Talking ‘Office’ culture at the water cooler

The common experiences we share at our respective offices may explain why film and television artists are fascinated with cubicle life.

The common experiences we share at our respective offices may explain why film and television artists are fascinated with cubicle life.
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Steve Carell, star of the hit television show “The Office,” announced that the 2010-11 season of the comedy would be his last.

The show, a remake of the British television show of the same name, gained popularity for its depiction of the American office environment at the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. Witty office jokes and the antics of Regional Manager Michael Scott, played by Carell, drive the show as its pseudo-documentary style captures the reactions of his coworkers. Although Michael is not everyone’s favorite character, his sometimes-offensive behavior and attempts at being the best boss capture the attention of his employees, as well as the show’s viewers.

The fascination, however, with the office workspace and cubicle life, including the typical office jokes and the water cooler cliché, was popular before “The Office” took over NBC’s comedy line-up.

Dilbert, from the aptly named “Dilbert” comic strip, for example, was created in 1989 and since then has been a worldwide satirical, office-life icon. And the 1999 movie “Office Space” became a cult classic after it had little box-office success.

The typical American office has transformed into another world as curious outsiders examine office life.

“It isn’t rare for an outsider to wonder about seemingly irrational practices that make perfect sense to members in that office culture,” said Deanna Geddes, the chair of the human resources department at the Fox School of Business. “The unique organizational cultures we experience create a certain mindset and common experience that allows us to ‘explain the unexplainable,’ simply by saying a word or mentioning a person, an event or a joke.

“We all ‘get it’ because we have a common experience and a common language in the office. These shared experiences and understandings help us all ‘get’ the jokes,” she added.

“Office Space” showed little to no sign of popularity among theater audiences. But now, more than 10 years later, it has become a fan favorite, and the main character, Peter Gibbons, played by comedian Ron Livingston, has become an idol to all those unhappy with their office lives.

In a 2003 article titled “The Fax of Life,” Entertainment Weekly comments that the number of people who work in similar office situations, or the amount of people who want to know what it is like to work in an office, is surprising. This “communal bonding” of the office setting connected fans worldwide, and “Office Space” became a reality, instead of just a film.

During the Nov. 2, 2006 episode of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air from WHYY,” Mindy Kaling, a writer for the “The Office,” who also plays Kelly on the show, explained a little known connection between the show and the writing process.

“One thing that’s kind of awkward is occasionally in our writing room, we will accidentally call Greg [Daniels, the executive producer of “The Office”] ‘Michael,’” Kaling said. “And we don’t mean it. I mean, he’s nothing like him, but it’s just that he’s our boss, and we work in an office …”

This simple connection is enough to draw us into the culture of the office space.

“The ultimate irony of the unique cultures we have in our own offices is that all these [fictional] offices have the same types of situations, characters, legends, et cetera, that define them as unique,” Geddes said.

So while there is something unreal and novel about working in an office, there is something genuine about the characters who work inside them.

Carell’s final season as Scott premieres this fall. As the search for the new leader of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company begins, many viewers are worried that the qualities that made Michael a lovable character in “The Office” will disappear. However, Scott’s trademark characteristics, which are described as being obnoxious, shocking, overzealous and somewhat pathetic, are also part of the everyday office dynamic. Whether it is on TV or in real life, the character is recognizable and relatable, making Scott impossible to escape.

Samantha Byles can be reached at

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