Not all jokes are created equal, and some come with a price tag to prove it.
In the American version of The Office, the pricey gag occurred during a season 3 episode entitled “A Benihana Christmas.” Fans will no doubt remember the show’s consistent quality when it comes to Christmas specials, and for a lot of people, the Benihana episode tends to rank among the best.
This holiday romp opens with Carol Stills showing up at Michael Scott’s office to dump him just before the holiday party. While there are many good reasons we can think of to break up with season three Michael Scott, the last straw for Carol is a doctored Christmas card created by Mr. Scott in which he spliced his own head on top of an image of Carol’s ex-husband from an old ski trip she took with her family.
This setback sets up the drama of the episode. Michael is now stuck with two tickets to Sandals Jamaica, and no one to enjoy the trip with. On top of that, he has to show his face at his own office Christmas party without a date.
Office suck-up Andy Bernard decides to take the heartbroken Michael on a boy’s outing to Benihana to help him forget about Carol. With Dwight and Jim in tow, they head out to an awkward (and boozy) hibachi lunch that actually results in them picking up two young waitresses.
Michael and Andy bring their “new girlfriends” back to the office Christmas party, and hilarity ensues. Memorably, Michael has to make a mark on his girlfriend’s arm with a Sharpie so he can remember which one is his.
Although a nice hibachi dinner can certainly start to add up, especially if you order too many of those onion volcanoes, it wasn’t the food that pushed the comedy bill into five-figure territory on this one. While the use of Benihana’s corporate trademarks came cheap, a different intellectual property issue required NBC to pay the piper.
On a recent episode of the Office Ladies podcast, a delightful bit of weekly fanservice hosted by Jenna Fischer, who played Pam, and Angela Kinsey, who played Angela, former staff writer Jen Celotta stopped by to spill the beans on the expensive gag.
According to Celotta, the joke that ultimately had NBC reaching deep into its corporate pockets was a four-second gag where Michael sings a couple bars of “Two Tickets to Paradise” by Eddie Money to relish his upcoming vacation to a Sandals resort in Jamaica.
In her appearance on the Office Ladies podcast, Celotta said that that short joke came with a large price tag. She was informed of this fun fact after the fact by producer Kent Zbornak.
Celotta wasn’t sure, but she told the podcast that she recalled the show’s music budget being reduced not too long after the episode, leading her to believe that her little joke may have had a way bigger impact than she’d anticipated.
The process of song clearance is a notorious pain in the entertainment business, and it can easily wreck a show or movie’s production budget as costs get out of control.
In order to clear a song, lawyers representing the network, in this case, NBC, have to work with the music label that holds the publishing rights for a song that’s featured during an episode, no matter how small or incidental the feature. In this case, Eddie Money’s publisher Columbia Records made $60,000 off of Michael’s brief cover performance, not too shabby for four seconds’ worth of someone else’s work.
As an interesting aside, “A Benihana Christmas” had another issue with song clearance. One scene from the episode features an office party performance of John Mayer’s saccharine love song “Your Body Is a Wonderland.”
Office star B.J. Novak, who plays Ryan the Temp, is actually friends with Mayer in real life, and was able to negotiate a pretty reasonable settlement after overcoming some initial apprehension. The cost of Mayer’s song?
One personalized Dundie Award statue for “Tallest Music Dude.” Watch the video to learn about The Office Joke That Cost NBC $60,000!
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