Deconstructing The Office as a joke at the meta level

The Office is my favorite show of all time. Period. I watched it obsessively everyday for about four years, until it was taken away by NBC and plugged into a far inferior viewing experience. Lots of people have written illuminating articles on what makes The Office funny. I’d like to write a much inferior article on the structure of The Office as a meta-joke.

Executive summary: Michael Scott is someone who thinks he is in a movie (but he really is).

Michael Scott is a boss and a man. A successful boss is portrayed by cinema to be someone who leads from the front, is inspirational, keeps the morale high at the workplace with humor and charisma, and goes the extra mile in treating everyone as family. He has a nice house, a nice car, and a big fat paycheck that everyone else envies. A (heterosexual) man, as portrayed in cinema, is someone who has a beautiful girlfriend/wife, makes grandiose romantic gestures for said girlfriend/wife that are well-received and appreciated, and finds it easy to find dates from amongst the available women in his community until he finds said girlfriend/wife. Note that Michael Scott is known to be someone who has watched a lot of tv. There is an episode in which he says that all he did as a child was watch movies and fantasize about when he could have a life that his movie idols did. This is pretty similar to kids watching Kung Fu movies and fantasizing about when they’d be throwing a roundhouse kick to kill the bad guy and save the city.

Things Michael does as a boss:

  • He sends funny emails and cracks crass jokes in the office in an attempt to keep the morale high. He probably thinks that he indeed is funny and charming enough to pull it off. The joke is that he’s not.
  • Michael does think that his co-workers are family, and constantly emphasizes this in arguments with Corporate in New York. Of course he runs out of the building first when he thinks that the office is on fire, randomly fires one of his employees just to save face, and only wants to hang out with the more popular Jim and Ryan instead of his most loyal employee Dwight, who arguably does treat him like family. This is probably more similar to someone who wants to climb the popularity ladder at a high school than person looking after his family. This perhaps shows the clash between Michael’s cinematic duty to look after his employees, and his temperament of looking only after himself.
  • He takes responsibility for saving the company when Corporate has decided to shut down the Scranton branch, and actually camps outside David Wallace’s house with Dwight in order to confront him.
  • He has the company give him a fancy convertible, which is not a suitable car for the weather as Dwight points out. He attaches a lot of value to this car as a status symbol, and initiates a high-decibel screaming match when Dwight ridicules his choice of car.
  • Michael thinks he has a fat paycheck, and makes it clear multiple times on the show that the other employees (especially Darryl from warehouse) would sure love to be in his position.
  • He makes a promise to the kids in a nearby school that he would pay the whole class’s college tuition if they could make it into college. The basic assumption that he makes is that he is a successful man, and that his success would only accelerate in the years to come, enabling him to make such a largesse.
  • When Michael buys a house, he flamboyantly announces to the whole Office that he is taking a personal day for exactly that purpose. The house of a successful person like him is supposed to be grand, unique, and befitting a man of his stature. Of course the joke is that his house looks pretty nondescript in a row of houses that look exactly the same, and he in fact confuses another house to be his at first, seeing as they all look identical in their suburban mediocrity.

Michael as a heterosexual man:

  • He proposes to Carol at the Diwali party, thinking of it as a grand romantic gesture. He doesn’t consider the fact that they’ve only been on a handful of dates.
  • Michael climbs atop the bow of the ship at the Office party on Lake Wollenpaupack and shouts “I am the king of the world”, a la Leonardo di Caprio’s character in Titanic, thereby elevating himself to romantic moviestar-status in real life.
  • Michael tries to be the exemplary boyfriend, as portrayed in movies, even when Jan manipulates him and treats him badly. This of course leads to pent up frustrations and trophies being flung at TVs. Had he discussed his misgivings with her earlier on, they could arguably have had a healthier relationship.
  • Michael lies to Jan that he’s dated Pam in the past, thus building up an imagined past in which he had dated pretty women, much like his cinematic idols.
  • Michael cares a lot about how his girlfriends look. He agrees to date Jan despite her abusive behavior because she got breast implants, cites her athletic body as a reason to not break up with her, and also boasts about her body to a future date. He also talks a lot about Holly Flax’s butt before he asks her out, and of course treats Phyllis and Meredith badly because they don’t have an athletic build. He probably thinks that he should only date “hot” women, because all the successful men in movies do. He even imagines Catherine Zeta-Jones to be constantly throwing herself at her boss Michael Scarn- the cinematic version of himself.

What makes The Office funny and Michael Scott a pathetic figure is that he confuses movies for real life. But is that it? Movies are not real life; is that the basis of all the humor in The Office? I think it goes a little deeper than that. It’s not that Michael Scott was someone who was doing clearly wrong things. Good bosses should indeed lead from the front, treat employees as family, keep the atmosphere light with jokes, etc. However, what Michael Scott doesn’t get is context. Although they should keep the atmosphere light, the jokes used to do so should be….good. His “that’s what she said” was incorrigibly un-funny after a point, and became a meme for his ineptitude, instead of keeping the atmosphere light. Although good bosses should indeed fight for their employees and treat them as family, they should also ensure that the employees are being productive, are not engaging in unethical behavior that could be harmful for the company. Michael tries to protect Meredith when he finds out that she was exchanging sexual favors for discounts, tries to prevent downsizing and then fires someone at random, etc. Similarly, men should make romantic gestures for women they are dating, be charming at dates, be accommodating towards women they are dating, etc. However, Michael proposes to someone he has not been dating for very long, and does not even love (note that he tries to kiss Pam in that very episode, proving that he couldn’t have been too beaten up about his breakup). He thinks Jan being abusive towards him is something he is just supposed to put up with because “that’s what women do”. When he realizes he’s on a date at the bowling alley, he suddenly switches to behaving like an idiot, although he thinks he is being charming and magnetic, employing the usual cinematic tropes of tying a stem with his tongue, etc.

In some sense, although he’s doing the right things, he’s doing them wrong. This is what makes Michael a tragic figure along with a funny one: he just doesn’t have the mental apparatus to process feedback from the external world and change his behavior accordingly. He thinks that if he keeps behaving like his heroes on the screen, he will soon see the kind of success that they see. Movies are life without context; the Cliff Notes version of the much longer novel. Borrowing from them can give you the bullet points of what you should do, but these bullet points are useless unless you read the whole novel and place those bullet points in context.

But what is the meta joke here? Michael Scott is indeed in a movie! He is being filmed by a documentary crew. The joke that the producers of the show have played upon us is convincing us that a person who believes that movies reflect real life, and that behaving as one does in a movie will lead to comparable rewards in real life, is an idiot…..and they’ve done so through a movie…..which in turn was shown through a TV series.

Movies are not real life. Start behaving like a normal person. And start doing so quickly before BBC points a camera at your face and rakes in millions of dollars by streaming it simultaneously in several countries around the world.


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Graduate student

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