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Anatomy of a Joke: 'The Office', “Fun Run”

The flipside to the comedic realism of The Office is the sometimes shocking vulnerability of its characters.

Explanation is usually only necessary when a joke isn’t readily funny. However, some A-material contains narrative layers of nuance which defy a single pass. One such moment happens in the season four premiere episode of the American version of The Office.

In “Fun Run”, the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflen Paper Company is all atwitter over the recent accident of a co-worker. Branch manager Michael Scott has made the office’s scare with vehicular manslaughter his latest pet project, mainly because his was the vehicle and he the man who almost did the slaughtering. Though Meredith, Dunder Mifflin – Scranton’s resident alky, survived being hit by Michael’s car with only minor injuries, her hospital stay fortuitously allowed doctors to diagnose and treat a much more serious Rabies infection. In other words, had it not been for getting hit by Michael's car, Meredith probably would have died.

Many in Michael’s position would pose ethical questions of oneself: Is it possible to do bad deeds and bring about good results? Should negligence be classified as a bad behavior, despite being by definition a lack of action?

Michael Scott does not ask these questions. He is ever a vacuum of interiority, profoundly shallow and infuriatingly tractable to the praise or derision of other people. The yawning chasm of his awkwardness is where the laugh track of an ordinary sit-com would be inserted. Yes, occasionally he cries out with a childish need for attention, as when in another Office episode, he attempts to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy by standing in the center of the office and screaming at the top of his lungs, “I...declare...Bankruptcy!”

The flipside to the comedic realism of The Office is the sometimes shocking vulnerability of its characters. Scant few television comedies are willing to touch the psychological implications of the breach of normative behavior that makes up what most people find funny. Michael Scott’s “bankruptcy” of personality is so profound as to become a kind of barometer of whatever prevailing attitude surrounds him, though the influence of his lack of essence on those over whom he wields his tiny stores of power only creates a withering malaise, ever-watchful of the clock.

Meredith’s brush with death, of course, shakes Michael to the core, because Michael’s “core” is whatever opportunity presents itself to trouble the office’s relatively still waters. His initial response is to weep uncontrollably and scream non sequitors to whomever will listen. His co-workers have known him a while now, and so when his overtures elicit unsatisfying feedback, he goes with his other standby attention-getter: mandatory office functions of no immediate practical application. Here, this takes the form of a fundraiser for Rabies victims, never mind that Rabies is a highly treatable disease only negligibly afflicting the population at large.

No matter, the whole office dresses out in sweats and tennis shoes in support for a disease that doesn’t want or need them. With an affect of athletic know-how, Michael “carbo-loads” before the race with a massive container of fettuccini alfredo. Farther down the 5K, his lips go white with dehydration, his eyes flutter with fatigue. At one point, Michael’s significant other (and former boss), Jan, tries to hand a cup of water to him as he trudges by, but Michael will have none of it: “Not while Rabies causes fear of water... Solidarity!” he yells, sprinting off. “Michael, that’s irrational!” Jan yells back to him.

Close to the end of the fun run, Michael collapses by the side of the road, where Jim and Pam, Dunder Mifflin -- Scranton’s favorite paper salesman and office receptionist, stroll calmly into frame, still dewy-eyed from the recent confirmation of their three season-spanning "will they/won’t they" Office relationship. They regard Michael, who heaves for breath face down on the sidewalk, with a detached pity.

Michael: I feel so weak…

Jim: Well, you’re probably dehydrated.

Michael: What do you want me to do, Jim?

Jim: A glass of water would be a start…

Michael: No, there are people all over the world with all sorts of problems and diseases and afflictions. They are deformed and they are abnormal and they’re illiterate and ugly... Symphonies don’t have any money... Public TV is a bust... I can’t do anything about it, you know? I can’t... There’s just one of me, and there’s a thousand of them... And Rabies wins.

But Michael rises from the ashes of his own self-pitying crapulence to finish the race, then promptly vomits. Of the experience, he says via voice-over: “Finishing that 5K was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I ate more fettuccini and drank less water than I have in my entire life.”

The episode’s last shot is of Michael frothing at the mouth for not properly hydrating himself for his Rabies fundraiser, presenting the very symptoms of the disease he had meant to fight. The image is both hilarious and symbolically fraught.

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