How ‘The Office’ Uses Characters and Comedy to Impart Life Lessons
Nowadays, there are many ways to try and impart life lessons to society, whether it is through the form of novels, music, or movies. The most popular mode in which we seem to learn life’s lessons is through television, and more specifically television series. We see this in shows like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Modern Family,” where life lessons such as honoring individuality and respecting others come into play.
Of the numerous television series out there today, one that has made a mark is the American version of “The Office.” The show shadows the quirky office workers of Dunder-Mifflin, a fictional paper distributor in Scranton, Pennsylvania. One-on-one discussions with the workers, rougher footage, and humorously bizarre yet relatable plots have made this series enormously popular. Steve Carrel, among many other talented actors and actresses, portrays life’s most awkward situations not only to make his audience laugh, but to also deliver small dosages of life lessons. With that being said, I have chosen to analyze an episode from season four of “The Office,” the unforgettable “Dinner Party.”
The narrative within this episode chronicles a disastrous dinner party at Michael Scott’s house, in which Michael’s employees Pam, Jim, Andy, and Angela are suckered into attending. Without a doubt, plenty of awkward situations arise, accompanied by numerous “laugh out loud” moments. Clearly the objective here is to impart life lessons through the use of comedic situations. However, does the narrative within this episode effectively fulfill its objective?
Proof through Narrative Criticism
I will prove that this specific episode does, indeed, fulfill its objective by identifying features of the show’s narrative, and evaluating the narrative in relation to its objective.
If the four key characteristics of a narrative can be found within an artifact, then it can indeed be considered a narrative. The first of these characteristics is that two events must have taken place; these events can either be stative—”expressing a state or condition”—or active—”expressing action” (Foss, 2009, p. 307). In order to be a narrative, the events must also have a sequence, whether it is in logical time order or through the use of flashbacks. The narrative must have a contributing relationship with the events detailed as well; essentially, a change must be experienced during the story. The final characteristic that must be present is that the story must center on one “unified subject” (Foss, 2009, p. 308). This specific has includes all of these narrative elements, so it qualifies as good artifact for narrative criticism.
It is evident that this episode of “The Office” effectively fulfills its objective, which is to, for all intents and purposes, offer life lessons. The specific life lessons that I believe this episode strives to teach are 1) Don’t force something to work if it clearly isn’t working, and 2) Don’t change yourself to meet expectations that you don’t feel comfortable meeting. I believe that this episode effectively teaches these lessons with the use of a three particular narrative features, the first being the episode’s use of narration, the second being its characters, and the third being the episode’s type of narrative—comedy.
In the series, there is not one designated narrator. Instead, the episode is chronicled by a multitude of different characters, usually through their one-on-one discussions. This episode is no exception, and it actually works to the show’s advantage, especially in terms of fulfilling the narrative’s objective. Since there isn’t one specific narrator intruding on the plot, audience members are able to instead focus on what each character has to say or how they feel about a particular situation they’re in. In a very subtle way, doing this points out the two life lessons that the episode is out to teach.
For examples of this, we need not look farther than the commentary of the characters. Michael is not the typical detatched boss, but rather one who desperately tries to being close friends with his employees. We find out through one-on-one discussions that Michael has attempted to invite everyone over to his place for dinner at least nine other times. It is clear that this is something that really bothers his employees; through body language and vocal cues alone, the characters show just how uncomfortable they are with Michael’s advances.
Even in scenes later in the episode, like when Pam confesses that she just wants to eat so she can high-tail in out of there, we note the discomfort and aggitation. Michael’s way of trying to forge unwanted friendships through his horrendously long and drawn-out dinner party is, quite frankly, working against him. It is in these little revealing narrations where the concept of not forcing something that isn’t working becomes subtly evident.
The writers of the series have developed a wide range of unique characters over the course of the series; these flat and round characters work together in each episode to create situations that work to teach some sort of lesson, and this episode is no exception.
Two specific characters work within this episode to create situations that in turn teach the audience some valuable lessons—Michael, a round character with wild and unpredictable behavior, and Jan, a flat character who is relatively dry and predicable. Due to their conflicting personalities, they cause many awkward situations to relate back to the two life lessons previously mentioned.
