Brett Biebel, University of Minnesota
Scholarship addressing Burke’s ideas about acceptance and rejection frames is commonplace in modern academia. Often lost in the discussion, however, is the sheer power of Burke’s description of the comic frame. Using the first season of the American television program The Office as its object, this essay hopes to explore the implications of Burke’s vision of the comic for the modern, white-collar, corporate work environment. In highlighting Burke’s notion of comedy as essentially humane, it attempts to demonstrate, through The Office, the importance of this underlying attitude with regard to public discussion, debate, and critique. The essay highlights the tension between corporate tedium and financial necessity and grapples with the consequences of acceptance and rejection frames. It seeks to place to the attitude behind Burke’s notion of the comic at the forefront of public debate and offer a specific example of the relevance and power that such an attitude can possess.
While the aisles of the local video store might indicate otherwise, comedy, at its best, is far from frivolous. As evidenced by the popular refrain “It’s funny because it’s true,” comedy, whether in stand-up or sitcom form, offers many of us a new perspective on daily life. The stars of Seinfeld, for example, made their mark by offering audiences a new way of looking at (and even a new vocabulary for talking about) common, everyday occurrences. When it comes to television, comedic series have been and continue to be wildly popular. A 2002 TV Guide list ranked the top 50 television shows of all-time. Eight out of the top ten shows ranked are classified as comedies (“TV Guide Names Top 50 Shows”). Of course, mass appeal does not automatically illustrate importance, but it is clear that many viewers find comedy compelling. Even beyond popularity, however, the literary canon of western culture contains important, landmark comedies. Dramatic giants like Shakespeare and Aristophanes are well-known for their comedic work. Jane Austen’s comedies of manners and Cervantes’ Don Quixote are both comedic works praised for their literary value. No matter how one slices it, comedy has been an enormous force in both the history of literature and performed drama. It may seem strange to compare today’s television writers with such literary giants as Shakespeare and Cervantes, but comedy’s assessments of our daily situations offer up frames through which we can view ourselves. They provide a widely-accessible look at the intricacies and complexities of modern existence, and, because of that, many comedies warrant reaction beyond simple, reflexive laughter.
The Office, a popular show set at the Scranton, PA offices of fictional paper company Dunder-Mifflin, is one example of a modern comedy that offers a sophisticated take on the economic realities of modern capitalism. Fitting into a genre best described as “workplace comedy,” the series pokes fun at corporate bureaucracy while still seeming to view it with a sympathetic eye. Examining the first season of The Office through the lens of Kenneth Burke’s ideas on the comic frame as expressed in Attitudes Toward History provides insights into the show’s complexity and willingness to treat its flawed characters in a humane, sympathetic manner. Jeanette Castillo, elaborating on Burke’s ideas, writes, “The comic perspective is the one most conducive to productive deliberation between opponents who hold values that are conflicting” (27). Because of its humane treatment of its characters, according to Castillo, comedy is best able to encourage healthy debate between opposing sides. Her views, in conjunction with Burke’s, help illustrate the importance of The Office as it relates to everyday life. A general attitude of acceptance and sympathy is on display throughout the show’s first season, creating an atmosphere that highlights its characters imperfect goodness. Its content helps undermine the destructive us vs. them worldview and illustrates the important differences between individuals and the often oppressive institution that run their lives. If Burke’s views are used a baseline for quality, then The Office is a popular and significant modern comedy.
Kenneth Burke spends much of Attitudes Toward History (1959) discussing comic frames and taking great pains to differentiate them from those frames that emphasize the tragic, as well as mere humor. Still, Burke categorizes both comedy and tragedy as “frames of acceptance,” defining the phrase by writing, “By ‘frames of acceptance’ we mean the more or less organized system of meanings by which a thinking man [sic] gauges the historical situation and adopts a role with relation to it” (Attitudes Toward History, 5). Such frames are distinguished from those that emphasize “rejection.” Burke explains, “[Rejection] takes its color from an attitude towards some reigning symbol of authority, stressing a shift in the allegiance to symbols of authority” (21). In other words, acceptance-based frames encourage acquiescence to a given order while rejection-based ones encourage the overt transformation of the same order. By situating comedy and tragedy within his discussion of acceptance frames, Burke implies that they are useful in that they allow people to cope with or function within a given set of historical circumstances. Often complicated, Burke’s conception of the comic provides critics with a sophisticated analytic tool for viewing popular comedies. Applying his ideas to the first season of the American television series The Office provides insight into the dilemmas and paradoxes associated with contemporary capitalism.
Why The Office? The answer to that question lies in the show’s setting. Taking place within the confines of the Scranton, PA branch of fictional paper company Dunder-Mifflin, The Office exemplifies one of Burke’s favorite themes. Throughout his discussion of comic frames, Burke never loses sight of the economic factors that operate within historical contexts. The characters depicted within the first season of The Office clearly recognize the importance of the economy, as possible downsizing due to a tight budget is a major theme of the first season. Like Burke’s work on frames, The Office is rife with tensions, paradoxes, and complexities. The characters and situations that the show depicts emphasize the oddities, outrages, and opportunities embedded within the capitalistic system. As a result, the first season of The Office is a clear example of what Burke meant by his definition of the comic. It is a humane depiction of people faced with an inflexible situation and the ways in which they struggle to accept it and find its moments of joy.
