Not Just Another Day at The Office With Paul Lieberstein '89 on the Hill

Paul Lieberstein '89 brings <em>The Office</em> to Hamilton.
Paul Lieberstein '89 brings The Office to Hamilton.
Cracking his first joke of many, Paul Lieberstein said that “it’s like a bizarre reunion where I’m the only one who’s aged,” referring to the standing-room only crowd in Wellin Hall on April 16. Lieberstein graduated from Hamilton in 1989 with a degree in economics, but, as everyone in the audience was well-aware, he became a household name not as an auditor but as a writer and actor on the hit NBC show The Office. Ultimately getting to that destination, however, was not easy: Lieberstein had to climb over and sidle past unhelpful career counselors, dead-end bank jobs, crazed bosses, incompetent agents and Los Angeles itself.

Though his academic commitment toward writing (particularly strong in high school) faded briefly during his stint at Hamilton, Lieberstein always chose to indulge in another hobby: television. “I would watch for 12 hours a day,” Lieberstein remarked with a smile, blurring for a moment the distinction between a joke and the truth. Although his major was in economics, Lieberstein really wanted to write for TV.

He eventually graduated with that economics degree and returned home (“for way too long,” he said) and so his father got him a job as an auditor. For a short time Lieberstein worked at an archdiocese in New York, spending his days simply “turning the pages of some book.” Bewildered at the apparent idiosyncrasies of corporate America, Lieberstein left that job and found another at Asia Bank in Flushing, which proved similarly unfulfilling. So he left that job as well, and remarked that “by Monday morning I had my first script written.”

Determined, he moved out to LA and took his work to Hollywood, where (predictably) things didn’t go over too well at first. Luckily, however, Lieberstein had some good connections – and by his 10th script, a spec script for The Larry Sanders Show, Lieberstein received some positive recognition and professional credit. Remembering a kernel of truth that he had learned at the time, Lieberstein stated that “it’s a favor to you when your work is good, but it’s a favor to the person you’re giving it to when your work is great.”

Lieberstein’s first writing job was “on a show that was so bad I can’t remember the name of it.” Subsequently he experienced a long stretch of unemployment (at which point he left his agent for a worse agent), though soon enough a friend offered him a staff writing position for the show Weird Science. “That was my first real solo writing gig,” Lieberstein remarked, a memory that he still looks upon fondly – even though he ended up getting fired. And so he took another job working on the hit ‘90s Nickelodeon show Clarissa Explains It All… then on The Naked Truth starring Téa Leoni (“that’s where I met my first real crazy boss”)… then on The King of the Hill… and then finally on The Office. There, Lieberstein explained, his boss wanted the writers to act at least once, if only for the brief experience. But on the day of shooting, Lieberstein had just woken up from a nap. Bleary-eyed, not only couldn’t he remember his one line but he also couldn’t quite understand the director’s commands. It was a mess… and so the character of Toby Flenderson was born.

Following his lecture, Lieberstein showed a season six blooper reel of The Office and then answered several questions, including ones pertaining to his closest friend on set (BJ Novak), his favorite episode (“Diversity Day”), which character he would kill off (Michael), where he had lived on the Hamilton campus (Dunham, Milbank, Spencer) and his plans for the future (to create his own show). And what was the most important thing he learned at Hamilton? “That’s an interesting question,” Lieberstein remarked. Then, with tongue only partly in cheek: “Feel confident that you do not have to learn anything here for ‘out there.’ You have to learn it all over again, whatever industry you go into.”

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