When it arrived on NBC three years ago, The Office seemed certan to be a soft and slender knock-off of its British ancestor, the riotous and brilliantly cruel Ricky Gervais combination of mockumentary and sitcom set in the non-careerist backwater of Slough, an exurb of London. The UK Office denizens sliced and diced the various British working castes, and made the social climbing and career grasping of David Brent the comic fulcrum of the series.
It was funny just on the writing and the brilliant performances; but it was deadly if you got the inherent British disapproval of social and economic ambition.
Bringing it to America presented problems with the premise. We’re supposed to adore ambition, and reward it with fame and fortune in our media channels. Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, the manager of a dismal regional sales operation for a second-rate paper company, was sketched as ambitous, hard-working, sales-oriented, and wiling to do almost anything to succeed. A hero, in the conventional wisdom of the American national character. We’re supposed to love guys like Michael Scott, whose ambition makes our economy grow.
But Michael Scott is a hilarious, pitiable character – the middle manager we ridicule with joy every week – and the conventional wisdom with regard to our societal love for ambition is wrong.
In television comedies, ambition works in one way only – as a foil for some yucks, a funny recipe for disaster. Ralph Kramden’s start-up schemes, Frank Burns’ Army ambitions, Barney Fife’s big-city law enforcement dreams, Ted Baxter’s hopes for a network gig, and Michael Scott’s careerism – they’re all of a piece: the creation of hopes to be dashed in the name of being silly.
In sitcoms, the “good” people are those who accept their surroundings, their hometown, their current jobs, and their fate. The silly people are those who try and break out, start something new, or worst of all – leave. The situation itself doesn’t accept change very well; for the ambitious people doing the writing and the acting, the characters have to stay put. It’s a practical consideration.
But it’s not the whole story, I think. So much of humor comes from pain – slapstick, fall down and get hurt pain and the pain of trying and failing, of not being good enough, poor sap pain. Failure is funny. As Dan Leo said a couple of days ago in this blogathon: “Comedy is pain and frustration and crushing embarrassment; in other words comedy is much like real life.”
Except that in real life, the penalties for a pratfall or a career blunder are far more painful. Television comedies remove that pain. Cliffy is always welcome back at Cheers, and Homer still gets his wife and house back in Springfield. On The Office, Michael Scott – the butt of so many jokes as the serial aspirant he is – always has that office to return to, that wonderful ensemble cast, that situation.
It also makes us feel better. Let’s face it, the best and longest-running sitcoms are also substitute families for their fans, a half hour at a time per week. We laugh at their lives, and it helps us to get on with our own. The familiarity opens up situations because we know what to expect from the characters and their surroundings. And so when Michael Scott has another brilliant management idea, we anticipate how Jim and Pam will conspire as a couple, how Dwight will add to craziness, and how the rest of the cast will react in their semi-predictable ways.
Last year’s entire plot arc – no, the non-romantic one – involved Michael’s corporate ambitions within Dunder Mifflin. He aspired to that big management job in New York; as did several other characters. And yet the show pulled Michael (and Jim, it turned out) back to Scranton. This was no surprise at all – a successful Michael Scott working his way up the corporate ladder has no value to an ambitious comedy writer. For the show to succeed, Michael Scott must fail, Dwight must return to Dunder Mifflin, and Jim must set his career goals a bit lower.
Then we can get on with the yucks again.
This week’s episode (before the writer’s strike) perfectly illustrated the tension between ambition and comedy. Michael determined to engage in a wilderness survival test, the perfect metaphor for the business world.
Dwight: “Do I believe that Michael possesses the skills necessary to survive in a hostile environment? Let’s put it this way. No, I do not.”
And, of course, he does not pass the test, returning to the friendly confines of the regional paper office – where Jim, the young salesman, has been changing things in his place with disastrous results. Jim’s professional ambitions have taken him nowhere in three years, despite his obvious talent. In The Office, he needs to keep his practical jokes and straight-man quips in, well, the office. And so he must suffer the counseling of his mentor, the failure Michael Scott.
Michael, in full bombastic avuncular mode: “Don’t worry, in ten years you’ll figure it out.”
Jim, surprised glance at the camera: “I don’t know if I’ll be here in ten years.”
Michael with the punchline: “That’s what I said.”