Burke’s Frames: Comedy and Tragedy
In order to understand Burke’s notion of the comic in Attitudes Toward History, one must situate it within his discussion of tragedy. Both are frames of acceptance because they promote a sense of resignation with regard to the given social order and historical situation. Burke views comedy and tragedy as largely similar, and sees tragedy as responding to some of the problems of the epic, as well as changing social conditions (34-44).
Burke writes, “The resignation of tragedy is based upon this same sense of personal limits; but the cultural materials with which the tragic playwright works are much more urban, complex, sophisticated than those that prevailed at the rise of the primitive epic” (37). Another key term regarding tragedy is “the fear of self-aggrandizement” (37). Perhaps as a response to the weaknesses of the epic, the tragedians used their plays to condemn the sin of pride (39). Tragedy and the epic are thus similar, although tragedy is more intricately designed.
Additionally, crime becomes a central theme in Burke’s description of tragedy. He writes,
The rise of business individualism sharpened the awareness of personal ambition as a motive in human acts, but the great tragic playwrights were pious, orthodox, and conservative, ‘reactionary’ in their attitude towards it; hence they made pride, hubris, the basic sin, and ‘welcomed’ it by tragic ambiguity, surrounding it with connotations of crime. Their frame of acceptance admonished one to ‘resign’ himself [sic] to a sense of his [sic] limitations. (39)
The idea of crime as a central theme is vitally important with regard to The Office. To imbue characters with an essential criminality creates a sense of inherent evil, placing human actions within a larger, universal struggle. The Office eschews this kind of absolute judgment, taking to heart Castillo’s assertion that, “A truly democratic discourse focuses on the attribution of motives rather than using the terminology of absolute power such as the labeling of motivations as ‘evil’ rather than ‘mistaken’” (41). The importance of this shift in terminology will become especially apparent as the content analysis of The Office unfolds.
It is on this note that Burke launches into his discussion of the comic frame. He begins his analysis by noting its main weakness. He writes, “Not all the significant cultural factors are given the importance that a total vision of reality would require. Class interests provide the cues that distort the interpretive frame, making its apparent totality function as an actual partiality” (40). Burke argues that there is an element of class involved in comedy, claiming that comic writers, not knowing how history will proceed, are unable to accurately judge all the factors that make up their social and historical contexts (40-41). As a result, these writers tend to underestimate new ideas and new attitudes, distancing themselves from them based solely on their newness (41). Burke writes, “A frame becomes deceptive when it provides too great plausibility for the writer who would condemn symptoms without being able to gauge the causal pressure behind the symptoms” (41). Comedy is therefore capable of misunderstanding a given historical situation.
After pointing out the weakness of the comic frame, Burke begins to describe its functioning, highlighting major themes and concepts. He writes, “Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity” (41). The idea figures prominently in Burke’s analysis, as he contrasts the “villains” of tragedy with the “fools” of comedy (41). Burke details the implications, arguing,
The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools…you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy. The audience…is admonished to remember that when intelligence means wisdom…it requires fear, resignation, the sense of limits, as an important ingredient (41-42).
Comedy is forgiving. It asks its audience to remember that its characters are not inherently evil, and it encourages identification with “fools.” Audiences are asked to look upon comedic characters with a generous eye, and Burke applauds the request.
The distinctions between comedy and tragedy are emphasized further as Burke closes his discussion. He writes, “Comedy deals with man [sic] in society, tragedy with the cosmic man…Comedy is essentially humane” (42). Both frames emphasize humility and a recognition of limits, and both frames struggle to deal with newly-arriving attitudes within a given context. Tragedy, however, condemns, while comedy misunderstands. If, as Burke believed, art is a guide to more informed living, if it is indeed “equipment for living,” then both comedy and tragedy must correspond to human situations on both institutional and individual levels. Tragedy may not be an inferior frame, but Burke had high praise for comedy thanks to its ability to deal in human rather than absolute terms. In a world of pluralism, skepticism, and debate, comedy can provide a coherent articulation of difficult-to-reconcile tensions. The Office strives to accurately gauge a complicated, white-collar corporate setting, thereby transcending mere humor, which Burke argues can often “gauge the situation falsely” (43), and becoming a sophisticated modern comedy.
As Attitudes Toward History progresses, Burke’s preference for the comic frame of acceptance becomes apparent. According to Burke, frames that emphasize rejection attempt to “debunk” existing social structures, but they “do not equip us to understand the full complexities of sociality” (93). Acceptance frames are preferable because they give audiences a means for dealing with existing power structures without causing them to question their various corporate identities (94). That is, rejection frames tear down without rebuilding, while acceptance frames encourage modification and coping. They encourage functioning within an established rather than hopelessly struggling against it. The comic frame in particular provides the best means for understanding historical situations. Comedy is able to convert complex matters of existence into simple, human terms. Of all the frames, comedy best blends “both transcendental and material ingredients, both imagination and bureaucratic embodiment, both ‘service’ and ‘spoils’” (166-167). It takes into account both ethical and economic motivations. It appreciates the complexity of human activity by recognizing the multiple impulses that underlie human behavior. It encourages audiences to recognize their own complexity. As Burke writes, “In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves while acting. Its ultimate [goal] would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would ‘transcend’ himself [sic] by noting his own foibles” (171). Rather than condemning the evil of others, the comic encourages individual audience members to locate the fools within themselves.
