My dad and I sat next to each other on the couch watching The Office (US version), his first taste of the series. I was home from college, and the first season had just come out on DVD. The year before, my roommates and I had crowded around our small dorm TV to watch each episode as it aired. After the show, we would mimic the lines we loved back to each other for a week—until the next episode gave us something new to laugh about.
“Dad, you’ll love this,” I had told him. “You work in an office. I bet it will crack you up!”
He agreed to give it a try, since he and I normally share a sense of humor.
We made it to episode 2, diversity day at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. Who doesn’t remember the episode fondly? Mr. Brown (Larry Wilmore), an H.R. rep from Corporate, comes to the Scranton office to give “diversity training” because one of manager Michael Scott’s (Steve Carell) co-workers reported Michael for offensive comments. Mr. Brown asks a volunteer to reenact the inciting event, a Chris Rock stand-up routine, to help the event come to a more positive end. But guess who volunteers? Yup, Michael—who then offends his co-workers again through the same act told in the same offensive way.
The rest of the episode continues like that, with Michael thwarting Mr. Brown’s efforts. Finally, the show ends with Mr. Brown forcing Michael to sign a legal document stating that Michael is sorry for his offensive statements and will not repeat them. But Michael, giggling, confides to the camera crew that he signed the document as “Daffy Duck.”
My dad sat quietly through the episode, hardly even chuckling, and as the credits rolled, I turned to him and asked, “So? What’d you think?”
He sighed, “Lizzy, I’m sorry, I just can’t watch it anymore.”
“Really? Why?” I said.
“It’s just too true. It seems ridiculous, but it’s too much like real life. I get this on a daily basis when I go into work. People are actually like that boss!” he said. I laughed.
“I wish I were joking,” he said. “I just don’t want to relive it when I get home. It’s not my idea of fun.”
That caught my attention. What was it that made my dad cringe? He said it was too real, too true—which was exactly the reason I found myself rolling.
The Generational Funny Divide
In 2005 when The Office began, it was the first of its kind. Cinematographers “followed” fictional characters like they were filming a documentary or a reality TV show, performing interviews and catching a new raw and “real” sort of humor on film.
Since then, Arrested Development, Flight of the Conchords, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Portlandia (to name but a few of my personal favorites and leave out many equally apt examples) have all paved their own way into this raw and real comedy scene.
Interestingly, these shows have particularly attracted younger viewers in the 18-34 age range (for example, read more specific rating numbers for one week of The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation at FutonCritic.com.) Almost no viewers over 49 gave the shows the time of day.
So while my dad’s stomach turned watching Michael Scott make racist, sexist jokes off-handedly beside the copy machine, viewers under 35 found ourselves giggling for weeks, watching and re-watching choice scenes on You-Tube and retelling jokes to friends.
Generational divides in pop culture are nothing new, of course. So what makes these sitcoms so catchy for young folk and so un-funny for their parents? Perhaps the funny factor lies in some values these younger viewers hold.
1. Authenticity reigns all-important (and all-hilarious) .
The very nature of how true this sitcom humor feels to real life tickles me and my friends. We resonate with Michael Scott’s shocking honesty and relational neediness (Scott Carell, The Office), Leslie Knope’s earnest passion for an unimportant cause (Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation), Liz Lemon’s excessive average-ness (Tina Fey, 30 Rock), Michael Bluth’s out of control family relationships (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development), and Jemaine’s failure with the opposite sex and his total lack of ambition (Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords).
Sure, they’re tragic heroes with obvious flaws—but they’re funny because we are like them. We see ourselves in the awkward scenes they act out before our eyes. Who among us can claim perfect success in their love life? Or that we know how to have a healthy relationship with our parents? Or that our lives are important and we are working toward something that really matters?
Our generation of 20- and 30-somethings is no longer interested in Disney’s happy-go-lucky characters. We need the truth of a Wes Anderson film in a 30-minute TV bite, and we find it in these dark comedies.
2. Humor for humor’s sake (without a larger agenda!)
Film theorist Robert Stam says in Film Theory (Blackwell Publishing, 2000) that “the most typical aesthetic expression of postmodernism is not parody but pastiche, a blank, neutral practice of mimicry, without any satiric agenda…”
In other words, we under-35 viewers feel refreshed by the “humor for humor’s sake” attitude in these sitcoms. We know the characters and writers of each show do not have an agenda to push upon us (unlike any current news station, for example). These shows aim to present an ironic, hilarious “true to life” picture, just as it is. They also make fun of people equally: the liberals and conservatives, the religious and irreligious, the wealthy and poor, and the young and old all get a humorous jab to the ribs from these screenwriters.
Arrested Development, for example, does not try to explain away its characters’ eccentricities or moral failures. The show simply allows a viewer to step into this selfish, wealthy American family to watch the dysfunction unfold (which is admittedly both uncomfortable and hilarious in turns).
And then there are those scenes that are simply funny because they are funny. For example, when GOB Bluth (Will Arnett, Arrested Development) wheels through a flower bed on his Segway to harass his brothers or when Jemaine and Bret (Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, Flight of the Conchords) perform an unrelated musical number in the middle of an episode (“Albi, The Racist Dragon,” anyone?).