One example of this is when Michael brings up the fact that he had three vasectomies to appease and meet the expectations set by his girlfriend Jan. This relates especially to the principle of not changing yourself to meet the expectations that you don’t feel comfortable with. Michael himself states that Jan doesn’t know the “emotional toll that three vasectomies has on a person” (Daniels, 2008), which presents the lesson to the audience.
Another example is when Michael and Jan give Pam and Jim a tour of their place. When they get to their bedroom, Michael shows them how he sleeps on the tiny bench at the end of the bed because Jan has “some space issues.” Even though Michael jokes about it, audience members can sense that he is actually very uncomfortable with the situation. Again, this relates back to the idea of not changing yourself (or in this case, what you do) to meet other people’s expectations.
Romantic character relationships isn’t the only place where viewers see these life lessons; acquaintance-ships also help get across these lessons. One acquaintance-ship notorious in the series exists between Michael and Dwight. Dwight is always trying to get in Michael’s good graces. Michael, on the other hand, isn’t always a huge fan of Dwight. When it comes to inviting people to his dinner party, he intentionally doesn’t invite Dwight, reasoning that it’s for “couples only” and that he doesn’t have enough wine glasses. Clearly, their acquaintance-ship is not entirely desirable on Michael’s end. However, Dwight forces their relationship to work by showing up to the party with a date and extra wine glasses. The end result of annoyance and discomfort felt by Michael proves that one shouldn’t force something that isn’t working out.
Another narrative feature that lends to fulfilling this episode’s objective is the type of narrative, which in this case is comedy. Serious television series can certainly impart life lessons in an effective way, but comedic television series seem to do so in a more natural and satisfying way. “The Office” is known for its comedy and hilarious one-liners, and the comedy within this episode helps to deliver the two life lessons mentioned before in memorable ways.
For example, later in the episode, Michael and Jan get into a fight that basically revolves around problems in their relationship (which relates to the lesson of not forcing something that clearly is working out); during this fight Michael yells out the famous phrase “that’s what she said” and Jan throws a trophy at Michael’s beloved plasma screen TV, two actions that are not only hilarious, but unforgettable (Daniels, 2008). Because these actions are unforgettable, the audience is able to remember the fight between the two characters, why the fight took place, and the lesson that it is trying to make evident.
Even early on in the episode, viewers can tell that tell that Michael and Jan’s relationship is strained through some funny snarky comments. When Pam admits that Jim couldn’t set up her TiVo, Jim tells her that if she ever needs help, he’s only a phone call away. To that, Jan gives Michael the stink eye, hilariously adding “I bet you are.” Obviously, Michael is in a relationship that is dominated by demands and expectations that are incredibly ridiculous to uphold. The whole situation reminds viewers, again, that if something is working (Michael and Jan’s complicated relationship, in this case), it is better to break it off instead of uncomfortably trying to force things to work.
Audiences can extract life lessons through seemingly minor comedic scenes, too. At the very end of the episode, viewers see Angela and Andy in Andy’s car after that train-wreck of a dinner party. First-time watchers, and religious watchers as well, already sense the tension between the couple. In attempts to lighten the mood, Andy tries to flirt with Angela by taking a bite of her ice cream cone. In response, Angela reaches out the window and crushes the ice cream into the side of Andy’s car. These actions reinforce the idea of not forcing something that clearly isn’t working.
Overall, “The Office” has been excellent when it comes to subtly (and maybe even not-so-subtly) slipping in these little life lessons. Take a look at any episode, and you’re sure to find wisdom being imparted in some way. The one-on-one conversations with each character throughout the each episode also contain pockets of wisdom and life lessons for the audience to absorb. It is interesting, still, that a bulk of these lessons can be learned through the actions of the characters, too. Just a simple “That’s What She Said” joke and the reactions that it sparks can be so telling in imparting life’s little lessons.
Let’s face it, whether you’re laughing or crying at this show, you’re learning something. Isn’t that fantastic?
Foss, S. K. (2009). Rhetorical criticism: Exploration and practice, 4th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
Daniels, G. (Writer), & Einhorn, R. (Director). (April 8, 2010). Dinner Party [The Office]. In G. Daniels (Producer). Los Angeles, California: NBC.
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