Get Busy Livin’ or Get Busy Laughin’

What’s so funny about the daily lives of a bunch of miserable middle-aged employees at a low-level paper company? For 9 seasons (201 total episodes), we watched these employees at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin Inc. sit at their desks, make phone calls, go to meetings, pour their coffee, and go to the bathroom. As we grew to like these characters, we watched as they got fired, transferred, or had to work on weekends. What a grim premise for a show, am I right? Yet, The Office didn’t have a morbid feel to it, more the opposite. It made us laugh time and time again. So how did the show’s creators manage to turn a miserable day at the office into a 5-time Emmy winning comedy? Let’s take a closer look at a classic scene from the show, which occurs in the episode “Stress Relief” from season 5.

I want to highlight a few important moments from this scene. It is important to note that Michael (the boss, who’s roasting everyone) stands in front of the entire office and roasts each and every one of them, while they silently sit there and give him their full attention. Despite the inappropriate nature of his verbal jabs, no one says a word, as if they’re acknowledging his correctness (or more likely signifying his power over them). At first, Michael’s victims respond with puzzled looks. Once Michael says “Stanley, you crush your wife during sex and your heart sucks. Boom! Roasted,” Stanley starts to chuckle. His laughter gradually grows louder and others around the office start to join in. Before long, nearly everyone in the office is laughing, albeit not as much as Stanley. Michael wraps up the roast by saying, “Goodnight. God bless. God bless America. And get home safe.” Now that he has finished his “speech,” notice how the office breaks into a round of applause, implying a happy ending to what started off as a nasty roast. Addressing Stanley’s outbreak of laughter, Michael says, “They say that laughter is the best medicine, so Stanley you can throw away those pills, you are cured. Actually you better hold on to the pills just in case.” We’ll come back to that later.

Stanley is not laughing at Michael, rather he is laughing at himself. Poor sexual performance and heart problems epitomize a shitty life, so once Michael brings both of these personal issues to the attention of the entire office, all Stanley can do is laugh. Andy follows suit and breaks into a somewhat nervous laughter when Michael tells him that “Cornell hates you and you’re gayer than Oscar.” By the end of the scene, it’s clear that the office workers are laughing at their own misgivings. While the Michael’s roast appears to be liberating for the office, the feel good ending to the scene comes across as phony on account of how Michael “exits the stage.”

Several aspects of the scene point to Michael being a self-interested politician of sorts instead of the “friend first, boss second” role that he intended to play (Soper). Notice the silence and attentiveness of his “friends” as he roasts them in front of the entire office. The silence signifies the vulnerability and dependency of his audience, much like that of a politician’s supporters. Look at the round of applause he receives as he walks back to his office. People will applaud anything their preferred candidate says much like is the case in this scene. Michael’s employees applaud a speech in which he publicly humiliates all of them. The connection of Michael in this scene to a politician is driven home when he concludes the roast by saying, “God bless America and get home safe.” Ending speeches with “God bless America” has become a staple of most political speeches. The implications of this connection can drastically change the viewer’s perception of the scene (and the show). As we all (hopefully) know, politicians are often manipulative and have ulterior motives. What seems to be the truth on the surface may very well be a lie or cover. Maybe we should re-examine how we think of Michael. Maybe he’s not quite the fun-loving and caring boss we always thought he was.

In an essay for the literary journal, Studies in American Humor, Kerry Soper closely analyzes Michael. It’s clear that he wants to give the impression that his role in the office is to humanize the workplace. However, Soper notes that “each party, basketball game, booze cruise, awards ceremony, casino night, fun run, or other activity that he organizes is ultimately a front for either ulterior personal motives or a bland corporate agenda.” Let’s revisit the end of the scene when everyone is smiling and applauding. Are the office workers really any happier than they were before Michael arrived? On the surface, it sure seems so, but in truth they were just embarrassed in front of their friends and co-workers for no particular reason. At the end of the day, a politician just wants to keep his supporters happy. One easy substitute for keeping them happy is to make them laugh. Laughter can work as a substitute for happiness because in the moment, it’s difficult to separate the two. In this scene, Michael the politician cleverly uses laughter as an instrument for maintaining the support and loyalty of his employees.

Michael notes that laughter is the best medicine, that it can “cure” you of your problems. In other words, laughter can help one escape from the world of pain and misery. While the characters on the show are laughing at themselves, we too from behind our television screens laugh, because we are just like Stanley the salesman, Pam the receptionist, and Kevin the accountant. Earlier I described the lives of the employees on the show; they sit at their desks, make phone calls, go to meetings, and pour coffee. These are ordinary people! Look no further than the show’s all-encompassing title, The Office. The title forms an umbrella over a majority of Americans, and a vast majority of those watching the show. We love the show because it provides an escape and temporary relief from our own miserable days at the office. As Kevin Craft of The Atlantic put it, “The Office made its audience feel better about their professional lives by showcasing a workplace with even drabber décor and more grating coworkers.” In creating The Office, the culture industry (represented by Michael in this particular scene) replaces our potential happiness with laughter and forces us to be content with that. Adorno’s claim is that although laughter temporarily disperses the pain, “it also destroys the possibility of the ever-broken promise of happiness, and hence the culture industry makes laughter the instrument for cheating happiness” (Coulson).

