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Culture Warrior: Comedy Stardom and the Problems of ‘The Office’

By  · Published on May 24th, 2011

Episodes and seasons and weeks after its inspiration and its humor have peaked, I still continue to watch new episodes of The Office week in and week out. I don’t know why – I never do this with dramatic shows, only with comedies – but I tend to stick with comedy shows whose legacy I appreciate even if their time has passed, either out of respect, blind hope, or simply the desire to have some noise in the room while I take a break to eat a meal or fold laundry. While The Office certainly isn’t what it used to be, even before Steve Carell left, it’s still an inoffensive and enjoyable way to pass some time. I can’t deny that the affinity I developed for the show’s characters early on in the series has carried me through a lot of its creative droughts (in other words, I hardly watch it only for its comedy) even as more recent network sitcoms like Modern Family, Community, and (especially) Parks and Recreation have made me LOL significantly more often.

But in the bizarre cameos leading up to a strange and dry seventh season finale, The Office seems to have encountered much greater problems than a rudimentary lack of inspiration typical for the (possibly cyclical) lifespan of a long-running television show. The Office seems to have rejected the defining characteristics that made it unique in the first place.

One of the many virtues that the American version of The Office inherited from the British original is the casting of ordinary-looking folk. This kind of casting was a markedly different strategy for making a sitcom than the multi-camera, laugh track style of NBC’s juggernaut 90s-early 00s Thursday comedy lineup, whose tentpole show Friends famously featured some better-than-average-looking humans and was not above the occasional celebrity cameo. The Office, by contrast, had perhaps the first Daily Show alum to make a calculated attempt to graduate to bigger and better things (remember, in March 2005 there was not yet a Colbert Report and, arguably, Carell’s only recognizable film roles were memorably funny but small one-note bits in Bruce Almighty (2003) and Anchorman (2004)). Aside from Carell, the show’s cast was composed entirely of unknowns or semi-knowns (i.e., Rainn Wilson) who had only taken small parts in movies or individual episodes of TV shows or came to the show from non-acting showbusiness occupations.

But more important than the fact that the show started off with no bona-fide star power was the undeniable reality that the cast of The Office was occupied by decidedly ordinary-looking people, something rather unusual for what was formerly known on NBC as “must-see TV” night. Characters like Phyllis Vance, Stanley Hudson, and Kevin Malone actually looked like the kind of people one might encounter in an everyday office setting. The Office eventually became successful in the US not only because of its comic talent, but because its comedy was rooted in the show’s relatability. The show’s ensemble and its setting became fully realized throughout the series, but a realization rooted in an aura of nonspecific commonality that allowed audiences to transpose a setting they’re personally familiar with to the one featured on the show. In contrast to the chic Manhattan apartments of Friends, Scranton, Pennsylvania’s appeal to audiences lied in its ability to substitute itself for just about anywhere (this is why, even in The Office’s slight ratings decline, the NYC-set 30 Rock still has no chance to compete).

In order to maintain this broad appeal that is also the show’s source of genuine humor, The Office seems to have exercised a rather cautious relationship with stardom throughout the series. They brought on regular cast members (like Ed Helms, Ellie Kemper, and Zach Woods) whose faces might have been familiar in some comic circles but were certainly “graduating upwards.” Of course, nearly every notable cast member has found some significant success outside the show. Much of the cast (John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Craig Robinson, Rainn Wilson) have gone onto have notable (mainly supporting) roles in comedy films, and Ed Helms co-starred in the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time.

And, of course, less than four months after Carell was featured in his network-sitcom-starring debut, The 40-Year Old Virgin was released and he became an instant movie star. Carell navigated his television and film stardom quite intelligently. Yes, he’s had a few duds here and there and some of his film roles have felt like little more than Michael Scott on the big screen, but for six consecutive years he was able to successfully play the roles of TV star and movie star simultaneously in a way that allowed one role to build off and benefit the other. I can’t at this moment think of any other actor who accomplished anything close to this type of concurrently accomplished work in each medium. Carell’s career proved that long dead was the old showbiz idiom that movie stardom and TV stardom were mutually exclusive.

But it’s important to remember that Carell’s dual stardoms occurred simultaneously, and not necessarily one because of the other. For the most part, The Office has resisted bringing in stars in order to maintain the comic potential of being credibly generic.

For the most part.

On February 1, 2009, after the Super Bowl, NBC aired an hour-long episode of The Office (“Stress Relief,” 5.13). As is typical for networks attempting to bank as much as they can off a Super Bowl ratings boost, the numerous advertisements promised celebrity cameos by Jack Black, Jessica Alba, and…Cloris Leachman. But how would movie stars work in the deliberately “normal-looking” world of The Office? Wouldn’t this be an intrusion into a well established bubble of a sitcom setting? The ultimate reveal was shrewd and clever if not particularly laugh-out-loud funny. Black, Alba, and Leachman played themselves as actors in a film that has been illegally downloaded by Andy for the benefit of Jim and Pam. The world of The Office was sustained because the movie stars, by still being movie stars in the world of the show, didn’t penetrate it. As the cameos were hardly “roles” at all, the gag worked almost as a parody of cheap ratings-boosting cameos in network sitcoms.

But in light of Carell’s departure, we’ve seen any regard for the ostensibly sealed world of The Office thrown out the window. And it hasn’t been funny. Will Ferrell was brought on as an interim manager, and this proved to be the first false and deadly move for the show. Ferrell’s frustratingly inconsistent DiAngelo Vickers never developed into full, sensible character, partly because he never stopped being “Will Ferrell.” The reason anyone from Jim Halpert to Kevin Malone were able to develop into fully realized characters on the show was because they were essentially blank slates: they didn’t carry the burden of a star’s persona with them. Vickers, however, never appeared to be anything but Ferrell playing a character via Ferrell, which even ate into the suspended disbelief of Michael Scott himself, as their playful interaction appeared to be little more than two famous comedians having fun rather than two comic characters developing through interaction.

But the season-ender is what finally broke the seal. The appearances of Will Arnett, Ray Romano, James Spader, and Jim Carrey showed a desperate attempt to hold onto the show’s ratings through a shallow celebrity cameo move that The Office formerly found itself confidently above in its principled approach to consistency, and at the expense it threatened exactly what makes The Office what it is. Yes, some of these performances stood out, but it’s hard to argue that these guest spots were little more than iterations of what we’ve seen before from these actors. Spader, whose role many regarded as the episode’s sole redeeming cameo, was essentially playing a combination of the drug dealers and assholes from his roles in brat pack films and the compelling but sex-crazed creepers from his indie work. (Also, the comically brief cameos by Carrey and Warren Buffet would have been funny had they not been advertised and buzzed about incessantly).

It’s fitting that these mistakes have come as a result of Steve Carell’s departure, for his success and the success of the other cast members of The Office because of The Office seems to have come full circle. In ostensibly looking for a “replacement” for Carell or searching for a new source of the show’s appeal outside Carell, The Office is looking for a “new Steve Carell.” The problem is they’re looking for the wrong Steve Carell – an equivalent to who Steve Carell is now rather than who he was when he started the show: that is, not a giant star. In this confusion they’ve lost the heart of the show itself. But perhaps the bigger problem is that the show, despite its relative modesty in the ratings, has become too successful for its own good, and that the success of its cast means it can no longer be genuinely generic.

Either way, come fall, I’ll still need something to watch while ironing.

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