As he closes Part II of Attitudes Toward History, Burke ruminates on the value of comedy. He claims that the comedy cannot change capitalist imperatives such as the struggle for wages and the various alienations that come with the current economic system (174-175). He argues, “Its value should only reside in helping to produce a state of affairs whereby these rigors may abate” (175). Burke recognizes that the comic cannot promote radical social change. It is a “frame of acceptance,” after all. It can, however, aid citizens in understanding the complexities of capitalist existence. It can provide a coping mechanism and a method for understanding the current social order and one’s place in it.
The Office as Burkean Comedy
Before moving into a specific analysis of the first season of The Office, it is important to note the overall form of the show. It is not presented as a typical situational comedy with a laugh track and a single main character or family. There is no narration present throughout the entirety of the first season, and the show never depicts the lives of its characters outside of the office setting in which they work. Such a depiction gels with Burke’s definition of comedy as focusing on “man in society,” as the show’s characters are never shown outside of a social, public context. Viewers do not get internal monologue from any single character. In fact, The Office is comic in a particularly Burkean sense in that it sizes up a given social context by depicting a given social context without any real interpretive filter. The show is presented in documentary style with an unseen camera crew capturing the ongoing office activities. Character feelings are presented in the form of one-on-one interviews with the camera, but attempts at complex character psychologies are limited. Some characters are ascribed romantic or advancement motives, but no one person is given an opportunity to explain his or her actions in any real detail. In fact, it is extremely difficult to choose a main character for the show. The boss, Michael Scott, receives the most face time, but overarching subplots encompass secondary characters Jim (salesman), Pam (receptionist), and Dwight (salesman). As a result, The Office is as much about the setting and the hierarchy within that setting as it is about its characters. Michael is the misguided boss who struggles with the implications of power, unable to discern between working relationships and friendly ones. Meanwhile, Jim and Pam struggle to sort out office friendship and interpersonal romantic chemistry. The show’s setting depicts a corporate, capitalist social order, and the personal lives of its characters are secondary to that depiction, at least within the first season.
The sheer number of characters depicted by the show adds to its appraisal of the workplace environment and keeps it from focusing too much on a main protagonist or antagonist. Television critic Nathan Rabin has praised the show for its use of a large cast, writing, “The Office has a cast so deep and rich that it can keep things lively and fresh by simply pairing off unexpected members of its cast” (Rabin, “The Meeting”). The Office takes a collective approach to comedy, depicting a broad array of characters and how each copes with the burdens of work. Some (Jim and Pam) joke. Others (Stanley) find ways to avoid actually doing work. Still others (Dwight) become competitive and lust after what are shown to be dubious accolades. The diversity of focus allows the show to achieve a kind of dramatic magnetism without resorting explicitly to battles between good characters and evil ones. In both its overall form and its portrayal of multiple, varied characters, The Office stays true to Burke’s conception of the comic frame.
On display throughout the show, then, is the dynamic tension between necessary institutions and caged, stifled individuals. Hierarchy permeates The Office, with Michael Scott constantly striving to add a element of humanism to a system of rigidly defined organizational roles. Misguided though he often is, his attempts at running a hierarchical social order are contrasted with the more mechanical approach of his boss, Jan. Yet even Michael’s human attempts at office leadership are unable to free individual employees trapped within an economic imperative. Each of the show’s characters have jobs to do, and, though they are often boring, the prospect of unemployment is menacing. The Office, then, is an expression of the multiple tensions that characterizes the relationships of individuals with the institutions that run their lives. The show does not present easy answers, but it does offer a window into a human struggle that many confront during every working moment of their real, occupational lives.
Tedium and Tension: Analyzing Season One
The show’s portrayal of several main themes and tensions is especially important in terms of Burke’s ideas about the comic frame. The show’s complex look at modern capitalism pokes fun while simultaneously provoking thought. In examining the first season, the following ideas are most relevant: 1) The show clearly ridicules the corporate environment, especially various business rituals, but it also recognizes the economic realities that make it impossible for many workers to simply quit in the face of absurdity. 2) The complexities of relationships are explored, as several characters fumble and flounder in their attempts to sort out the differences between working relationships, friendships, and romances. 3) The show depicts corporate advancement as simultaneously desirable and meaningless. 4) Class elements are touched on, though not fully explored, as viewers are shown the difference between the white-collar office employees and the blue-collar warehouse workers. All of these themes speak to the idea of institutional hierarchy as simultaneously necessary and stifling. Even Michael’s expressions of Dunder-Mifflin as a “family” fail to completely remove the shackles that institutions place on individual freedom. Still, throughout the entire season, characters are portrayed humanely and in a three-dimensional manner, allowing viewers to sympathize with the individuals who keep what is depicted as a ridiculous institution afloat. An acceptance frame through and through, The Office is content to highlight the humor within a given social context without undermining its value to those who function within it.
