Brian Baumgartner, AKA Kevin Malone, on ‘The Office’s’ Longest, Funniest Joke
On this bonus episode of “The Last Laugh” podcast, Brian Baumgartner talks about his new oral history of “The Office” and reveals his all-time favorite Kevin Malone storyline.
Brian Baumgartner Zooms into today’s bonus episode of The Last Laugh podcast from Lake Tahoe, where he has spent the weekend playing in the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship. It’s his 13th consecutive year competing—and the first time there are no spectators allowed.
The actor, who spent nine seasons playing Kevin Malone on The Office and yet sounds almost nothing like him in real life, is taking a little break after completing dozens of interviews with his former castmates and the show’s creators for his new podcast, An Oral History of The Office.
“We’ve assembled about 120 hours of interviews,” Baumgartner tells me. “It was a huge labor, but a labor of love.”
The podcast debuted exclusively on Spotify this week, but he started recording it all the way back in December. “We wanted to hear from everybody and get different perspectives on what the show was and how the show was constructed,” he says. But more than anything else, Baumgartner said he was interested in the question of why The Office is at this moment, “at least potentially, the most watched show on television and we haven't filmed in seven years.”
During our conversation, which you can hear in full on The Last Laugh today, Baumgartner reveals which part he originally auditioned for, how he ended up as Kevin, why he thinks the show was more “woke” than people think, the moment Steve Carell made him laugh the hardest and more.
How did you decide that this podcast was something that you wanted to do?
For me, the thing that was interesting and that I wanted to explore was centered around a question of why. Why now, seven years since the show has been off the air—we were the No. 1 scripted show on NBC for a number of years—but why now seven years later, is it even bigger than it was then? And why does the show appeal to young people? It was not a show that we thought we were making for young people. Eleven, 12, 13-year-olds, why are they watching?
Who've never worked in an office.
Right? The thing that I always said when the show started was something like, well, 200 million people work in offices in the United States. So if some of those people relate to it, then that’ll be our audience. But I think what we’ve found, partly due to the show’s subversive nature, is that there's a universality about the characters and what the show is saying that gives it way broader appeal than we even thought at the time.
I got to listen to the episode where you talk to everyone about their auditions and the casting process. I’d love to hear more about how you ended up getting cast on the show. Where were you in your career when this happened and how did you end up getting involved?
Well, I was doing mostly regional theater, traveling around the country. And at that point I was doing big shows at different theaters, but I decided to move to Los Angeles and give it a shot in film and television. I struggled hard for a number of years. Theater is really hard, but once I moved to Los Angeles, I met Greg Daniels and Allison Jones, the casting director, about three or four months after I moved to town.
One thing I learned from the podcast was that you originally went in for the role of Stanley. How did that go and how did it evolve?
I went in for the role of Stanley. But I had watched the British version of The Office very early. I was given DVDs of it and I loved it. And I knew that probably if there was any role for me on, not just The Office, but any television show that was casting for a new pilot that year, it was probably the role of Kevin, which came from the British version of Keith on The Office. And so I went in for Stanley and but I did Stanley as though I were Kevin.
Because you wanted that role?
Yeah, I thought that is the role that is mine. That is the role that I should be playing. Jenna Fischer said something very similar about Pam to what I just said. She said, “If I am not cast as Pam, then they're not doing the show that I think that they're doing, because this is the perfect part for me.” And I think in a lot of ways that that was how I felt about Kevin.
So you go in, you read for Stanley, but you’re kind of doing the Kevin character that you ended up playing. So what happens? How did you get moved over to the other role?
I got lucky. Allison ran after me. I was done and I was leaving and she said, “Hey, we have this other role of Kevin, would you give that a read?” And I was, of course, internally thinking, uh, yeah!
My master plan has worked!
Yeah, it’s all worked out! So then I went back in as Kevin. When Steve Carell left the show, there was a big goodbye party. And Allison Jones came up to me and said, “Hey, Brian, you know, I was looking through all of my old documents about the casting and the pilot and trying to find something fun that Steve might enjoy.” And she goes, “I didn’t really find anything that interesting for him, but I thought you would like to have this.” And it was a piece of paper with the casting finalists. And there were three names for the role of Kevin. Eric Stonestreet, who now has done fine for himself on Modern Family and Jorge Garcia, who has a great career and was on Lost and all that stuff. It’s so crazy to me that if one of those guys got cast, then… maybe I would have been on Lost? It's just kind of a funny, weird thing to look back on. But that’s something I still have in my office today.
So anyone listening to this might notice that you really don’t sound anything like Kevin yourself. Where did that voice come from and how did you come up with this character?
I think that a lot of it came from the writing. The character of Kevin evolved quite a bit. If you go back or you ever watched the British version of the show, Keith is where it came out of. In some ways I feel like that character became a little bit more embodied in Toby, played by Paul Lieberstein, in a weird way. It's very, very, very dry. It really started in episode two, just very small things where, like in “Diversity Day,” everyone has the cards on their head and suddenly the camera cuts over and you see everyone is done with that game. And Kevin still has “Italian” on his forehead. So I think there were little seeds of what he became. But really, as the writers started writing for him and finding where we wanted him to land, how I justify the changes that happened for him is very simple and very nerdy. When the camera crew came to Dunder Mifflin, Kevin was very, very shy. He was withdrawn and not really himself, because it made him very nervous. And then as he became more comfortable around the cameras, more of his true personality and self came out.
