Greg Daniels

Year of Graduation: 
1981
Greg Daniels sitting in his office

"The Harkness experience is incredibly valuable ... I use it every day.”

The genius of Greg Daniels ’81 is how he makes everyday life funny, absurdly funny. Just consider the Emmy Award-winning writer’s first big television credit: “The Parking Space,” which aired in April 1992, during season three of the sitcom “Seinfeld.” After hours of searching, main character George Costanza finally finds a prime parking spot in front of Jerry’s building in New York City. But just as he tries to back in, another car pulls up and starts to nose into the space first. The two drivers remain in deadlock all day, neither budging. In itself, it’s not a funny scenario. But in Daniels’ deft hands, it’s side-splitting. The 57-year-old’s particular brand of character comedy makes us laugh and also feel. The whole scene is pathetically relatable. And that’s because it actually happened to Daniels’ dad, Aaron. 

Aaron Daniels’ daily commute took him between the family’s garage-less apartment in the city and New Jersey, where he was the sales manager of WPAT radio station. Greg recalls the night of the parking incident like it was yesterday and delivers its retelling in his signature style: dry, deadpan and satirical. “They get into this locked conflict and they were there for hours,” he says. “My dad flagged down a friend of his [who] was walking by and had him tell my mom so that my mom could bring my dad dinner in his car. He didn’t get the spot; after four hours he had to give up. When he got home, he woke me up and made me memorize the license plate so that if I ever saw the car, I could pop the tires.” 

Daniels’ dad wasn’t just fodder for his son’s jokes, he was critic, fan and beta tester. “He had an act that he would do at the yearly meeting of his company — it was his version of Johnny Carson’s Carnac [the Magnificent] called Aaronac, and so I wrote jokes for him,” says Daniels, who drew on this memory when he adapted the British mockumentary series “The Office” for American audiences. “In ‘The Office’ there’s an Aaronac joke where Michael is preparing to do something for the Dundies. He tells the same joke that I wrote for my dad when I was 14.” 

“Greg was always both serious and funny — and serious about being funny,” says fellow Exonian and elementary school friend Mark Sussman ’81. “I find that a number of his perceptions and observations on the world crop up from time to time in his work for television, from references to ’70s pop music albums or movies to certain pranks pulled by teenage boys spending summers in Long Island.” 

Writing from life is a common technique for TV writers, Daniels says. “There’s a lot of volume involved in television, so if you have a good story, you put it right in there. That way, you’re not copying other shows, you’re taking the stories from your lives.” 

Indeed, Daniels has built a career recasting his personal life as comedy. After a short run working on “Not Necessarily the News” and “Saturday Night Live,” he spent the next 30 years writing, producing and directing comedy scripts for popular and long-running TV shows including “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill,” “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” 

"If you have a good story, you put it right in there. That way, you’re not copying other shows, you’re taking the stories from your lives.”

This year, he brings two new shows to the small screen: “Upload,” a futuristic mystery comedy about a character who dies and is uploaded onto a virtual afterlife program, and the Netflix series “Space Force,” created with actor Steve Carell about the sixth branch of the armed forces, the United States Space Force. 

While “Upload” is Daniels’ first foray into science fiction, the story is solidly grounded in the deep and thoughtful real-life musings he put to paper in the 1980s after considering compact discs. “At the time, there was a lot of stuff about analog versus digital, so I was just thinking, what’s the craziest thing you can digitize?” he says. “Well, I guess you could digitize yourself and you could live on a computer.” Taking the idea one step further, he imagines not just digital people, but a digital heaven. “It just felt like it was an interesting topic because when you think about heaven, you think about living forever in some pleasant way, and there’s also this notion of justice. If other people are making the heaven, you don’t have that notion of justice really because they’re going to do what they do when they make our society here.”

Daniels attended an all-boys elementary school in New York City and was “pretty nerdy,” he says. “If there were little cliques that you could be a part of, mine was the one that came to school doing Monty Python voices. That was a thing that people did when I was 12.” One of his favorite sketches by the 1970s British comedy group was “The Knights of Ni.” And yes, he can still recite a few lines by heart. “We want ... a shrubbery!” 

