In the Poetics Aristotle writes, “Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type – not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.” In the same way, the characters of The Office (UK) are not bad, but rather their “ugliness” channels the comedic nature of the show. Office manager David Brent’s (Ricky Gervais) ugliness is ugliness of character; the fact that David Brent believes himself to be this amazing example of utopian management skills, but is actually neither a good manager nor a funny one, is the comedic premise of the show.
However, I think that one can say the comic mask of The Office is in its distortion of documentary and reality TV style. The Office is a scripted comedy, and yet within its diegetic universe the characters recognize and even address the cameras that are filming them. Also, and completely within the flow of the narrative, there are interviews/confessionals with the characters in which they vent or discuss situations in the office, usually beginning with a rephrasing of a question that was ostensibly asked by the film crew. I propose that this style – mockumentary – and its subsequent breakdown of the fourth wall between audience and cast, is what allows the viewer to enter into The Office’s diegetic universe and fully perceive its comedic value.
The value of The Office lies in its comedy rather than in displaying some form of utopian ideal. Christine Geraghty’s use of Dyer’s proposal that “entertainment functions by offering the image of ‘something better’ to escape into” (Soap Opera and Utopia, pg 2) does not mesh with The Office. Rather, it might be better to say that soap operas and certain other dramatic narratives function as a vehicle for the presentation of utopian ideals. But that comedy, as defined by Aristotle and seen in The Office does the opposite. The Office does not present a utopian ideal of office life. The audience doesn’t long to escape into life at the Slough, Berkshire office of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company but rather rejoices and laughs at the fact they don’t work there and will never have to. The meta-mimesis in The Office is what makes us reflexively appreciate our own, real working environments. Through imitation of all that can possibly go wrong in an office, including in that the filming of office life, The Office is endearing in its distopia-ness. However, the real reason we love it is because we don’t have to live it.