An undercurrent of tediousness runs through nearly all of the first six episodes of The Office, with Jim often playing the role of practical joker, especially in relation to Dwight. The tediousness theme is counter-balanced, however, by the overarching theme of downsizing. In spite of all the practical jokes and humorous moments and in spite of the often meaningless nature of “work” as depicted by The Office, the first season makes it clear that economic considerations are important to many of the show’s characters. As a result, the absurdities of capitalism are juxtaposed with pragmatic considerations and an important tension is highlighted.
The pilot episode puts the tension between boredom and wages on screen from the very beginning. The idea of possible downsizing is introduced by Michael’s boss Jan, a corporate Vice President. Despite being sworn to secrecy, the news slowly leaks out to the rest of the office (The Office, “Pilot”). In one-on-one camera interviews, Jim and Pam each respond to the possibility with marked indifference. Pam says she would not be too upset about being let go, explaining, “I don’t think it’s every girl’s dream to be a receptionist” (The Office, “Pilot”). Jim possesses a similar lack of concern. An incident occurs during which Jim surrounds his desk with pencils, all them pointed, graphite-up, at the neighboring salesman, Dwight. Dwight, a safety nut, scolds Jim about workplace rules, after which Jim deadpans, “This is why I don’t really care about downsizing” (The Office, “Pilot”). As the show progresses, Jim illustrates the tedious nature of his job with several pointed lines. He offers the description, “I spend most of my day talking to clients about copier paper…I’m boring myself just talking about this” (The Office, “Pilot”). Later, he discusses the “tonnage price of manila folders” and characterizes his workplace knowledge as “useless information” (“Pilot”). Perhaps the most memorable moment of the episode comes when Jim places Dwight’s stapler inside a Jell-o mold. It is a glimmer of outlandish humor set against a bland, bureaucratic backdrop. It is a moment of individual creativity, of gelatinous, time-consuming tomfoolery that clashes with the institutional framework surrounding it. Throughout the pilot, it is clear that working at Dunder-Mifflin is often a mundane experience, and the employees, most notably Jim and Pam, spend much of their time struggling to deal with the boredom.
Yet the pilot episode also focuses on the importance of employment to each of the show’s characters. During a meeting called to address the possibility of downsizing, many employees demonstrate concern (The Office, “Pilot”). Even supposedly indifferent Pam has a frightening experience. Michael Scott, the boss, is desperate to demonstrate his practical joke skill in front of a new, temporary employee. In order to do so, he calls Pam into his office and pretends to fire her, citing the invented charge of “stealing office suppliers” as a justification (“Pilot”). Holding back laughter, he pours salt in the wound by claiming that, because she was stealing, the company is not obligated to give her any kind of severance package. Pam, visibly upset, bursts into tears. Later, upon finding out about the prank, she shouts, “You’re a jerk,” and storms out of the office (“Pilot”). It is clear from the fake firing scene that, no matter how boring working at Dunder-Mifflin is, the show’s characters still value their jobs.
Throughout the first season, there is a kind of hate-it-but-need-it attitude felt by some of the show’s main characters towards their jobs. Many episodes poke fun at corporate rituals. For example, in “Diversity Day,” a character named Mr. Brown is sent in by corporate to conduct a sensitivity seminar regarding race and ethnicity in the workplace. Michael, unhappy with the seminar’s content, conducts his own exercise in which employees are made to wear various ethnicities on their foreheads. Then, in a give-and-take with other employees, they are made to use stereotypes as a means for guessing which ethnicity they are carrying (The Office, “Diversity Day”). Viewers later find out that the initial training session was ordered solely because of Michael, who has a tendency to be racially insensitive. In fact, as it turns out, the sole purpose of the first seminar was to acquire a signature from Michael as means of removing corporate liability for any potential harassment lawsuit. Michael then makes a mockery of the entire ordeal by signing the form as “Daffy Duck” (“Diversity Day”). The events of the episode turn the standard workplace training session into a fiasco, ridiculing the nature of the ritual.
A subplot of “Diversity Day,” however, finds the usually jovial Jim concerned about cash flow. The diversity seminar is scheduled during Jim’s most important sales call of the year, one that nets him 25 percent of his annual commission (“Diversity Day”). Because of the multiple seminars, however, Jim’s call is repeatedly interrupted. As the episode closes, Jim finally gets a hold of his client only to find out that Dwight has stolen his sale. The episode closes with Jim mournfully placing a bottle of champagne on Dwight’s desk. He had anticipated making the sale and then celebrating, but he realizes that he has been outmaneuvered by his office nemesis (“Diversity Day”). The subplot illustrates that even Jim, the office prankster, is not fully insulated from economic concerns.
