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There is a rare moment of character revelation, in the popular American sitcom (first adapted from the original British show) “The Office,” when Michael Scott, says this about Pam, the office’s secretary: “I would never say this to her face, but she is a wonderful person and a gifted artist.”
Shortly after, his coworker Oscar exclaims exactly what is on the viewers’ minds, “Why wouldn’t you say that to her face?”
This moment is a funny one, because of what Michael is willing to say to Pam’s face and what he is not. Just prior to stating that Pam is a wonderful person and a gifted artist, Michael introduces her to a prospective intern as “the office hottie” and implies that she is promiscuous and sleeps around with her coworkers. His exact words to the intern are “she will do you,” to which an upset Pam leaves, and Michael is left to say his kind words in her absence.
What is interesting about this scene is the target of its humor. We don’t laugh (at least it appears the show’s writers would not want us to) at Michael’s crude comment—the perfect model of an easy joke—nor do we laugh at Michael’s veiled kindness. We only laugh at the scene’s third turn, with Oscar’s obvious but completely shattering comment: “Why wouldn’t you say that to her face?”
These three turns from the “Job Fair” episode from “The Office” each illustrate a different type or mode of comedy: the first displays a comedy of correction; the second, a comedy of forgiveness; and the third, comedy as love (or love as comedy). By digging deeper into the character of Michael Scott, I want to explore how these three types of comedy are used in “The Office,” and how through the idea of comedy as love, the other two are not only incorporated but rather, transformed.
Comedy as correction and as forgiveness
The book “The Irresponsible Self” by James Wood, which is about the emergence of the tragi-comic (which Wood attributes to the modern novel), separates two camps of comedy: the comedy of correction and the comedy of forgiveness. Wood explains how—if put in the simplest of terms—the comedy of correction “is a way of laughing at,” while the comedy of forgiveness is “a way of laughing with.”
Henri Bergson, an early twentieth-century philosopher, has similar ideas on comedy as correction, which he made clear in his famous essay on laughter. In it, he argues that the imperfections of individuals and society need an “immediate corrective. That corrective is laughter.”
Some prime examples of the comedy of correction that come to mind are the character of Long Duk Dong in John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles” (1984). An amalgamation of every Asian stereotype invented, each time Long opens his mouth, his broken English is corrected and literally laughed at by the white people who surround him.
“Sex and The City” also features a lot of comedy of corrections despite its revolutionary role in representing female desire. In the episode “Cock a Doodle Do,” Samantha has a feud with a group of black transgender sex workers who keep her up at night in her new Chelsea digs. She and the girls laugh at the situation the next morning at breakfast, when Samantha complains that her neighborhood is “trendy by day, tranny by night” and Miranda responds, “I don’t see the appeal there,” and finally Carrie with the painful zinger, “It’s the other white meat.” Rewatching old comedies often involves a lot of cringeworthy, downright painful moments that easily exemplify the comedy of correction.
There are many moments where it would seem that “The Office” operates predominantly on a comedy of correction. In an episode titled “Gay Witch Hunt,” Michael is asked by the office’s HR representative, Toby, to stop using the term “faggy.” An obviously derogatory term which Michael believes, in a juvenile manner, is an endearing term for “lame.” After finding out that it is Oscar who made the request because he is in fact gay, Michael says this to the camera: “I would’ve never called him that if I knew. You don’t call retarded people retards, it’s bad taste, you call your friends retards when they’re acting retarded. And I consider Oscar a friend.”
These offensive and corrective statements from Michael are a staple in the sitcom and in Michael’s characterization as a boss. Michael’s personal sense of humor almost always employs the comedy of correction. This would be problematic if it were not for the reactions of the other characters to his pointed jokes, who like a Greek chorus, give away the intention of the show’s writers. When Michael makes such statements directly to the camera (which he can, because of the show’s mockumentary format) another character will often shoot the camera a look of disapproval, dismay, or discomfort. When we laugh at Michael’s comments, if we do at all, what we are really doing, or rather should be doing, is using the comedy of correction to correct itself.
However, this type of comedy alone would not be enough to sustain a show that has lasted nine seasons—it simply would become too predictable. What has sustained the show are those moments when Michael betrays his comedy of correction, such as in the first scene.
At first it appears that Michael is a textbook case of an incompetent boss, which lulls us into the comedy of correction. But in his rare moments of unveiling, he shows himself to be quite caring and observant, and we move into the comedy of forgiveness.
Let us return to Michael’s speech in the “Gay Witch Hunt” episode, when he describes what it really means to call your friend a “retard.” The speech’s offensive nature distracts from Michael’s final, and equally significant, declaration: “I consider Oscar a friend.” It is certainly shocking to hear a boss call his employees “faggy,” but it may be equally shocking to hear a boss call his employees friends. The audience is caught off-balance, proving Michael to be an unreliable character.