When he arrived at Exeter his lower year in late 1978 there were no televisions. He didn’t even have a radio. He had to make his own entertainment. “We were a little bit entertainment starved while we were students,” Daniels says. “And I think that made us try [to] suck whatever entertainment juice we could get out of the classics that we were studying.” English instructors like Norval Rindfleisch made a lasting impression on the teen. “He was a big proponent of finding emotional stories from father-son relationships,” Daniels says. “I later used a lot of stuff that I learned from him, in terms of what kind of stories to tell. The first time I ran my own show, a show called ‘King of the Hill,’ the central dynamic is between a father and a son. I used to think about Mr. Rindfleisch a lot during that show.” 

Friends say Daniels often doodled cartoons on a napkin or scrap of paper and added hidden witticisms to the pages of The Exonian. “I didn’t have a humor column like Russell Baker,” he says. “I put jokes in all the calendar events.” 

Daniels graduated from Exeter in 1981 and went on to Harvard, where he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine and met a longtime collaborator, comedian Conan O’Brien. After they graduated with bachelor’s degrees in history and literature, Daniels and O’Brien moved to Los Angeles. They had heard that a new show, “Not Necessarily the News,” was hiring writers. “We were working as temps,” Daniels recalls. “But we wrote a packet of sample material and they hired us for three weeks. We split a salary because we were a team.” The pair eventually got a nine-week contract and felt secure enough to purchase a car. “We bought a car from a rental company called Rent-a-Wreck,” Daniels says. “You have to imagine that when Rent-a-Wreck is done with your car, it’s in bad shape. There was a big hole in the floorboards. You could look at the street going by underneath.” 

That early work on “Not Necessarily the News” gained Daniels and O’Brien acceptance into the esteemed Writers Guild and led to new opportunities, including a career-launching interview with Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live.” “We probably blew the interview badly,” Daniels says. “We were just kind of like bushy-tailed nerds.” Apparently, Michaels liked the bushy-tailed nerds, because Daniels spent the next three years in New York writing for “SNL.” 

There may be six or 12 writers all in the same room. … It’s a lot like an English class.”

O’Brien moved on to “The Simpsons,” but left the show just as Daniels arrived in 1993. Daniels describes his experience on the animated series as “super fun when everybody’s contributing and the work is good,” but also “stressful.” At those times, he kept one image in his mind: a Weeble. “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down,” he says, repeating the childhood toy’s jingle. “I would say my joke and the boss would go, ‘Nope, that stinks.’ And I’d throw out another joke.” 

Then and now, Daniels spends most of his day-to-day in a comedy writer’s room. Although the conversations are currently occurring over Zoom from his California home rather than in person, the collaborative process remains much the same as what he experienced at Exeter. “I’m probably living the same life that I lived in 11th grade,” he quips. “Just the snacks have changed. There’s a lot more Trader Joe’s now.” More seriously, he likens the writing process to a Harkness discussion. “There may be six or 12 writers all in the same room, all around a table. We’re pitching stories, we’re breaking stories, we’re rewriting and we’re talking about themes, we’re talking about characters,” he says. “It’s a lot like an English class.” 

In this way, over the course of a 35-year career, Daniels has developed some 600 half-hour television episodes. “That’s a lot of pages to fill,” he says. “The Harkness experience is incredibly valuable, just to have practice sitting around the table with other people and speaking up and listening and participating. I use it every day.” 

Another memorable takeaway from his time at the Academy came from Hammy Bissell ’29 following a squash match. Bissell was retired at the time, but he remained a fixture in the gym, coaching club squash and acting as the team’s unofficial cheerleader and mentor. “He said to me, ‘When somebody else comes into the court and you’re playing them, and if they are really good, you start to try [to] do the shots that they’re really good at. Don’t do that. Just do what you’re good at. Play your own game.’ I thought that was really good advice. I think about that a lot.” 

— Jennifer Wagner

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.