Best friend or self-centered manipulative boss?

Looking back on that scene, this claim makes perfect sense. Pam failed out of art school. Jim is tall and skinny. Angela is tiny. Oscar is gay. Meredith looks like a man. Kevin is fat and dumb. Dwight is a suck-up. Creed has stinky breath. Andy is gayer than Oscar. While none of them may be happy, they are all afforded the right to forget (embrace may be more accurate) their misgivings temporarily through laughter. But does laughter universally destroy the possibility of finding happiness? It’s not difficult to find a couple of strong counter-examples right in central storyline of the show.

For the first few seasons of the show, Pam was engaged to Roy, an unpleasant warehouse worker. Pam’s seemingly never-ending engagement was often a subject of Michael’s jokes. Despite the stale and humorless nature of her relationship with Roy, it showed few signs of ending. During the same time period, Michael had an on again off again relationship with Jan, who worked above Michael in Corporate. Their relationship was also humorless and mostly sexual. Neither Pam nor Michael ever seemed truly content with these relationships, but consistent with the premise of the show, they accepted what they had because in theory the everyday person doesn’t have a great relationship. As we will see, laughter allowed Pam and Michael to break out of their stale relationships into much healthier ones.

Pam’s relationship with Roy didn’t prevent Jim from spending a lot of time flirting with her at her desk to avoid doing work. They team up several times to play pranks on Dwight. The laughter that they often shared soon developed into apparent feelings, but due to circumstances and other relationships, it never seemed to work out between them. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, in season 4 Jim and Pam officially start dating for the first time. Their relationship grows and they eventually become married and have kids. In this case, a love of laughter helped spark the relationship, which gave both Jim and Pam happiness.

In a similar fashion, Michael discovers that his true love is for Holly and not Jan. Unlike his relationship with Jan, Michael’s relationship with Holly revolves around jokes, impersonations, and humor. Laughter is the driving force that brings them together. Unfortunately, like with Jim and Pam, several factors, including Holly being transferred to another branch make their relationship difficult if not impossible. In the end, love wins out and the two become happily married. Both couples manage to escape the walls of the office both figuratively and literally, since all four characters eventually leave Dunder Mifflin.

So even though Adorno’s claim seems to ring true most of the time, these two relationships prove to be exceptions to the rule. An Adornian might try to explain these counter examples in the following way. Kevin Craft said, “The Office‘s characters developed, and their individual stories gradually outshone the show’s focus on survival in a corporate setting. By Season 5, the show was struggling to transition from a narrative about a listless workplace to a comedy that just happened to be set in an office.” In other words, as the seasons went on, the show got away from its original mission. According to these critics, only the first three or four seasons were truly The Office. The rest of the seasons may as well have been titled The Michael, Dwight, Jim, and Pam Show. Neither of these counter-examples took place in the first three seasons, and only occurred once the show needed its characters to have life arcs in order for the show to maintain its commercial success.

Although this point may be valid, to suggest that the show had gotten away from its main premise in later seasons would be misguided. The scene analyzed earlier in this essay (which supports Adorno’s claim) took place in season 5, well after Jim and Pam started dating. To be clear, I believe that Adorno’s claim is usually true and quite insightful. I would just suggest that the full truth is a bit more complex, and that there are exceptions to the rule.

Now that we’ve concluded that it is possible for laughter to help propel people out of their misery and lead to true happiness, I wish to make one final point. Even those lucky ones who have been “cured” by laughter (Michael, Jim, and Pam) should not throw away their pills. Just in case.



Coulson, S. “Funnier Than Unhappiness: Adorno and the Art of Laughter.” New         German Critique 34, no. 1 100 (2007): 141-63. doi:10.1215/0094033x-2006-       021.


Craft, Kevin. “The Thing That Made The Office Great Is the Same Thing That Killed It.” The Atlantic. May 16, 2013. Accessed April 24, 2016.        that-made-i-the-office-i-great-is-the-same-thing-that-killed-it/275883/.


Soper, Kerry. “The Pathetic Carnival in the Cubicles: “The Office” as Meditation on   the Misuses and Collapse of Traditional Comedy.” Studies in American Humor No. 19 (January 01, 2009): 83-103. Accessed April 24, 2016.    gateway:321de5ae147119f926c135b3b84af10b.