Another episode, “Health Care,” finds Dwight in charge of selecting a benefits plan for the rest of the office. The responsibility originally fell to Michael, but instructed to cut costs and terrified of fielding complaints, he decides to give the responsibility to someone else (The Office, “Health Care”). When Dwight asks employees to anonymously write down their diseases so he knows what needs to be covered, Jim and Pam write down exotic and even invented afflictions in order to mock the process. The list’s entries include things like “Ebola,” “Hot Dog Fingers,” and “Spontaneous Dental Hydroplosion,” which involves teeth that turn to liquid and slide down the back of one’s throat. Dwight, unhappy, calls a meeting in which employees are forced into admitting which diseases they wrote down (some of them quite embarrassing), in violation of health confidentiality. The scenario is both ridiculous and hilarious, but the frustration felt by employees upon receiving an unsatisfactory plan at the end of the episode is genuine (“Health Care”). Even as the process of selecting a health care plan is mocked, the episode recognizes its importance.
Finally, “The Alliance” lampoons the office party. In order to boost morale, Michael decides that everyone needs a party. He and Pam then pick the closest upcoming birthday and plan a party to celebrate it. The party is given in honor of a woman named Meredith, who happens to be allergic to dairy products. Still, Michael insists on ordering an ice cream cake (The Office, “The Alliance”). At the party itself, he makes several inappropriate remarks about both Meredith’s age and her recent hysterectomy (“The Alliance”). The party is a mild success otherwise, but possible lay-offs remain at the forefront of employees’ minds. Dwight in particular is concerned, and he attempts to form an “alliance” with Jim, who uses it as an opportunity to involve Pam in an invented conspiracy in order to put Dwight on edge (“The Alliance”). Dwight has the last laugh, however, when Pam’s fiancée, Roy, walks into the office to find Jim and Pam laughing somewhat flirtatiously. Jim tries to explain that they are laughing about Dwight’s “alliance,” but Dwight denies its existence (“The Alliance”). He explains his strategy to the camera with the line, “Throw him to the wolves…That’s politics, baby” (“The Alliance”). Along with “Diversity Day,” “The Alliance” highlights the rivalry between Jim and Dwight. Dwight is more concerned with power and prestige, but Jim is not immune from economic and status concerns. The twin subplots of Meredith’s party and Dwight and Jim’s “alliance” once again highlight the tedious necessity of office work. Much of what goes on in connection with office camaraderie is depicted as awkward and forced, but the episode also recognizes the presence of genuine feelings, both joyous and painful. Meredith is clearly hurt by Michael’s rude remarks, and Jim is clearly threatened by Roy’s anger regarding his office relationship with Pam (“The Alliance”). Office relationships are shown to be banal and farcical, but they are also depicted as possessing an element of authenticity.
In keeping with Burke’s definition, The Office recognizes the important factors involved in a corporate, office setting. It points out absurdities while acknowledging their necessity. Its characters struggle for individual freedom (Dwight seeking to assert authority, Jim and Pam joking and conspiring) within an environment inhospitable to such creativity. Its characters are depicted humanely and given an individual face while the office environment and the power of corporate ritual (mocked though it is) is put on full display.
The complex motivations of Dwight offer viewers an especially clear example of the tensions that inhere within a capitalistic structure. At first glance, he is the coldest, most Darwinian member of the office, justifying a health care cut by claiming that he “never gets sick” (The Office, “Health Care”). He lusts after power, insisting on calling his “temporary work space” an “office,” and deliberately omitting the “to the” in his made up “Assistant to the Regional Manager” title (The Office, “Health Care”). Yet Dwight is also depicted sympathetically at various moments. The episode “Hot Girl,” for example, finds him genuinely crushed after being turned down for a date (The Office, “Hot Girl”). Believing that he has been cuckolded by Michael, he practically begs his boss to back off and let him have the girl just this once (“Hot Girl”). It is a misguided, comedic attempt, but Dwight’s pain is genuine. The Office is quick to complicate even one of its most unflinching, pro-profit characters. If comedy is about fools more than it is about villains, Dwight is a clear example of the former. He is commonly the target of pranks and is overly concerned about dubious office distinctions. He cannot understand that, in order for his “office” to be a symbol of authority, it must be recognized as such by his fellow employees. Still, he is not robotic. He possesses authentic emotions, and he is at times portrayed sympathetically. Dwight, along with Michael Scott, exemplifies Burke’s notion of being mistaken rather than vicious.
The character of Michael Scott is arguably The Office’s most complicated. Many of the episodes find Michael engaging in obnoxious, boorish behavior. He is rude, offensive, and often harassing (The Office). Yet he also possesses a burning desire to fit in and has a tremendous amount of trouble distinguishing office relationships from personal ones. In the pilot episode he states, “I am a friend first, boss second, and probably entertainer third” (The Office, “Pilot”). In “Health Care,” Michael tells the camera that he wants people, and especially employees, to look at him and say, “He’s cool. He’s a great guy” (The Office, “Health Care”). Michael is, in fact, terrified to upset his employees. In “Basketball,” he sets up a game between the office workers and the warehouse workers, placing a bet that requires the losers to come in to work on Saturday. When the office wins, the warehouse workers intimidate Michael into forcing the office workers to come in on Saturday. Yet, faced with complaints, he backs off of even that edict (The Office, “Basketball”). Michael does not want to be the “bad guy,” and “Health Care,” provides another, already cited example of him deferring responsibility because of such fears.
