Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2011

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On the cover: Writer/producer Lee Eisenberg '99 entertainS a packed evans hall in the first of a series of centennial "Conversations with alumni" in January. Photo by Bob Macdonnell

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In and Out of 'The Office'

In and Out of 'The Office'
Lee Eisenberg '99 (left) and SGA President Nate Cornell '11 watch a cameo appearance by Eisenberg on The Office. Photo by Bob MacDonnell.

Screenwriter and producer Lee Eisenberg '99 is on the rise in Hollywood

By Lisa Brownell


He just handed over his latest script — “Ghostbusters 3” — to Bill Murray for final review. He has Justin Timberlake's cell number in his phone. And he found out firsthand that Cameron Diaz is “a very nice and unpretentious” person, because she's starring in his next movie. Life is good these days for former English major Lee Eisenberg '99, who is best known as a writer and co-producer of the NBC comedy “The Office.”

Served up with plenty of asides and non sequiturs, a dinner conversation with Eisenberg '99 is as offbeat, irreverent and extremely funny as a page of dialogue from the Emmy Award-winning comedy that he worked on for six years. Twenty students were invited to dine with the fast-rising star of the entertainment industry, and 200 more packed Evans Hall to hear him speak and watch his film clips. All of them learned an important lesson: that writing comedy takes years of hard work and determination.

For all of the laughs that evening, his advice to aspiring writers was as simple as it was serious: “If you want to write, write like crazy.”

“Left to my own devices, I'm the laziest person in the world,” said Eisenberg, who also co-wrote the 2009 Jack Black comedy “Year One.” “But, when it comes to writing, I'm just really driven, and success is fun. I've worked weekends and sacrificed a lot in order to get to the next level.”

And what about that bête noire, writer's block? It's just not in his character. “People talk a lot about writer's block. I think that's just laziness.”

Eisenberg began writing scripts as an undergraduate, and he recalled a writing assignment for which he interviewed everyday people, including a hairdresser in Groton, Conn.
“I developed a real ear for dialogue,” he said.

And yes, he added, it's all about making connections. In Eisenberg's case, networking contacts in L.A. included a former babysitter from his hometown of Needham, Mass., and (he swears this is not an exaggeration) his “former dentist's second wife's cousin who was a writer on the series 'JAG.'”

Interviewed by Student Government Association President Nate Cornell '11, Eisenberg was the inaugural speaker for “Great Beginnings: Conversations with Alumni,” a series sponsored by the SGA and created by students to celebrate the Centennial and alumni achievement. Audience members had done their homework over several seasons of watching “The Office.” They asked Eisenberg probing questions not only about the main characters but even minor ones like Toby and the enigmatic Creed. They applauded when they heard that Eisenberg was the author of the hilarious “Dinner Party” episode, a compendium of everyone's worst experiences as a dinner guest.

Sounding very much like one of the characters on the show, who deal with boredom, indignities and sometimes downright absurdity on the job, Eisenberg described his five years as a production assistant as sort of a trial by trivialities. Nevertheless, the entry-level positions got him a foothold in the industry while he continued to write scripts, and lots of them.

A Hollywood script could hardly top the scene of a successful Eisenberg returning to meet his college mentor, professor and writer-in-residence Blanche Boyd, who introduced Eisenberg to the audience. “I said to Lee at dinner: 'I don't think I gave you an A until your senior year.' And he said: 'You never gave me an A.' So, for those of my students who think I'm just too rough on you, this is how it can all turn out. I am incredibly proud of Lee. … I'm going to give him an A tonight.”

Although Eisenberg has just recently moved on from “The Office,” it is on to bigger projects. He's working on “Ghostbusters 3,” waiting for Murray to read the script and sign off on the project. And the film with Diaz and Timberlake, “Bad Teacher,” which he scripted with his “Office” writing partner Gene Stupnitsky, and which he is co-producing, will open in theaters this summer.

“Now I want to direct a movie; I want to produce more,” Eisenberg said. “Anything that excites me, I want to be able to do. I want to work with people I really like and respect.”


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