dunder Mifflin boss Jan Levinson and real estate agent Carol – played by Carell’s real-life wife Nancy – emphatically did not see Michael as their equal), but it became clear that Holly should be Michael’s endgame.

It was Carell’s idea for Michael to secretly sneak out of the office the day before his big going-away party. Carell told Baumgartner, “That would be the most elegant representation of his growth as a human being, because Michael lives to be celebrated, you think that’s all he wants, he wants to be the centre of attention and he wants pats on the back, he wants people to think he’s funny and charming and all of those things, but the fact that he’d walk away from his big tribute, his big send-off and be able to, in a very personal way, say goodbye to each character, that to me felt like it would resonate.”

Filming ‘Goodbye, Michael’ was “emotional torture,” Carell told the podcast. “Imagine saying goodbye for a week. It was just fraught with emotion and joy and sadness and nostalgia, but it was also really beautiful. I treasure doing that episode, because it did allow me to have a finality with everybody.”

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The very last goodbye scene shot was with John Krasinski as Jim, but the most memorable was with Jenna Fischer as Pam, who very nearly misses her chance to say goodbye, and just catches Michael at the airport after he’s taken off his documentary mic. Paul Feig was directing the episode, and he told Fischer to run up to Carell and say goodbye to him not in character as Pam to Michael, but as Jenna to Steve. It didn’t matter what she said because the sound wouldn’t be recorded. “I ran up to Steve and I just told him all the ways I was going to miss him and how grateful I was for his friendship and the privilege of working with him,” she told Baumgartner, “and I’m sobbing, and he’s sobbing, and we’re hugging and I didn’t want to let him go and I didn’t want the scene to end, and then finally Paul Feig says ‘cut’.” And then… they’d taken so long sobbing and hugging that Feig asked her to do it all over again, but faster. And that’s what she said. 

The Office: An American Workplace is available to stream on Netflix.