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Steve Carell: ‘The Office’ Would Be Too Offensive Today. If So, What’s Left?

Steve Carell just made the best argument for loosening the vice grip of political correctness, and it involves ‘The Office.’


Steve Carell just made the best argument for loosening the vice grip of political correctness. In an Esquire profile published Thursday, Carell contemplated carefully whether viewers would accept “The Office” if a remake were to come about today. Here’s the relevant portion of his response: 

…apart from the fact that I just don’t think that’s a good idea, it might be impossible to do that show today and have people accept it the way it was accepted ten years ago. The climate’s different. I mean, the whole idea of that character, Michael Scott, so much of it was predicated on inappropriate behavior. I mean, he’s certainly not a model boss. A lot of what is depicted on that show is completely wrong-minded. That’s the point, you know? But I just don’t know how that would fly now. There’s a very high awareness of offensive things today—which is good, for sure. But at the same time, when you take a character like that too literally, it doesn’t really work.

Carell is tip-toeing around his own judgement on the “very high awareness of offensive things today,” and understandably so. But if “The Office” is too politically incorrect for mass consumption, we’re in dire straits.

“The Office” represents a rare intersection between high-quality comedy and widespread likability. There’s a reason “Curb Your Enthusiasm” doesn’t run on a major network. Its audience is too niche. But “The Office” managed to find the cultural relevance of a network show like “The Big Bang Theory” without sacrificing the quality of its comedy or relying on a laugh track. 

As Carell observes, the show was “predicated on inappropriate behavior.” Michael Scott’s “wrong-mindedness” was, indeed, “the point.” Far from condoning it, “The Office” actively satirized racism and sexism and other bad behavior. The humor draws on a shared cultural agreement that Michael (or Dwight or Andy or Todd Packer)— like Archie Bunker before him— is wrong.

Michael saying something like this to Phyllis, or facilitating an activity like this, is funny precisely because it’s outrageously inappropriate. Without that agreement, there would be no joke. The joke, then, reinforces our shared notions of what’s wrong. We rely on them to bolster the boundaries of acceptable conduct.

“The Office,” which ended just over five years ago, is also nowhere near as edgy as other shows that we can’t afford to push outside those boundaries (“It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” “Veep”). What’s more, unlike many other (still excellent) shows fueled by the same type of comedy, “The Office” has a lot of heart. In both the scenes linked above, Michael’s bad behavior sprang from good intentions.

If Carell himself believes a reboot would be impossible, there’s good reason to believe it’s true. The primary loss here wouldn’t be political. It would be hours of laughter that hypersensitive, woke comedy just can’t deliver.