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The Office’ and Beyond: Corporate Humor

Molly Griffin | Monday, January 30, 2006

Working in an office is hard, but, ironically, the work itself is often the easiest part of the job. The invented lingo, forced fraternization with co-workers, incompetent bosses and increasing bureaucracies, have made corporate culture the hardest part of many jobs. Naturally, these elaborately constructed and often illogical business realms have become a major source of comic material.

The comic strip, “Dilbert,” which was syndicated in 1989, was an early foray into parodying office culture in America. The comic focuses on Dilbert, an engineer, and his daily struggles in an office world dominated by cubicles and incompetence. “Dilbert” makes fun of everything from clueless bosses to labyrinthine bureaucracies and laughs at how rarely real work seems to be rewarded at big companies.

In 2001, the strip appeared in over 2,000 newspapers in 50 countries and was translated into over 19 languages, revealing the universality of office culture around the world. Dilbert’s creator, Scott Adams, was inspired to start the strip while working at Pacific Bell in various engineering groups. The comic emerged from his doodling, and the characters took on attributes of his co-workers and bosses.

The comic created many spin-offs, including a number of best-selling books, calendars, apparel and even an ill-fated 1999 cartoon featuring the voices of Daniel Stern and Chris Elliot.

A classic example of poking fun at life in the business world is the film “Office Space.” The movie parodies every aspect of office culture, including the commute, the paper work, the annoyances of micro-management and the annoying behavior of co-workers.

At the center of the film is Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), who undergoes hypnosis and completely stops caring about his job. This, ironically, makes him more valuable to the company. After his friends are fired, though, they conspire to exploit the company’s inner bureaucracy and to steal from it.

The film was written and directed by Mike Judge, who is well known for his animated series “Beavis and Butt-head” and “King of the Hill.” The film didn’t enjoy immediate success at the box-office, but has slowly become a cult hit on DVD.

The movie managed to nail many of the most frustrating aspects of corporate life, but its popularity might actually stem from the fact that it allows its characters to live out the fantasies of many office workers, including telling their bosses exactly how they feel and destroying office equipment with a baseball bat.

The British television show “The Office” revealed that making fun of “corporate America” was not limited in any way to America. The show is essentially a fake documentary about daily life in a small British paper company in the industrial town of Slough. At its heart is David Brent (Ricky Gervais), a horrible boss made worse by the fact that he thinks that he’s the smartest, funniest boss ever.

While the show watches him make a fool of himself in a variety of ways, it also reveals how his staff copes not only with an incompetent boss but also with the inanities of daily life in the office.

“The Office” is, at times, a painful show to watch. It is rife with lengthy, awkward pauses, horribly uncomfortable moments and people saying instantly regrettable things. This high level of discomfort, though, makes the show all the more real and allows it to show the true pain that life among the cubicles can be.

The cult success of the British version of “The Office” made it natural fodder for an American remake. The NBC version moves the show from Slough to Scranton and swaps Ricky Gervais’ David Brent for Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott.

The American version of “The Office” began with episodes that were remakes of the British version, but after that it began to take its own trajectory. The show is closer to American corporate culture than the British version, but the awkward nature of the show remains.

Initially, audiences weren’t very moved by the American remake of “The Office.” Between die-hard fans of the British version and people who didn’t “get” the concept of the show, it had a hard time winning over viewers. The show got a boost when its star, Steve Carrell, best known for his work on “The Daily Show” and in supporting roles in films like “Bruce Almighty,” had a huge hit with the film “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” It has since moved to a new time slot and has slowly accrued a wider audience and greater popularity.

Parodies of office culture run the gamut from comics to movies to television shows, and while they have their differences, they’re united in that they show how work can be horrible. Fortunately, they’ve found ways to make us laugh – and cringe – at life in the corporate world.