“Men are from the Dark Ages. They like a woman to be showing her cleavage and to be wearing 8 inch heels. But for me a woman looks best when she is absolutely naked.” — Michael Scott
The quote above is just one of the many strange, offensive things that Michael Scott, Regional Manager of the fictitious paper company Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch, said throughout his seven-season tenure as the lead character on The Office. These lines are not flukes or mistakes but integral to the character of Michael Scott and the humor of The Office. Without watching the show, it would be easy to assume, based on this information, that the show was destined for failure. How could a 21st-century sitcom comedically profit off such blatant sexism? And how can Michael Scott be so obviously unlikable at times, yet still be one of the most popular, iconic characters in modern TV history?
The Office gets away with creating a character as bold as Michael Scott because the writers carefully construct its comedy to mock Michael’s behavior instead of encouraging it. Michael’s offensive remarks are not jokes themselves, but are part of larger joke that incorporates the context of the remark into the comedic moment. Take the season 3 episode “Women’s Appreciation,” for example. At the beginning of the episode Michael reacts to saleswoman Phyllis getting flashed by bursting into a fit of laughter, wondering aloud why the flasher didn’t choose to expose himself to someone more attractive, and then putting his finger through his open fly, yelling “he’s back!” Michael’s ‘performance’ is met with a disapproving silence from the crowd of co-workers watching him, a feeling which is emphasized by the camera zooming in on each individual’s shocked, disgusted face.
The tone of the joke would have worked differently had the employees enjoyed Michael’s antics or if there had been a non-diegetic laugh track following his jokes. Both of these additions would have indicated that Michael’s humor is something to be celebrated but silence has the opposite effect. Unlike most shows without non-diegetic sound, The Office brings its lack of a laugh track to the forefront by emphasizing silence in key moments to feed its comedy. Silence, in this case, serves the same function as a laugh track, by punctuating comedic moments and producing a strong reaction from the audience. But while laugh tracks achieve their comedic effect by reinforcing a joke and coinciding with the tone of a show, silence creates contrast.
The lack of laughter at Michael’s jokes communicates to the audience the extent of Michael’s disconnect with the world around him. We know that as Michael’s desire to get a laugh intensifies, his increasingly ridiculous, offensive stunts will only be met with more deafening silence. The widening disparity between how Michael and his employees view his actions, illustrated through silence, is a formula for The Office’s iconic cringe-comedy. The audience cringes because, unlike Michael, they understand the world Michael’s jokes exist within, where blatant sexism and homophobia are socially unacceptable. Therefore, The Office saves itself from scandal because the writers use the abhorrent things Michael says to emphasize just how distant they are from the values of normal society.
As viewers, we can enjoy Michael’s ignorant comments because we perceive his character as relatively harmless. While Michael may treat his employees inappropriately, we never worry that he will cross any irredeemable line, such as rape or identity-based violence. Part of this assumption is due to the ways the show consistently undercuts Michael’s authority by diminishing his masculinity. For instance, later in “Women’s Appreciation,” Michael takes the ladies of Dunder Mifflin to the mall so they can “feel more comfortable.” However, during his trip, the restrictive, stereotypical lens Michael views these women through is turned back onto himself. At lunch, it’s Michael who seeks advice and emotional support after he breaks down over his relationship issues with his girlfriend and former boss, Jan. He admits that Jan has a “schoolgirl fantasy,” which he dislikes because he “feels uncomfortable wearing the dress.” By the end of the trip he exclaims in delight, “Wow, I cannot believe this yogurt has no calories!” The twist is that Michael is one of the most stereotypically feminine people on the women’s mall trip.
The comment about Jan’s gender-reversed schoolgirl fantasy not only feminizes Michael but indicates the total lack of power he has over his life. This suggests that, ironically, Michael, himself, cannot embody the hetero-masculine figure that his humor valorizes, a deficiency which extends to the workplace. Because Michael is head of Dunder Mifflin Scranton in title alone, the audience understands him as more pathetic than predatory. He is too soft, too vulnerable to ever cross any critical, personal boundary. The show’s intentional construction of Michael Scott in this pathetic light re-enforces its larger stance on Michael’s behavior. Lumping Michael’s sexist and homophobic microaggressions with such undesirable traits conveys the message that Michael Scott is not someone to emulate. Therefore, the show can make comedic use of Michael’s offensive jokes without condoning that kind of behavior.
Michael’s incessant need to please other people also helps make his offensiveness tolerable. The Office’s pilot episode includes a shot where Michael holds up a mug saying World’s Best Boss. “That pretty much sums it up,” he says in reference to the mug. This shot of Michael and the mug is one of the first images that comes up when you google The Office, and fans have designed their own versions of these mugs to sell online. I would argue that this image is so iconic because it perfectly captures Michael’s main goal throughout the series: to be loved. The tragedy is that Michael is so ignorant of social norms that the methods he employs to gain others’ approval will always be inherently flawed. The writers comedically capitalize on this desire to be loved in moments like the one where Michael attempts to be a feminist ally and push back against salesman Dwight’s overly harsh dress code. “I celebrate these women” he says. “They deserve the right to dress how they want. If Pam wants to show more cleavage, she should be able to.” Understanding Michael’s desire to be loved helps the viewer separate the implications of his words from his intentions. When Michael confronts Dwight about his overly conservative dress code memo, we know that Michael only wants to impress his employees by acting as the heroic, progressive boss who will take a stand against discrimination. His unfortunate choice of words is merely a function of his stupidity and lack of social awareness. Therefore, we can ultimately forgive Michael for his flubs because we understand that he doesn’t consciously intend to demean anyone.
Ironically these two qualities that allow Michael to be so offensive are also the ones that endear him to the audience. For instance, when Michael describes the pain that Jan’s emotional abuse causes him, both the viewer and the other characters in the show feel sympathy for his situation. Michael’s outrageous statements land in a space of moral ambiguity, but Jan’s actions clearly result from her malevolent intent. Within their relationship it is clear who is good and who is bad, who is the abuser and who is the abused. Placing Michael in this victimized position plays to the audience’s basic sense of morality. No one, not even Michael Scott, deserves to be abused, and thus we have a reason to root for him. Seeing Michael in such a tortuous relationship makes the viewer want better for him, a desire which is ultimately honored later in the show when Michael falls for the cute but goofy HR rep, Holly, who is unlike Jan in every respect. Michael’s pain shows that while he may find it difficult to end his relationship with Jan, he understands her abuse is wrong. This understanding, as well as Michael’s misguided attempts to come across as progressive, gives the viewer a sense that Michael’s basic morals are aligned correctly. At the end of the day, he knows the difference between good and bad. He tries to be a good person, to lead a happy and fulfilled life. The issue is just that he is generally clueless about how to approach both those goals. To say that Michael is likable would perhaps be too strong. No one wants to hang out with Michael or have him be their boss. Instead, viewers pity Michael, feel his pain, and root for him to succeed, which, at the end of the day, is all an audience really needs.
by Sophie Hayssen
Sophie is a college student studying English and American Studies. She likes to creative writing as a form of self-expression and procrastination. Her other interests include music, playing guitar badly, and enjoying the great outdoors from the even greater indoors. You can follow her at @filossofee and find links to more of her work here.