[29 June 2005]
Passive aggressive emails… petty theft… rumored inter-departmental affairs: this is the stuff of office life. And I should know. I have the paper cuts to prove it. At one job, I spent a large portion of the day behind the “corporate headquarters” finding new and exciting ways to smoosh pennies on the railroad tracks (did you know that you can actually crush a paper clip into a penny?). At another post, I developed an obsessive relationship with online networking. Sadly, it finally crashed when I was unable to convince Macaulay Culkin to be my friendster. My last attempt to make workplace life bearable involved creating a running list of office supplies that could be used to commit suicide. I still don’t know if a letter opener can actually puncture my sternum because my office days are up.
During those inbetween days of unemployment I randomly happened upon the complete series of Sports Night on DVD and began a short-lived but rabid obsession with the show. In two seasons, the writers created a work place utopia of aired concerns, resolved fights, lessons learned, and career satisfaction. The premise centers around two sports anchors, their tightly wound boss, and eccentric co-workers, all of whom are just so lovable that I cried through most of the episodes. The depiction of people actually enjoying their jobs implied that it was perhaps I, and not the system, which was deficient. I promptly returned the DVDs.
My next stage of mourning involved the aptly named Just Shoot Me and its functional balance of petty conflicts and camaraderie. I even thought to myself, maybe I could have made the office thing work if my co-workers were funnier. But then I remembered a great ex-co-worker, who used to call Angela, our hiney-endowed office mate, “Angela’s Asses”, and who also turned the myriad of creepy expressions our boss used when discussing her menses—every day—into a drinking game (two shots for “riding the cotton pony”). She was funny…but I still hated that job.
I pronounced myself done with moping via television and nixed the workplace shows from my schedule in lieu of Survivor. But that turned out to be even worse. Every contestant on the island reminded me of either: a) an ex-boyfriend, b) an ex-boss, or c) that gossipy bitch that was always talking smack down on the loading dock, a cigarette hanging precariously from the edge of her lip. The Survivors continuously amaze me with their knack for being complete jackasses.
After graduating college I applauded myself for my entrance into the adult world, but then realized that cubicle dwellers are worse than a pack of snotnosed elementary school brats or even sorority girls. The very same people who were popular in high school join mafia-esque cliques that rule the office social scene with an iron fist. Cheerleaders have nothing on secretaries, the very same secretaries who separate into the Heathers-eque under-30 alliances on Survivor.
My grieving moved me into the stark realism of The Office. Finally, I had the closure I so desperately needed to move on with unemployment. Both the BBC and the NBC versions of the show are brilliant in their own right, drawing heavily on the dead air between a gruesomely garrulous boss and his appalled underlings. While it painfully forces me to relive afternoons of my own idiot supervisor reading the prostitution ads in the free weekly aloud to me while I scrambled to shield client phone calls from his bellows of “Asian Goddess loves anal!”, I’m sure some people may think The Office is a farce. But no, I have emerged from the trenches to proclaim its accuracy, and it is wholly satisfying to have my nightmare comedically rendered on prime time TV.
Everything about this show reminds me of my employment past. There’s the sardonic prankster in love with the melancholy receptionist, both just trying to find the small ways to make life bearable by structuring their days around flirting with one another. I have to admit that setting a stapler in a gelatin mold is a far better stunt than my personal best: placing a lewd ‘missed connections’ personal ad in the local newspaper for the director of human resources, then clipping it, blowing it up, and posting it on a shipment going to her office. I also always had a partner in crime to crush on, feeding off one another’s devotion to the dark art of ridiculing officemates, either in cryptic emails and whispers over the in-box. The crueler the comments, the more loaded our furtive glances.
Perpetually flanking The Office‘s moron leader is an overzealous number two with a Javert-esque infatuation with discipline. During my own stint at a paper sales company, one of the salesmen would scream at himself to “be golden!” while slamming his head against his desk. As on The Office, this ‘number two’ was well off the radar of the boss. He was much more preoccupied with making fun of the homeless population, which he believed to include every person with non-traditional hair or a tattoo. Yet another boss of mine, oblivious to his number two’s penchant for finding ways to funnel company funds into stripper’s g-strings, focused instead on commenting on the likely sexual predilections and weight of every person in the office. Though he weighed in at over 250 pounds himself, he was not above warning me that the owner of the company doesn’t like fatties. (Yes, I was eating a cookie at the time.)
If the degree to which art imitates life can be a measure of greatness then The Office is king of the workplace comedy. I’ve never traded a day for a dollar in an environment anything like Veronica’s Closet, WKRP in Cincinnati, or the otherwise brilliant Dick Van Dyke Show. Those shows have too much heart and reflect a bleached out version of a paper pusher’s pain. Whereas The Office plainly incorporates all the petty rivalries, hopeless crushes, and moronic insensitivity that made my cubicle monkey tenure miserable. It also reminds me to never again allow my only joy in life to be switching the de-caf and regular coffee in the commissary, just to see if anyone could tell the difference.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/horn050629/