BJ Novak explains why The Sopranos was the biggest influence on The Office. In addition to his on-screen role as Ryan Howard on the NBC comedy, Novak was also a writer and producer. He wrote memorable episodes such as “Diversity Day”, “Sexual Harassment”, and “Local Ad”. In his capacity behind the scenes, Novak was a part of the process of how the show would replace its lead character, Michael Scott, when Steve Carrell exited the show in 2011.
One idea was for The Sopranos star James Gandolfini to step into the void created by Carrell’s departure. But as it was revealed, back in July, HBO paid $3 million to keep Gandolfini from joining The Office. Even though The Sopranos, an HBO show, was long over by that point, Gandolfini had a deal with the cable network and was set to star in one of its limited series prior to his death. In new remarks, Novak spoke about Gandolfini and took the opportunity to point out what The Sopranos and The Office have in common.
During an appearance on Watch What Happens Live, Novak shed light on why he regards The Sopranos as the biggest influence on The Office. The producer also spoke about what it was like attempting to convince Gandolfini to join the show, and how much he would have liked to work with the late actor. Novak’s quote, from EW, is included below.
“He was shy and intrigued. I just thought it would be great, because, to me, The Sopranos was actually the biggest influence on The Office because of the way that comedy and drama and character were all completely indistinguishable. In fact, the way Michael Scott will say something very serious but mispronounce a word I feel is a direct descendant of the Tony Soprano sense of humor. So I thought he would’ve been an incredible replacement. I really, really wanted to work with him.”
It’s not surprising that Novak would hold The Sopranos in such high esteem. The drama has had a lasting impact on the small screen. Routinely cited by critics and audiences alike as one of the most important shows of the last two decades, the HBO hit is credited with helping to elevate the perception of the small screen and assisting in how it is now viewed in the same category as arthouse feature films, literature, and theater. More specifically, in terms of how The Sopranos influenced the approach of shows that came after it, it allowed for more space in the medium to explore darker and more morally ambiguous characters. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan reflected in 2013, shortly after Gandolfini’s death, that Walter White wouldn’t have existed without Tony Soprano.
That sort of impact extends beyond genre. Even though The Office is a comedy, and much lighter than The Sopranos was overall, both shows boasted strong ensembles and centered around a main character who was at times difficult to root for. It’s that last point, the somewhat unlikeable protagonist, that was made more palatable thanks to the enormous success of the drama Gandolfini led. And even though he ultimately didn’t appear in the NBC show himself, it’s a reminder that his indelible portrayal of Tony Soprano lives on.