Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Office

Several years ago I attended a full-day comedy scriptwriting workshop presented by Robert McKee, the author of Story. Early in the workshop he said the comedy writer looks for social conflict and foolishness, finds pretentiousness, and attacks it. We should be able to identify the social institution being attacked by the title of the film.

The Office is classic comedy. Every week the writers take some aspect of an office workplace and expose the foolishness. I remember McKee telling us that to write really great comedy, the writer has to be angry about something. After watching this week’s episode, Dunder Mifflin Infinity, I’d say the writers are annoyed by people who sit around texting on their Blackberrys when they really should be working, by the pointlessness of talking cars that tell you where to go, and possibly even by gift baskets filled with stuff no one really needs.

In his workshop, McKee also explained what makes great comic characters. First, they strive to restore order to their world. It becomes an obsession for them, and they are unable to stop and assess a situation. A character in a dramatic show can take a step back and look at what’s going on, but the comic character forges blindly ahead. Another important aspect of good comic characters is their lack of internal conflict. People who have a lot of internal conflict take themselves too seriously. Not something we want our comic characters to be burdened with.

The Office’s boss Michael Scott is a textbook example. He doesn’t stop to examine any situation, he never thinks things through, and he’s always quick to come up with his own convenient explanation for what’s going on. In this week’s episode, Ryan yells at Michael after everyone teased him. “Enough! This is inappropriate and it stops right now.”

Does Michael realize he’d been out of line? Does he feel chastised? No. He says to the camera, “Yeah, Ryan snapped at me, but there was this twinkle in his eye that I picked up on, which said, ‘Dude, we’re friends. I’m doing this for appearances. I am the big boss now and I have to seem like an ogre but you know me and you trust me and we like each other and we’ll always be friends and I would never take you for granted in a million years and I miss you, man, and I love you.’ His words.”

When Michael discovers it’s not “business as usual,” he sets out to restore order to his world. Dunder Mifflin doesn’t need a website to attract customers. They need gift baskets.

Meanwhile, the office is abuzz with the news that Pam and Jim are dating. Toby is jealous and Phyllis worries that Pam will pass new customers to Jim. Angela rejects Dwight’s replacement cat, and then she rejects Dwight. Andy and Kevin try to act cool, and Creed tries to look younger. Ryan dumps Kelly, then asks Pam on a date, and Jim gets to smugly point out that Ryan can’t get every girl he wants.

Never a dull moment. Always a laugh. Outstanding writing. Such a great show. I look forward to it every week, and I'm never disappointed.

Back tomorrow.



Rachel said...

Love your summary of what makes good comedy – and a great comic character.
Since I like to write funny, your post gave me some solid info to draw on.

And I totally relate to your precis of what's bugging the Office writers – obsessive BlackBerriers drive me crazy too. I often wonder why they're in a meeting when they aren't involved in the 'meet' part.

Hey, maybe I can get a job on the show!

Lee McKenzie said...


I've often thought it would be huge fun to be a writer for a TV show, but I'll bet the pace can be frantic.

And then there's the whole thing about having to dress for work. No matter how casual the dress code, I'm guessing they don't get to hang out in their jammies and fuzzy slippers :)

Not that novel writers do that. No. Never.