If they handed out Dundies for making viewers squirm, The Office gang would win every time. However, some episodes of the series were more cringe-inducing than others. In a new Rolling Stone interview, the cast and crew look back on The Office's Season 4 episode "The Dinner Party" — also known as the episode where Michael and Jan's relationship implodes over the course of 22 excruciating minutes.
The comedy is as pitch black as it comes, and the entire evening inside Michael and Jan's condo is laced with sadness. Still, "The Dinner Party" remains a favorite among the cast and crew for that very reason. The episode's co-writer, Gene Stupnitsky, explained to Rolling Stone that the goal was to make a half-hour that was close in tone to the U.K. version of The Office, which is generally a secondhand embarrassment palooza. He said,
"There's a quote, 'How do you make someone laugh? You show someone falling down. How do you get a comedy writer to laugh? Show a guy pushing a woman down the stairs.' I'm paraphrasing, but there's something to that. The darker, usually, the funnier to us. We're such huge fans of the British 'Office' and we wanted to write an episode more in that tone."
And there's no doubt that they succeeded. "The Dinner Party" features four extremely different couples all packed into a small space over the course of an evening. Michael and Jan are the hosts, and the guest list includes Jim and Pam, as well as Angela and Andy. Dwight crashes the already disastrous party when he shows up with his former babysitter, Melvina.
The discomfort for the characters is palpable, but behind-the-scenes, it seems the cast couldn't stop cracking each other up. Looking back on the episode in honor of its 10th anniversary, the cast recalled how exhilarating it was to film on location — even though the location in question was an actual tiny condo that they all had to cram into during filming. Angela Kinsey, who played Angela, revealed,
"It was a very small condo, which I thought was great. It was a very small living room, and we were all sort of wedged in on the sofa together and more people kept arriving. It was definitely a great foundation for this awkward comedy setting. You know? This very awkward dinner party in this very small space."
As the tension between Jan and Michael slowly began to escalate, the show broke out what would soon be a classic moment. Jan heads over to the CD player and pops in her ex-assistant Hunter's album. Her song of choice? One that is clearly written about Hunter losing his virginity to Jan. Everyone in the room is keenly aware that Michael's girlfriend is the subject of the song, except for maybe Michael himself.
The song — "That One Night" — was performed by the New Pornographers guitarist Todd Fancey, and the Rolling Stones' article features a special extended version of the song that The Office fans need to hear. If you thought the abbreviated version was hard to listen to, just wait until you hear the extra verses.
Ultimately, the song is just part of an evening gone awry for Jan and Michael, but thankfully, the episode is also packed with jokes and sight gags that even the actors couldn't resist cracking up over. The scene that appears to have made everyone break was the one where Michael shows off his tiny, plasma-screen TV that's mounted on the living room wall. Ed Helms told the magazine,
"I had never laughed so hard as I did than during that scene. I had my little trick: If I was really laughing, I would began to look at Steve's [Carell] ear. That was my trick. I couldn't make eye contact with him because I would laugh, so I would either look at his chin or his ear or even something behind him and just focus on that, just so that I could get through something and keep a straight face."
John Krasinski's attempt at keeping a straight face didn't go any better. He added, "One of the funniest things I've witnessed in my life was Steve showing us that flatscreen TV and saying, 'When . . . when people are over you can just do this' [pulling the screen out from the wall]. The TV only moved, like, a half an inch."
The onscreen dissolution of Michael and Jan's relationship may have been one of the darkest episodes of The Office's entire run. But for the cast and crew, "The Dinner Party" also stands as one of their greatest — and funniest — accomplishments.