Comedy as love
But what holds these two Michaels together? In Alenka Zupancic’s essay “Love as Comedy,” she expresses how “[t]he true miracle of love—and this is what links love to comedy—consists in preserving the transcendence in the very accessibility of the other.” Both forces of love and comedy “make truth (or the real), not so much reveal itself, as appear.”
And this seems to be the way actor Steve Carell plays Michael Scott. When asked about his character Michael Scott during a panel discussion, Carell said, “He can say the most incredibly offensive things, and yet, he in and of himself, I don’t think, is an offensive person.”
Carell expanded: “It’s not that he’s intrinsically racist or homophobic, or sexist, he just doesn’t have a frame of reference—he’s not capable of understanding; and once he does glean some understanding, he misinterprets it and it becomes something else altogether. But I think, at least the way I feel about the character, is that he has a decent heart, and that he is a decent person, and that he’s just trying his best.”
Carell does not place himself above Michael in a manner of self-righteousness or correction, but rather, he manages to see where Michael is coming from, “a decent heart” (the transcendent), though does not deny Michael’s lack of understanding or misinterpretation (the accessible). And somehow, Steve Carell manages to bring the two together.
Though this still does not answer the question of how these two Michaels are held together. Perhaps we should continue with Zupancic’s theory: “Contrary to what is often believed, the axiom of good comedies is not that appearances are always deceiving, but, instead, that there is something in the appearance that never deceives.” This concept seems to be most palpable in “The Office” when Michael Scott truly finds love.
Comedy as transcendent
Prior to dating Holly Flax—the HR representative who Michael falls in love with and later ends up marrying—Michael has several embarrassing relationships, ones where Michael’s romantic partners tolerate him rather than truly love him. There is Michael’s relationship to his broker, which ends terribly after Michael photoshops his head onto her ex-husband’s body in a family photo. And then there is Michael’s relationship to one of the company’s vice presidents, who is so repulsed by the idea of bearing Michael’s children that she goes to a sperm bank to get inseminated behind Michael’s back. Holly, unlike Michael’s other girlfriends, does not try to change Michael and does not get offended by his immature remarks and actions (she wouldn’t even describe them as immature). In fact, to the shock and awe of the rest of the office, Holly truly enjoys Michael’s personality, especially his sense of humor.
Shortly after the couple begins dating, Michael opens the episode “Crime Aid” with this talking head: “In my opinion, the third date is traditionally the one where you have sex. Does Holly feel that way? I don’t know. I will probably find out tonight. If she starts having sex with me, I’ll know for sure.”
This in many ways lulls us back into the comedy of correction. We as an audience have seen Michael shoot himself in the mouth, especially with romantic interests, too many times to not painfully predict where this is going. But the show surprises us. A few scenes later, Michael and Holly discuss what they plan to do for their date. Holly says, “Oh a mall could be fun. We could go to the food court and get different foods. You could get chicken teriyaki, I could get a hot dog.” And Michael responds, not missing a beat, “Some of what we order depends on whether we’re having sex after…”
At this point, it appears that Michael has once again ruined a perfectly good thing. We are hoping he stops talking and begins apologizing, but instead, after stifling a few nervous laughs, he continues by asking, “Are we… do you think?… Are we going to have sex tonight?”And much to our surprise, Holly replies with a wholehearted “Hell yeah.”
And this is where “The Office” abandons correction, moves past forgiveness, and jumps straight into a comedy of love. Forgiveness implies that something needs to be forgiven, or if not, tolerated. Love takes whatever is presented no matter how broken or flawed, sees it in its entirety, and understands it as a whole. This does not mean love mends something that it considers to be broken, but rather that it understands that it is its very brokenness that allows it to be lovable (as well as funny).
Holly’s love for Michael does not consist of her changing him, or in bringing out something deeply buried in him. Holly is seeing something that had existed in Michael all along, right on the surface, which in turn changes how the audience perceives Michael. Or as Zupancic would say, “The Real is identified here with the gap that divides the appearance itself.” We begin to see what Holly sees, and what had always existed; we see that Michael’s decency can only appear as a result of his indecency; that the surface is as deep as any other point.
This is precisely why Michael could never say those kind words to Pam’s face. It is why he has to say to Pam’s face the terrible things that he does say, and it is why the incredibly revealing joke about Michael lies in the hand of a third party, Michael’s friend Oscar, who serves as “the gap that divides the appearance itself.”
“The Office” certainly has moments of correction or forgiveness, but once it appears, these modes of humor are mere masks of love. As Zupancic writes, “We never get to know the Thing in itself, but we are perfectly able of distinguishing it from its false appearances.”