What We’re Reading: Insider books about ‘30 Rock,’ ‘Sopranos’ and ‘The Office’ reveal the shows were just the way you pictured them

·6 min read
What We’re Reading: Insider books about ‘30 Rock,’ ‘Sopranos’ and ‘The Office’ reveal the shows were just the way you pictured them

I’ve been reading books about peak TV.

Meaning, new oral histories about great television made from roughly 1998 to 2012 — what’s known now as the New Golden Age of Television. You hear Golden Age and you think elegance, but often the period was marked by newfound candor, a confidence and eagerness to shoulder past antiquated TV standards and audience expectations. Scott Adsit, a Northbrook, Illinois-born actor and Columbia College grad, best known as producer Pete Hornberger on “30 Rock,” says in “The 30 Rock Book: Inside the Iconic Show, From Blerg to EGOT,” having worked closely with Tina Fey at Second City, there was unusual freedom. “We were very playful with each other,” he remembers in the book. “There’s a part where I punch her in the boob or something, and she was like ‘Just do it, just do it.’ I have freedom to punch Tina Fey in the boob.” Indeed, until reading “The 30 Rock Book” (Abrams, $26), I’d forgotten Fey played an improv veteran whose wary familiarity with her co-workers springs from their years in the Chicago comedy scene.

Jack McBrayer (who played the dementedly cheerful NBC page Kenneth, and also did his time moving through Second City and iO) jokes: “Tina has employed approximately 48 percent of anyone who’s ever been just through the doors of Second City ... Not only performers but audience members and people who just stopped in to ask for directions.”

Remember that episode where Fey’s Liz Lemon tries getting out of jury duty by dressing like Princess Leia? The court was in Chicago; Liz never changed her voter registration.

Now tell me: Any of that sound interesting? Revealing?

Sort of, right?

The trouble with the oral history approach to documenting pop landmarks is that, somewhat like traditional history, it’s reliant on anecdote, detail and insight to build a narrative, except the weight shifts from the author to the subjects, who are now relied on to provide that history. You rarely get a sense with oral histories of pop landmarks that the participants are as invested as the authors, the collectors of anecdotes and insights.

They’ve moved on, and they barely know this guy.

So a book like “The 30 Rock Book,” by journalist Mike Roe, often thoughtful, occasionally critical — he is particularly good at documenting the tension between risk taking and insensitivity — can feel like a slog of a reunion, like a game of “remember that time” with friends. Only colder, more starved for conversation. Roe fills in plenty of history with a fan’s forensic exactitude. And he’s landed the major players — Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, etc. — but as he moves episode by episode through seven seasons, a creeping sameness develops. (Everyone’s always a “genius” in these books.) Except when talk turns to Baldwin, who sounds (no!) demanding, and Morgan, who sounds (egads!) strange. A former assistant describes being asked by Morgan to find “the only captive giant Pacific octopus outside of an aquarium,” then paying someone $100,000 to pull it from the ocean. Morgan “needed” a giant Pacific octopus.

When you’re reminiscing, it helps to know the people you’re reminiscing with.

Which is one reason why “Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of The Sopranos” (Morrow, $30) and “Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office” (Custom House, $30) fare much better. To be sure, everyone here is often a genius, too; everyone always feels so lucky to have been involved; and everyone found the Big No. 1 on their production call sheets — James Gandolfini in one, Steve Carell in the other — more committed and generous than anyone. But you also form a picture from these two histories of friends meeting over long, rambling dinners, obsessively returning to why they met. That’s because “Woke Up This Morning” was assembled by Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) and Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri) and “Welcome to Dunder Mifflin” is courtesy of Brian Baumgartner (who played Kevin Malone) and Ben Silverman, former co-chairman of NBC Entertainment (who imported the show from Britain). Mostly — “Dunder Mifflin” is oddly lacking Mindy Kaling, B.J. Novak and Rashida Jones — everyone involved with these series weighs in.

Nicely enough, their books then capture the characters of their shows. “Woke Up This Morning” is so mercurial and rambunctious at times — this really is old friends talking — Schirripa calls out Imperioli for being “aloof” when Schirripa initially arrived on the set.

Schirripa: You couldn’t be bothered.

Imperioli: I don’t do that.

Schirripa: You kind of big-timed me.

Imperioli: No way.

Sounds like the show, right? Nuggets emerge, the daily life of a production pokes through the idle chitchat. (We learn from an assistant to David Chase — assistants know everything in these books — a crew member made hundreds of thousands of dollars leaking plot spoilers to the National Enquirer.) As a history of arguably the best TV show ever (that would be my argument), it’s the draft of the better book someone will inevitably write. But as profiles of working actors and filmmakers, it’s compelling: Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) was a club bouncer and knew Jimi Hendrix and would give Hendrix wedgies. Seem right. I once spent a day with David Chase and he was hard to talk with; it’s nice knowing “The Sopranos” creator was nearly as opaque with everyone.

Temperament wise, “Welcome to Dunder Mifflin” couldn’t be more different.

First of all, it’s just a pretty package, large and wide, full of production art; it’s solace that a sitcom about a paper company generated a warm printed artifact on nice paper.

Like the show itself, there are also recollections here so tender, I felt myself tearing up (Carell’s farewell sounds as bittersweet backstage as what was filmed), and rejected plots so ridiculous, I convulsed with belly laughs. Of these TV oral histories, it’s also the smartest on how actual creative choices play out. Rainn Wilson says the more oddly specific he could make Dwight, the more relatable the character could become. That’s spot on. Same for the cast’s assertion that James Spader — who ran the office after Carell’s Michael Scott exited — transformed the very air of the show. Jenna Fischer describes long conversations with Spader about how a scene would go, and by the time he arrived in Season 8, the cast was past those kind of process heart-to-hearts. The thing felt instinctive — so much so, John Krasinski recalls everyone at their desks, doing imaginary work for a while, acting exercises of a sort, before they would begin filming.

I don’t know why that comforts me but it does.

Perhaps because, in the not-distant past, “The Office,” “The Sopranos” and “30 Rock” were such a welcome part of my week — and probably yours — that I already felt like I knew the people on those shows. I felt their faux-realities kind of existed. It turns out, with a few exceptions, I was totally right.