Spurred by a recent Bill Burr rant, I was going to create a list of problematic jokes from “The Office,” until I realized the only correct answer to the question in my headline is “all of them.” There can be no tongue-in-cheek list of offensive scenes, because you either recognize Michael Scott (or Dwight Schrute or Todd Packer or Kevin Malone or Angela Martin or Andy Bernard or Jan Levinson or Ryan Howard) as satire, or you don’t. If you don’t, “The Office” is just a nine-season platform for naked bigotry. That sounds absurd because it is, but it’s also really not hyperbole when you consider the arguments that have been made against the show.
Here’s Decider on “Diversity Day” from a masterpiece entitled “5 Episodes of ‘The Office’ That Are Totally Problematic in 2018”:
“In the episode, we learn that corporate has sent over a speaker to hold a meeting regarding diversity after a very negative response over Michael’s imitation of Chris Rock’s routine (you know which one). And because Michael Scott is who he is, he holds his own diversity training session, which gets a tad bit out of hand. Michael’s meeting ends up being so racist that I can’t believe anyone ever thought this episode was funny. Undoubtedly, Michael Scott is the worst person to lead a meeting on diversity even if he is ‘two-fifteenths Native American.'”
The joke is quite literally that Michael Scott is the worst person to lead a meeting on diversity. That is why it’s funny. To argue it’s racist is to argue the joke was about the people Michael crudely stereotyped, rather than about Michael’s crude stereotyping. If you don’t see Michael as a tool to satirize ignorance, you basically have to write off the entire series as a bigoted nightmare given his persistent racism and sexism, which was always the joke itself.
Here’s Decider, again, on a memorable episode from season 3:
“This list could not be complete without mentioning one of the series’ many Christmas specials. In terms of being problematic, ‘Benihana Christmas’ comes to mind mainly because Michael (are we surprised?) can’t remember which Benihana waitress was supposed to be his ‘new girlfriend.’ He literally looks at the two women and can’t tell them apart. What’s even worse is that Michael marks his waitress with a sharpie so he can recognize her.”
Clearly the joke was that Michael operates off ridiculous, racist stereotypes, not that those stereotypes are actually real. More importantly, the effect of the joke is to show how ignorant and stupid it looks to operate off racist stereotypes. Like all good satire, the bit serves a purpose.
Others have argued it’s the show’s sympathetic framing of Michael that makes it retrospectively problematic. “The satirical components of NBC’s The Office suffer because the show had to fit the premise’s inherent mean-spiritedness into the mold of a traditional American sitcom,” one writer argued last year in The A.V. Club. “As such, Michael and Dwight had to both maintain a sense of comedic consistency in terms of character while also remaining ‘likable’ by network TV standards. And the effort of maintaining ‘likability’ across nine seasons inevitably leads to sentimentality. Whatever bite that once existed is bound to lose its fangs.” A similar argument is made here.
This, again, is an argument against the entire show. The effect of making Michael likable is that he illustrates how good people are capable of horrible, outdated behavior. That’s actually a timely lesson, given the growing impulse to dismiss anyone who’s ever committed a thoughtcrime from polite society.
Here’s how one writer in GQ contemplated the dilemma:
“There’s a voice in my head telling me I’m reading too much into this. I am telling myself that, despite my knowing and writing that the abusers on the show are the villains and not the heroes, I just don’t get it. That I’m taking it too seriously and have lost the ability to find humor in the situation, in reality. And honestly, that’s about right. I have lost that ability. Years of watching and enduring and living with the behavior they’re skewering make the jokes turn to ash. Times have changed, and I can’t look at Michael, Jim, or anyone else the same way. I don’t want to be this way. This was done to me.”
This is the Hannah Gadsby argument, that “punch lines need trauma because punch lines need tension, and tension feeds trauma.” While it’s actually a more coherent position, it’s still a serious threat to satire—and by its own admission. (Gadsby quit comedy.) If that sounds dramatic, it’s because the threat is probably more immediate than we realize. Consider that Steve Carell himself recently wondered whether it would be “impossible” to do “The Office” today.
“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?” Carell told Esquire. “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.”
Satire is rendered useless. Maybe you’re fine with that. Most people probably aren’t. But if Carell himself legitimately questions whether a program so widely loved as “The Office” could work just less than a decade after it went off the air, it seems plausible networks and show creators are asking themselves that too. (For a glimpse into our humorless future, consider this year’s woke, strategically anodyne Golden Globes.) Who knows what we’ll miss out on, or already are, because of those attitudes. The fight over political correctness can seem like an abstract media debate, but it’s already much more consequential.
It’s helpful to return to the GQ critic’s argument. “The problem,” she contended, “is that the victims of these shenanigans in The Office, whether it’s Michael forwarding joke e-mails about child molestation to his employees or Dwight saying whatever sexist and homophobic things he believes, never get their day.”
But they do. They get it every time Michael or Dwight or Todd says something offensive and millions of people laugh at their ignorance, further reinforcing our shared notions of right and wrong, and bolstering our boundaries of acceptable conduct. The jokes have a point, and it’s a necessary one.