Still, in his desperation to be liked and accepted, there is something endearing about Michael. When Jan asks him to slash health care, he cannot bring himself to do it. In the pilot, he discusses people being the most important part of the company (The Office, “Pilot”). In the final episode, “Hot Girl,” Michael asks an attractive woman for a date but is rejected. At the end of the episode, however, he claims that everything is fine because he would rather spend time with his employees than with girls (The Office, “Hot Girl”). Perhaps he is kidding himself, but whereas Jan comes off as representing the culmination of the profit motive, Michael provides a refreshing foil in that he is clearly concerned about the human side of downsizing and benefit cuts. It is true that he may be concerned for the wrong reasons, but he is concerned nonetheless. Michael Scott is clearly flawed, but he possesses redeeming qualities. He, like Dwight, is the epitome of Burke’s comic fool. He is not a villain, and he is not a criminal. He is merely guilty of stupidity. He is well-intentioned but confused. He is so desperate for approval (specifically in the form of laughs) that he is willing to cross the line of social acceptability in order to get it. His offensive jokes and outlandish behavior are all meant to ingratiate him to his audience. Perhaps the best example is found in “Basketball” where Michael awkwardly imitates the celebratory dance of warehouse worker Daryl after making a basket (The Office, “Basketball”). Daryl’s dance is smooth and effortless. Michael’s is forced and clunky. In the same way that a puppy barks for a treat, Michael models his own actions on those of someone he perceives as “cool” in an awkward attempt to gain approval. Throughout the first season, Michael admirably, often hopelessly attempts to bring an element of human interaction and individual creativity into an institutional environment, bumbling all the while. As a comedic character, he is an expression of the tension between individuals and institutions, between dynamism and rigidly defined social and organizational roles.
As fits Burke’s definition of the comic frame, none of the characters in The Office clearly jump out as villains. Even the warehouse workers come off sympathetically as they attempt to fend off Michael’s insensitive remarks and attempts at camaraderie. The season’s most unlikeable character, Roy, is only unlikeable because of his engagement to Pam, whom clever, attractive Jim clearly has a connection with. Yet Roy’s role as roadblock to romance is not substantial enough to make him a true villain.
In fact, the role of the warehouse characters in the first season of The Office emphasizes another important aspect of Burke’s discussion of the comic frame. Burke is keenly aware of class interests, and he believes comedy’s inability to be fully aware of them is a significant weakness of the frame. The Office, however, attempts to incorporate class elements into its form. The most prominent example of this is the aforementioned episode “Basketball,” in which the members of the office compete in a basketball game against workers from the warehouse (The Office, “Basketball”). The office workers are depicted as being mostly, clean-cut, nicely-attired, and soft-spoken. They are also younger and thinner than their warehouse counterparts (The Office, “Basketball”). Their office environment is clean, computerized, and above ground, whereas the warehouse workers’ environment is cluttered with boxes and machinery used for lifting and moving (“Basketball”). The basketball game presents viewers with what seems to be a natural, harmless conflict. It provides dramatic tension while also seeming like a realistic kind of corporate ritual. Yet the episode makes clear that tensions exist beyond the basketball court. Jim and Roy feud, and Daryl is clearly uncomfortable around Michael. Whereas the office workers largely accept his antics with a grain of salt, Daryl takes them more personally. He agrees to the “loser works on Saturday” bet with a sneer, and it is clear that he very much wants to beat Michael (“Basketball”). The tension is perhaps most clear after the game, when Michael is intimidated by Daryl and company into letting them off the hook for weekend work (“Basketball”).
Still, the episode’s depiction of the office-warehouse rivalry is in no way utterly hostile. It is acknowledged that both sides work for Dunder-Mifflin, and Michael’s status as boss must be handled delicately (“Basketball”). Class-based conflicts are certainly not explored in full during the show’s first season, but they do make appearances. The point is that The Office is an office-centered television show. It revolves around mostly white-collar salesman and does not focus on the nuts-and-bolts work that is done by the people in charge of moving shipments to where they are meant to go. It centers on computers rather than forklifts. In some ways, it falls victim to Burke’s criticism of the comic. Its depiction of the white-collar, office environment is often spot-on, but it loses strength when it attempts to size up the employment situation of the warehouse workers. The warehouse crew plays only a bit role in the unfolding drama.. The show remains focused on the white-collar work environment. The more blue-collar aspects of corporate capitalism are only explored insofar as they impact this larger theme. The Office’s attempt to include other dimensions of the capitalist economy is admirable, and the show does depict the tensions that exist between white-collar and blue-collar environments. It does not, however, fully account for the dilemmas and paradoxes involved in working in the Dunder-Mifflin warehouse. Burke’s class-based criticism of comic frames does apply to The Office, but the show at least makes an effort, unsuccessful though it may be, to take a full view of the modern economic situation.
The real strength of The Office lies in its complex, sophisticated depiction of modern, white-collar, corporate employment. It attempts to view the situation accurately and thoroughly, and it largely succeeds. Paraphrasing Burke’s notion of frames, Beth Bonstetter writes, “How people define situations will also define how they react to them” (63). She adds, “No one in comedy is above being a fool” (66). Sarah Mahan-Hays and Roger Aden agree, writing, “The stories humans use reveal an attitude toward other people and other practices” (36). Fiction provides audiences with a lens through which everyday existence can be viewed. In the same way that comedy is more than that which makes viewers laugh, fiction is more than just stories. According to Bonstetter and Mahan-Hays and Aden, it creates a worldview. It creates an attitude that extends beyond the screen, whether that screen be small or silver. The images that play themselves out on our television sets and in our movie theaters become a kind of filter through which we view the world. Kenneth Burke believed that comedy, thanks to its humane nature, provided an effective kind of frame. The first season of The Office takes his advice to heart. In sizing up a social situation in all its complexity, The Office strives to provide the most accurate view of the modern condition.
