The Office len(d)s itself to comedy

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I’m interested in how the narrative form of The Office succeeds in terms of comedy. As a big fan of both forms of the program, I wonder how the documentary/mockumentary lens lends itself to laughter. In terms of Aristotle’s Poetics, poetry is rooted in imitation, and what better way to imitate than through a lens commonly used to document reality? Through this technique, the program heightens comic effect on two levels: one, the sheer absurdity of many of Michael Scott/David Brent actions captured as though they are real; two: the breaking of the fourth wall.

Obviously the absence of the fourth wall has been utilized often in the past, but if you notice, often as a vehicle for comedy (Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap, John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) New NBC comedy Parks & Recreation created by Office producers also implements this technique. So why have so many television comedies, once relegated to the standard sitcom format, embraced such a change? In Jason Mittell’s Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television he writes,  “Complexity, especially in comedies, works against these norms by altering the relationship between multiple plotlines, creating interweaving stories that often collide and coincide. Although Mittell is applying his argument more to the plot structure, I attest that it still works in terms of the narrative lens. By offering The Office characters their “talking head” moment, the normative television narrative is altered and the audience can now add another layer of complexity to the main A and B story lines. Because we know what Michael, Jim, Pam, etc… are actually thinking, their actions take on another layer of meaning. Recalling Aristotle’s look at action versus dialogue, because we are aware of The Office character’s inner dialogue, we see their actions in a different light. This contradiction often leads to a greater comic effect.

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3 Responses to “The Office len(d)s itself to comedy”

  1. Administrator Says:

    Amanda, this is very suggestive. By calling attention to the “lens” through which we’re viewing the characters and their actions, The Office merges our reality with the reality of the “documentary makers” who are invading The Office which all tends to heighten mimesis somehow. There’s a negative dialectic going on here, somehow–the more the fourth wall is broken, the more we forget that every aspect of what we’re watching is contrived for our attention and pleasure. Scary.

  2. julorean Says:

    This article from The Onion seemed rather fitting given our past class discussion: “The Office’ Ends As Documentary Crew Gets All The Footage It Needs” http://www.theonion.com/content/news_briefs/the_office_ends_as

    This little article just takes the breaking of the fourth wall to another level, extending the plot device of the documentary crew by having the film crew discuss the show. Given how American shows rarely have planned endings, the thought of the show ending because there’s finally enough material for the documentary is very amusing.

  3. amandahymson Says:

    Thanks for the comments. They both led me to further examine the use of heightened mimesis as a tool for television (and film makers). Often I would argue that by adding an additional “lens,” the programming can more easily engage in parody (because we are doubly removed from the characters and are thus viewing their actions from a more objective source – the documentarian). This may explain why more “high brow” comedies (based on their demos), like The Office and Arrested Development, prefer this style of filming. Karen, I can see, though, how this has the potential to engage a negative dialectic. By appealing straight to the audience through the absence of a fourth wall, we do slowly forget that the programming is simply that, fictional programming. I wonder what would happen if The Office was shown to someone completely unaware of the show and its well-known set-up and, okay, if they were generally out of touch with television all together, how they would react?

    As for the very funny Onion article, it clearly points to the documentary technique as one that is a bit overdone in television. And though Parks & Recreation, made by former Office creators, also employs this technique, perhaps it is time to leave it alone for a bit and find a new approach to comedy.

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