Do you have a favorite Kevin scene or storyline?
I would say my favorite storyline and probably the storyline that universally got the biggest laugh at the table read through was when Dwight tells Holly that Kevin is “slow.”
I’m so glad that you said that, because that’s my favorite as well.
As a student of television and television comedy, it might be the longest set-up of a joke in the history of television. A four-year set-up for a joke, which I just think makes all the more satisfying.
Yeah, and Amy Ryan is so great as Holly. What was it like working with her on those scenes? It seems like it must have been hard to get through some of them.
Yeah, people ask what scenes were the most difficult to shoot? There's another universal answer from a lot of us in the cast, which was when Kevin sat on Michael's lap as Santa Claus. And I mean, if you go back and you just look at the bloopers and then you go back and you watch it, you still see people laughing in what aired on TV, because I don't think they had the coverage. But for me, it’s when Kevin was at the vending machine with Holly and she's trying to be helpful and help him with the change. She starts going through the change and then she picks something up and says, “This is a button.” And her thinking that she had to explain to Kevin, who's working as an accountant, that this was a button. Just the look on her face, I could not not smile. And so basically I just was like, fuck it, I’m just going to smile. I’m going to look into the camera because I knew that it would cut perfectly with, “I’m totally gonna bang Holly.” But the truth was I could not not smile when she did that.
You talked about how the show has become insanely popular with young people and on streaming. It must’ve affected your life in an interesting way, because as much as you probably got recognized when it was on, do you get recognized even more now?
Yes. And part of the genesis around the podcast was that as well. I remember I was having a conversation with Rainn Wilson and I said, “Man, I feel like the show is as big as it was when we were airing after the Super Bowl.” And he said, “No, it’s bigger.” And it’s true. During coronavirus, I’ve got on a hat and sunglasses and a mask and someone is still coming up to me. And I asked one person, “Is it my voice?” Because my voice isn’t even the same, if you don't know how I really talk. And they were like, “No, I know your eyes.” That’s so crazy.
Whenever cast members do interviews, you guys always gets asked about potential reboots and reunions and all of that. And I think there's even more clamoring for it now because, just over the last couple of months, there was a Parks and Rec reunion and now there's a 30 Rock reunion. And the show is going to be on Peacock and that's made people think, oh, maybe something will happen around that. What's your perspective on all of that? Is it something that you would want to do? Is it something that you think should happen? Because I know there are varying opinions on it from the cast members.
I think that a reunion of some kind absolutely makes sense. The question is, around what event are these people coming back together? Greg Daniels is a genius. And if he wants to come up with an idea, I’m sure that it would be great and everybody would be on board. But I don’t know that that’s really what people want. I don’t know how satisfied that would make people. They want another 200 episodes of that show. My question to people is, how does that happen? Like Michael Scott now lives in Colorado with Holly and Jim and Pam live in Austin. Kevin was fired and now owns a bar. Stanley’s retired to Florida. So on the surface, I just go, I don’t know where the entry point is for that to happen again. And then I always joke, but Roseanne came back and John Goodman died.
So anything's possible!
So anything is possible. But those are problematic things. And due to the success of the show, I mean, including myself at certain times, the idea that all of those people would be free to come back to do an extended run—I literally don't know how it is possible. But again, who knows?
I do wonder too, if the continued popularity of the show goes against some of the arguments that people make about PC culture and what would be acceptable now. Because you have an episode like “Diversity Day,” which has all kinds of jokes that people might think are inappropriate. The storyline with Holly thinking that Kevin is “slow” could be offensive to some people. Yet the show remains so popular. So do you think it does refute some of the arguments about what people might find acceptable today?
I mean, the short answer is yes. I try to be woke, but I’ve been told if you use the word “woke,” then you necessarily aren’t woke anyway. But for me, I was tremendously proud of how The Office dealt with a number of social issues during its run. Homosexuality, race, feminism, health care, to name just a few. Huge topics that really had not been addressed since All in the Family, in the ’70s. So you're talking about 30 years of just trying to sugarcoat and whitewash—no pun intended—how those things issues were dealt with in television. I was tremendously proud of it, because it was all based in character. The example I like to use is Michael Scott saying to Oscar, “What is a less offensive term than Mexicans?” And he really wants to know what is less offensive. To me, that is genius. That is The Office at its absolute best. You have a character, Michael, who truly doesn’t have bad intentions. He’s just not at all woke. He doesn't understand. But what’s important is that when he says things like that, everybody else in the office is uncomfortable with what he’s saying. And so the message that it is sending is, Oh dear lord, you can't do that. So the idea that you couldn't make those jokes now, because you can't say that, when the message is actually right on point, this is something that just confuses me. There’s never any hint that everybody thinks that Michael is OK to do these things.
Looking back, what has the impact been of this experience on your career? Because I think whenever you play an iconic character like this, there’s that thing that happens where you are only associated with that character and it can make it harder to do other things.
Most significantly, it’s a blessing. But also, there will be people who are listening to your podcast that hear this, that don’t like it that I sound different. They want to hold on to that. To which I sort of go like, guys, I’ve got to do something else! So I think that part of it is difficult. If you look at my social media posts, I could post about golf and there will be dozens of people telling me not to spill the chili. Angela Kinsey talks about the same thing. If she posts a photo with her with her husband, it will be like, “Oh, are you cheating on Dwight?” You can’t escape it. The only thing that’s weird to me is whenever someone’s about to do that, are they thinking in that moment that no one else has ever said this before?