"Kevin's Famous Chili" -- one of the most memorable cold openings in the history of TV show "The Office" -- was pulled off famously by actor Brian Baumgartner.
And Baumgartner takes that everyman quality to "Training for Tahoe," which airs at 11 a.m. ET Sunday morning on NBC Sports.
Well-known for playing the lovable loser, Kevin Malone on "The Office," Baumgartner is also a huge sports fan. He joined ESPN.com Playbook to chat about the players he's grown to know and love, growing up a sports fan in Atlanta and all things Dunder Mifflin.
Your NBC special, “Training for Tahoe,” runs Sunday before the celebrity golf tournament, the American Century Championship. How did it get started?
“I moved to Los Angeles and 'The Office' became successful and the charity/cocktail party circuit is really not my scene. But I played golf and I started getting invited to charity golf events and I just fell in love with the game ten-fold, and at a lot of these events, there were athletes. I came to Tahoe four years ago, had such a positive experience, and I went, 'I think there's a show here.' My pitch, my idea was let’s create a show where we let these guys who I've become friendly with show their personalities. These are some of the funniest, brightest, engaging people with a knack for the camera that I've been around. The loose basis was most of these guys are better golfers than I am. What if, as the through line of the show, let’s let them help me. Give me razzing, locker-room crap if you will, but to help me get better at golf, to train for the American Century Event in Tahoe."
Who are some of the athletes you’ve worked with?
“Aaron Rodgers is doing it again this year, and we've had everyone from Nastia Liukin, the all-around gold-medal gymnast, to CC Sabathia and Ryan Howard, really people from all different sports. This year we're doing an event with a world-champion luger (Erin Hamlin), the only American to ever win a world championship in the luge. Part of the fun of the show in terms of them training me, we sort of draw lines of parallel between their sport and the sport of golf, and the show has become very experiential. I get to go on the luge in the show this year. Last year, Blake Griffin tried to help me dunk a basketball.”
Getting these superstars in their more natural surroundings, do you get them to open up? Do you see a different Blake Griffin than you see usually?
“Absolutely. I'll give you a great example. We filmed my segment with Aaron Rodgers, and he has become great friend of mine. You see him interacting with me in a way that you don’t see him in any other way. We drew the parallel between the struggles I’ve had dealing with expectations and coming up short and getting him in a really true and real way to talk about the Packers’ season last year and the expectations and the success they had and that ultimately it’s about winning the Super Bowl and how it felt to come up short. For me, it's incredibly interesting. Talking to the luger this year, and to hear her talk about the Germans had won not just every world championship, but every single meet for the luge for 12 consecutive years. Ninety-nine races in a row someone from Germany won and then Erin Hamlin broke through and won the world championship when it would’ve been 100 races they would’ve won. Hearing that, her being aware of the historical moments of that, I think it’s interesting.”
Before "The Office," you had only had a few sporadic television appearances after a long theater career. Has it come quickly for you?
"I look back and feel incredibly fortunate and lucky that I'm getting these experiences that a lot of people would love to have. I don't take any of that for granted. For me, it was a lot of hard work doing theater eight nights a week, around the country, going from job to job. But once I was in Los Angeles and the show took off, it certainly happened incredibly fast. In a way, we are sort of casting me as the everyman sports fan, and I’m able to get these experience with these guys. As a huge sports fan myself, it's opened me up to be able to have experiences, and I’m sharing them with public. That's what makes it very special. The show this year is bolder than it ever has been.”
You're a sports fan from Atlanta, where the city has had mixed sports success; what was it like growing up there?
"It was really tough as a kid going to a Braves game. It was a guaranteed loss. You're looking at 100 losses a year. I was a huge baseball fan, played it for quite a while. But when '91 happened, with Smoltz and Glavine, it turned around, and I will say it made it pretty sweet. But there were some bad years there. Now, going out and playing golf with Smoltz -- I try not to do the picture thing, and I know how it feels, but for Smoltz it was like, 'I’m sorry man, but … for my dad. I got to get this and send it to dad.' Now, this is what I get hell about from my friends back in Atlanta, it's become really difficult for me being a fan of a specific team because now I've gotten to know the men who play the game. My relationship with Aaron Rodgers, Justin Tuck, I'm rooting for those guys. When the Packers went on their run to the Super Bowl, playing the Falcons, it was tough for me. Do I root for my allegiance, the team I grew up with, or you know, my buddy? It created some internal problems for me.”
OK, so Falcons or Packers?
“I was rooting for Aaron Rodgers. I was rooting for the Packers. He's a friend, and I wanted to see my friend go to the Super Bowl. I had a great time at the Super Bowl, rooting them on, watching them win. A.J. Hawk, who's visited us on the set of 'The Office.' I definitely look at sports differently now because of that. My love for sports is as great as it has ever been. But it has changed. Except now for baseball and the Dodgers. I was a Braves fan forever, but when I moved to Los Angeles nine years ago, and TBS stopped showing every Braves game -- what am I gonna do, fly to Atlanta and try to see three games a year? -- no, I want to go. I changed my allegiance there, and one of the first things I did when I got to LA was get season tickets to the Dodgers.”
Talk about how sports have been incorporated into 'The Office" and your character. The basketball episode, draining 12 in a row? I imagine that being an awesome TV moment for you.
“For sure! I played basketball for a long time, and at a certain point, it was sweet vindication for me, for all my friends who excelled at sports. 'Hey, have you guys drilled 10 3-pointers on national television?' That moment specifically came out of shooting the show that week; it wasn't really a scripted moment. Me and John Krasinski [who plays Jim Halpert] and Rainn Wilson [Dwight Schrute] and David Denman [Pam’s then-fiancé Roy] were playing horse, a little one-on-one between shots, and I was in a suit, which is even sweeter. Just kind of messing around. At a certain point I went and talked to Greg Daniels with John Krasinski, and we said, 'Look, at the end of the game, have the cameras go to Brian at the end, see what he can do.’ Promise you, first take, I think on the DVD I made like 12 in a row, kind of like the free throw line and back."
Who is the funniest off camera?
"Me. What am I supposed to say besides me? Everybody is tremendously funny. That's a tough one. That's one of the things that makes the show so special. Everyone has their role, has their place and we're blessed with a very large cast of tremendously funny people."
How are you able to keep the everyman role while not just being Kevin? I imagine it being difficult to break out of that mold while you’re also trying to keep some of the qualities that make him so lovable?
“Time will tell what happens, what I do. We're nine years in, the show is going to end at some point, and I will move on and hopefully try something totally different. That’s the thing -- the work I did in theater and before, I came from theatre, not from improv or standup. There's an equal chance that the next show you'll see me on is drama instead of comedy, if we get that opportunity. For me, it is about creating a career -- I'm very interested in the sports side and want to continue to do more stuff in that. But ultimately what I consider myself to be is an actor, and the more variety I can play will continue to round me out.”
I need to ask one last question about the chili cold open from “Casual Friday.” Was that one of the most fun scenes you’ve ever had?
“That was a bold choice for our show, something we've never done before. It was essentially just me for the entire cold open and most of it was in voice-over, with the physical humor. To me it is a really amazingly funny but also amazingly human view of the character of Kevin. You have the guy who you expect to lose at everything and to be disappointed in everything, and he has some small victories. Getting parking spaces back, a little love affair on Valentine's Day, whatever those things are, it's really true and it's really human. Wherever you are in life, whatever your job is, getting the opportunity to just have a small victory is important for everybody.”