How The Office Lost its Funny Bone

The TV show really isn’t all it is cracked up to be.

by Gabby Curran

Copy Editor

As someone who wanted to start their summer off productively, I decided to binge-watch all nine seasons of The Office (slightly less if you consider the fact that seasons 1 and 4 were less than 20 episodes long). For those of you somehow not familiar with the show (in which case, stop reading and start watching), The Office was a show on NBC that aired from 2005 to 2013, spanning 201 episodes in all. It stars such comedians as Steve Carrell, Ed Helms, Rainn Wilson, and Jenna Fischer and takes on the gutsy task of creating comedy out of the mundane and soulless office environment that most middle-class Americans are familiar with.

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I was around 12 years old when I saw my first episode of The Office, and despite being unfamiliar with the office atmosphere thought it was hilarious. I loved how boss Michael Scott was completely oblivious to how inappropriate and over-the-top his actions were. I loved the reactions that the other characters on the show had towards him, from sycophantry, to awe, to frustration, to rage. The setups were great, the characters were recognizable, and the jokes were hysterical and entertaining (among my favorite scenes of all time include when Dwight cuts the face off of a CPA-training dummy, when Dwight creates a simulation of an office fire to test everybody’s cooperation and rational thinking under pressure, and the entire dinner party episode at Michael’s. All of it). Because I’d only ever seen episodes of “The Office” out of order before this summer, either as they aired on cable or as I was in the mood for on Netflix, I thought the entire binging experience would be side-splittingly funny.

And it was…sort of. The first four seasons were just as funny as I remembered them, but around season five something seemed to shift. I couldn’t really put my finger on it at the time, but the further I got into the show, the more I understood what it was. Lots of The Office fans, even the most die-hard, have complained about the later seasons being abysmally unfunny compared to its earlier ones. After watching the entire show in less than a month, I don’t think it’s that. It’s not that the show lost its comedy per se (though some of the jokes in the last three seasons are BAD. REALLY BAD.); it’s just that “The Office”’s premise had run its course and had become a different show than it was when it started.

As I got to the last few episodes of the show, I thought about something my father would say about The Office and why he loved it so much. He explained that bosses with Michael Scott’s exact personality––intrusive, obnoxious, crude and inappropriate––really exist out there in the adult world, and that this was one of the reasons his character––and by extension the show––was so comedically successful. Beyond just an obnoxious boss, most people who have worked in an American office have known a crazy sycophantic variant of Dwight, a soft-spoken and timid variant of Pam, an uptight ultra-religious moralist variant of Angela, a young arrogant sleeze-bag business student like Ryan, a talkative and immature variant of Kelly, etc. The show is, then, essentially one giant stereotype made up of little stereotypes that typically shouldn’t be funny, but somehow become so when we’re the ones on the outside looking in. The whole concept is groundbreaking and fantastically executed in its first four seasons, but stereotypes can only last so long as characters before they become redundant and predictable. The Office, for better or worse depending on who you talk to, didn’t quite know when to cap off the show and let it go on for longer than it probably should have to preserve its original tone.

After the fifth season, The Office begins to take itself too seriously. The characters branch out beyond their stereotypes, which in any other show would be good, but in this case does more harm than good. The characters are no longer strict stereotypes, which changes the entire feel of the show. It seems strange to rag on a show for not keeping its characters one-dimensional, but the over-the-top personas that The Office characters put on and were known for was, in my opinion, one of the things that kept the show afloat and defined its innovative, one-of-a-kind sense of humor.

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As the seasons progress, more and more scenes take place outside of the office setting, which in turn takes the whole “creating humor from mundanity” aspect away from the show. It isn’t so much about an office anymore as it is about a handful of office employees going about their lives who just happen to work together. Whereas the first few seasons put the office setting first and the characters’ individuality second, the order is reversed when the characters begin to lead separate lives of their own. The previously foundational office setting, then, is pushed to the background in favor of its employees’ storylines.

Looking at the show through this perspective changed a lot of my thoughts on The Office, thoughts that I’d firmly held to since middle school. I used to be the biggest supporter of Jim and Pam, and only hated watching the first three seasons because of the fact that they weren’t together. Now, don’t get me wrong; I still love them as a couple. However, I realized that having Jim and Pam get together relatively early on in the show was a mistake. Their character arcs as people who were clearly meant to be together but for some reason weren’t were completed far too soon, leaving the show’s writers with two completed storylines and nowhere to really go with them. I feel that making Jim and Pam’s relationship as a couple one of the focuses of the show was one of the decisions that led to The Office‘s downfall, as it began to chip away at the stereotypes they were supposed to represent. They’re not the only ones to blame, though; Michael’s departure, for instance, further separated the show from its original intentions, as he was arguably the glue that held the characters, and the show, together. Compare this with the show Parks and Recreation, which unlike The Office, doesn’t begin with its characters as grounded in their intricately relatable stereotypes and so allows more credibility, and flexibility, when it comes to their character development.

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So I don’t think that The Office necessarily became “unfunny” or “bad”. Even in its last season, its characters are still fun to watch and most of its jokes, if not always as funny as they used to be, are at least worthy of a few laughs. Its premise just morphed from groundbreaking mundane humor to, well, just another TV comedy, which understandably unsettled fans who’d been there since the beginning. At the end of the day, I don’t think it went down in chaos and flames fueled by its own hubris like other shows have. It simply ended as quietly and mediocrely as the setting it sought to draw humor from.

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