In some ways, the humor of The Office comes from the violation of expectation. One would not expect to find abundant and blatant harassment in a corporate setting. Thus, seeing such harassment is humorous. Its very outlandishness provides a laugh. It also depicts discomfort, which often results in a corresponding nervous laugh. Yet there is more going on than simple incongruity or awkwardness. Michael Scott is not the ideal capitalist authority figure, but he is warmly contrasted with the often cold, profit-motivated Jan. Taken together, the two of them present a kind of double-edged critique of capitalism. Jan shows viewers the inhuman side, while Michael illuminates the absurd side. Jan gives audiences lay offs while Michael gives them laughs. With Jan it is all benefits and bottom lines whereas with Michael it is all birthdays and basketball. The show’s other characters avoid endorsing either system. They all want to keep their jobs, but they all find Michael’s behavior inappropriate. If Jan epitomizes the mechanical rigidity of the capitalist hierarchy, Michael might symbolize the need for institutional control. His employees, most notably Jim, Pam, and Dwight, struggle to express themselves in ways that do not clash so dramatically with the given workplace order. In fact, it is Michael’s enshrinement atop the appointed workplace hierarchy that make his actions more than just outlandish. They become something that must be tolerated because they come from a source of legitimate authority. In this way, the show demonstrates the tensions between individuals, institutions, and economic imperatives.
The Office’s illustration of the capitalist workplace is a complex one. Jim, perhaps the show’s most likeable character sums it up best, saying, “Right now, this is just a job. If I were to rise any higher in this company, it would be a career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train” (The Office, “Health Care”). Yet quitting is not an option either, and downsizing is a real threat. The Office has captured the capitalist dilemma. On one side it is cold and unfeeling and on the other it is tedious and bureaucratic. There is no way out for the show’s characters. The Office exemplifies Burke’s view of the comic precisely because it examines a social order in all its complicated glory. Michael is the obnoxious but likeable boss whom employees must deal with simply because he has power. There is no changing it, and The Office is in no way revolutionary. When it is not utterly ridiculous, work is tedious and boring. Still the situation is not hopeless. The show’s characters are somehow able to find the joys present in their difficult situation. They find room for individual expression even as the environment is designed to choke it off. An exchange between Jim and Pam sums it up best. Jim asks Pam if she is playing Minesweeper. She responds, “No, Freecell.” He tries to point out a possible move. She is quick to reply, “No. I’m saving that because I like it when the cards go [imitates reshuffling noise]” (The Office, “Diversity Day”). It may not be much, but it summarizes the goal of the comic. Point out a situation’s faults, accept them, make them bearable. It is “equipment for living” at its most useful and most simplistic. Jim and Pam, along with the show’s other characters, are able to retain their humanity within an often dehumanizing environment, finding ways to cope with inherent contradiction.
The Office is a comedy that matters. It identifies problems while finding joys. It looks at a complicated situation in a complex way, and it does so humanely. It presents characters who are well-rounded but not perfect. Even Jim is made a fool of by Dwight (twice). No one is immune. None of its characters are exempt from humane ridicule. The show knows its characters’ limitations, and that is the concept that is at the heart of Burke’s notion of the comic. Its characters are not heroes. They are simple people at the mercy of history, searching for a way to cope. The Office’s characters are stuck in a corporate, capitalist setting, but the show finds ways to humanize them in spite of it. Exploring modern capitalism in an often light-hearted yet still insightful way, The Office does not shy away from complexity. Its characters are placed within a difficult environment, and they are shown both sympathetically and unflatteringly. The show is able to exemplify the best qualities of Burke’s description of the comic frame by emphasizing absurdities and tensions. The Office provides a sophisticated look at modern capitalism with scenes of bureaucracy, tediousness, and ridiculous behavior, all depicted in a humane manner. It may not be revolutionary, but it is a comedy with bite and sophistication.
