The Algonquin Kids' Table: The Office

William Ham - 07:00pm Aug 2, 2003 PST

A little background for starters:

The Office, the British comedy series whose first, six-episode season is currently being run (if not into the ground, at least parallel to it) on BBC America in the States, is rapidly becoming a cult smash among the roughly 85 or so subscribers to the cable network and is something akin to a phenomenon in its native UK. This show, ostensibly a fly-on-the-wall verite-style documentary about day-to-day life at a branch of a struggling British paper company (located in the heart of the blandly thriving industrial town of Slough, Buckinghamshire), has won several BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Awards) for each of its two seasons, has been spun off into a popular book of scripts and the fastest-selling non-movie DVD in British history (lotsa qualifiers there, but still impressive, no?), and has attracted one of the most fervent followings in recent British TV history (more qualifiers, yes, but let's move on). Some, in fact, have even advanced the practically sacreligious notion that it bests even the reigning heavyweight champ of British sitcoms, Fawlty Towers. So why has this show struck such a chord among comedy acolytes? Why has it succeeded where other half-hour yukfests have come up short? And what does it say about its fans that such a quietly bleak, often painful evocation of workaday frustration-cum-desperation leaves them paralyzed with laughter? Discuss...

Austin Swinburn - 07:13pm Aug 2, 2003 PST

Well, I'd like to point out that The Office is sort of the apotheosis of the "Work is Hell" subgenre that has sprouted wings in recent years. The earliest that I can think of this particular vein being mined for laughs was in the mid-80s with Matt Groening's collection of comic strips titled (of course) "Work is Hell." Other major touchstones of using white-collar work environments as a source of black humor are "Dilbert" and Mike Judge's movie Office Space, but I think The Office is superior to any of them, probably because it's so highly concentrated and with so little fantasy to distract from how closely it resembles the thing it skewers.

Phil Nugent - 04:28am Aug 3, 2003 PST

When I was a little kid, growing up alone in the middle of boring nowhere and already watching too much TV as if out of self-defense, the best things on the box tended to be the workplace comedies, especially the ones from MTM Productions, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, and Taxi. The people in those shows were a little boxed in; they had mostly hit a certain age and had settled into the jobs they were probably going to be doing for the rest of their working lives. The concept behind all those shows was that the people you work with are Your Family. You're all pals, and you share repartee and help each other with problems and buck each other up during crises. Whatever you did, you took pleasure in trying to do it well, among friends. (The token realist in this group was Taxi, where the people hated their jobs, lied to themselves that they were only holding onto them until they could break through and fulfill their dreams to become champion boxers or actors or work in the art world or whatever, and spent their days under the thumb of an ogre--Danny De Vito's Louie De Palma, arguably the first dysfunctional father figure in the history of TV surrogate families. But because they had it so bad, the characters on Taxi ended up spending that much more time being supportive of each other.)

I guess it was a sign that that kind of show had seen its best days when Cheers began serving alcohol just to give its characters a reason to show up. Even in a mild, Dilbert-influenced series like The Drew Carey Show (is that still on?), people at work made no pretense of spending their billable hours in any halfway meaningful way, and they developed pet hatreds and rivalries among their fellow wage apes. The folks on the brilliant NewsRadio really were like a family, in the post-Roseanne sense of the word: a closely intertwined group of people who worked out their tensions and unresolved emotions by driving each other up the wall. Still, family is family. Mike Judge's movie Office Space represented a quantum leap in how coldly and viciously it depicted the horrors of cubicle living--and the fact that it touched a nerve is evident from the size of the cult it's acquired on video since flopping in theaters--but even it gave its hero a couple of pals to suffer through with. A few hours spent yelling at the same fax machine had made them like war buddies. That movie recognized that having someone with whom you can bitch about work--someone who can reassure you that it's not just you-- may be all that separates us from the guy who one day shows up at reception with an AK-47.

I don't see anything mysterious about the fact that more people seem to hate their jobs more passionately now than at any other time in human history. Everybody in this country goes to college now, only to wind up spending a good portion of their alotted years trapped in some job that means nothing to them, and meanwhile, we're living at a time of incredible richness and diversity in our leisure possibilities. In other words, every second I'm making inane phone chatter in an effort to pay my rent is a second that could be better spent checking out the director's cut of The Lord of the Rings on DVD. Then there's the growing income disparity in America, which means that I'm sitting at work feeling my brain cells die off from disuse knowing that some other, equally useless bastard is making twenty times my salary. Now, along comes The Office, which has the nerve to make me laugh at the unpleasant news that on top of everything else, I don't have any real buddies alongside me in the trench. At best, there might be some smart people who are as miserable as I am, but we're not friends, exactly. It's like prison--you keep to yourself, keep your head low, and do your time. The only people who want to jump in and keep you company are your tormentors, like the dreaded, self-important doofus Gareth, and his master, David, the class clown with the unwitting John Wayne Gacy quality. (You only wish he'd kill you instead of trying to entertain you.) If you're lucky, there might be a pretty girl with whom you can develop just enough of a rapport that you start having unrequited feelings for her that tie your heart in knots and make your agony that much more unbearable. News flash: Hell is other people. That might not be much of a shocker if you've ever taken Philosophy 101 or ridden the subway at rush hour, but coming from a TV sitcom, it qualifies as real subversion.

“What's hard is to write a funny episode of a sitcom where the cast and characters are strong enough to make everyone realize how goddamn funny it is.”
-------------------->More exciting ruminations on Page Two!

Page One
“Why has this show struck such a chord among comedy acolytes?”
Page Two
“What's hard is to write a funny episode of a sitcom where the cast and characters are strong enough to make everyone realize how goddamn funny it is.”
Page Three
“As goeth the character, so goeth the show as well.”
Page Four
“You can't help but feel a morbid curiosity about what's underneath the joyless smiles and the permanent layer of flop sweat.”
Page Five
“Alas, there will be no third season.”
Page Six
“I, for one, have just had the unusual sensation of feeling offended on behalf of Barney Fife.”