The Office presents a worldview that emphasizes fallibility and collectivity. None of the show’s characters is immune from error and none of its characters are portrayed as villains. Its depiction of the modern situation has much to offer viewers as it presents a productive “frame of acceptance.” Jeanette Castillo’s dissertation, titled “Agonistic Democracy and the Narrative of Distempered Elites: An Analysis of Citizen Discourse on Political Message Forums,” explores the ways in which various frames impact political discourse. Building on Burke’s notion of the comic, she writes, “Burke’s ‘comic corrective’ prevents closure in moments of conflict. Perhaps more importantly, it emphasizes the quality of the process and the individual interactions that constitute the process over specific outcomes” (182). For Castillo, employing Burke’s comic frame allows for a discussion that moves away from a dichotomous “Us-and-Them” approach by refusing to frame things in absolute terms. Rather than being about right and wrong, the comic frame is about the ways in which individuals interact with each other and the system. It asks the discourse be built upon an understanding foundation, paying less attention to the final result. The Office exemplifies this kind of approach. The prevailing order is never questioned, and “the outcome” is always that corporate capitalism continues on unimpeded. Yet within an often oppressive, often banal structure, individuals act, react, and interact in ways designed to ease the burden of the system. The Office has little room for absolute heroes. Instead there are moments of subdued heroism combined with moments of supreme foolishness. Its characters make mistakes, but they are portrayed sympathetically as they do so. Their fallibility is evident, but is so is their resilience and their humanity. The Office is able to differentiate the individual from the structure, in the process presenting a worldview that emphasizes fallibility and collectivity. It expresses the need for individuals to find room for dynamic creativity within rigid systems, and it does so by pointing out the potential for foolishness among all of its characters. Dwight, who lusts after dubious power, can be foolish. Michael, who constantly pushes the boundaries of institutional acceptability, can be a fool. Even Jim and Pam, who play games and pranks to amuse and express themselves at work, can be fools. All are depicted with a necessary element of human and authenticity. For The Office it is not “Us vs. Them.” It is all “Us and more Us.”
Of course, this is not to say that the show is wholly relativistic either. Clearly, some aspects of corporate capitalism are pointed to as flawed. The Office is, however, quick to recognize the fallibility of human judgment. It does not shy away from declaring wrongs, but it is careful not to couch those declarations in absolute terms. To err is human. And perhaps to judge is human. What The Office, or more precisely, Burke’s comic frame in general, helps to illustrate is that sometimes to judge is also to err. It is this tendency that is placed front and center in the truly comic, and it becomes the basis for its productive, sympathetic worldview. Villains are not always as they seem, and, neither for that matter are heroes. It is this essential human truth that the comic strives to uphold.
In an article titled “Villains, Victims, and the Virtuous in Bill O’Reilly’s ‘No Spin Zone’: Revisiting World War Propaganda Techniques,” Conway, Grabe, and Grieves, argue that the “Us vs. Them” approach underlies most propaganda (201). They write, “In political speech, the ‘devil-angel interpretation’ is employed to label the enemy as sinister and our government as open and trusting” (201). It is a destructive approach, designed to place one side fundamentally above the other. And, while Conway, Grabe, and Grieves focused on Bill O’Reilly’s use of the binary, they also point out that it is not unique to the right. They write, “Future studies should act on another…suggestion to look at left-leaning communicators. In a post-modern media environment, every communication zone—from opinion to hard news—has a spin” (218). In a world where MSNBC has become the left’s version of Fox News, The Office, as an example of the comic frame,holds special importance.
Where the satire and humor of John Stewart and Steve Colbert can add fuel to the “Us and Them” fire, The Office allows for a recognition of the collectivity of modernity. Capitalism is a major target in the modern academy, perhaps rightly so. Yet the barbs lobbed at it can still to uphold a people vs. the system underpinning. The Office is well-taken in this environment in that recognizes that the system itself is made up of people. It is made up of individuals who, rather than promote revolution, struggle against its oppressive qualities. Critiques of the system itself, from left and right, are especially prone to emphasizing the destructive “Us and Them” dichotomy that separates the world into revolutionaries and oppressors. The Office is a sterling reminder of a worldview that refuses to engage in such absolute judgments. It is a reminder that people who make up the system, even the powerful Managers, the Michael Scotts and corporate VPs of the world, are no more heroic and no less foolish than the rest of us. Indeed, they are merely us. The Office promotes acceptance of the given capitalist order without whitewashing its faults or vilifying its contributors. It provides a reminder of a difficult lesson. We cannot whitewash our own faults in pointing out those of others. Abstracting perceived villains into unknown “Thems” is both easy and destructive. The Office provides a compelling example of an approach that avoids such simplification, becoming in the process a powerful illustration of the virtues of Burke’s comic frame.
*Brett Biebel will be graduating from the University of Minnesota with a Master of Arts degree in Communication Studies. He’s lived in the Midwest his whole life, spending time in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. He loves all things athletic, especially Major League Baseball and small college basketball. Favorite authors include Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. He can be contacted at email@example.com
“The Alliance” The Office. NBC. 12 Apr. 2005.
“Basketball” NBC. 19 Apr. 2005.
Bonstetter, Beth. "An Analytical Framework of Parody and Satire: Mel Brooks and his World." Diss. University of Minnesota, 2008.
Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Berkley, CA: University of California P, 1984.
Castillo, Jeanette. “Agonistic Democracy and the Narrative of Distempered Elites: An Analysis of Citizen Discourse on Political Message Forums.” Dissertation. Department of Telecommunications, Indian University. August 2008 <http://www.toofunproductions.com/CastilloDiss.pdf>.
Conway, Mike, Maria Elizabeth Grabe, and Kevin Grieves. “Villains, Victims, and the Virtuous in Bill O’Reilly’s ‘No Spin Zone’: Revisiting World War Propaganda Techniques.” Journalism Studies 8, 2: 197-223. April 2007. Communication and Mass Media Complete. Web. 19 October 2009.
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