I’ll be the first to say it: I think The Office is an excellent show. No, I don’t think it should be included in the Tinder bio for every man between the ages of 19-28 but it’s a solid show with some legitimately funny moments.
The show’s magic can be captured in the season one episode, “Diversity Day”. Profoundly ignorant boss, Michael Scott forces his employees to play a “barrier breaking” game of racial charades where co-workers must treat each other like the race written on their forehead. The episode is deeply uncomfortable––probably because it resembles a hyperbolic version of a real workplace scenario. After a particularly racist remark, Michael is finally forced to pay for his behavior when Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the episode) delivers a quick slap to the face.
This episode is so impactful because (along with its humor), it delivers a catharsis that we usually don’t get in the workplace. Realistically, most people won’t slap their bosses for a racist joke. If they do, they are punished. The payoff of Kelly’s slap can be felt through the screen. It’s a necessary reckoning for a racist authority figure.
However, as the show goes on, Michael Scott devolves into a satire of a bumbling superior with a race problem into a lovable goofball. Though the show remains funny, the commentary is sort of lost by the end. By the time he leaves (I’m not going to even apologize for spoilers, if you haven’t seen it by this point, you’re doing it on purpose), Michael is regarded as a loyal boss who would lay down his life for his employees.
While I can defend pushing the envelope in the name of satire, this feels like a sloppy missed opportunity. Sure, in individual episodes Michael might have to answer for his behavior, but overall he is never forced to learn. Instead, the audience is pushed to accept Michael’s “flaws” and love him anyway. What started out as a punchy commentary on casual racism in the workforce became almost an excuse for biggority as long as it’s funny.
And it isn’t unique to The Office.
In fact, almost every sitcom has a Michael Scott. In Community (a recent favorite of mine), Pierce, a member of the central study group, is an old man who struggles to keep up with the times. He makes inappropriate comments to the women and constantly makes racist remarks. Although the other characters call him out on his behavior, he remains a loved and valued member of the group until his exit.
We could, of course, argue that Pierce is used to make fun of people like this––we’re laughing at him, not with him. However, this reasoning completely dismisses actor Chevy Chase’s off-screen behavior that essentially derailed the show in later seasons.
Chase is notoriously hard to work with and that didn’t change as he stepped foot on the Community set. Costar Donald Glover revealed that Chase would often go off on racist tirades, sometimes even including the n-slur. While Pierce was portrayed as a harmless bigot, off-screen Chase’s behavior got so bad that creator Dan Hormon felt the need to apologize to Glover. Eventually, both Chase and Glover agreed to leave the show and it continued without both of them.
There’s a direct link between the normalization and even acceptance of Pierce’s racist behavior and Chase’s conduct on the set. Though, of course, this is ultimately Chevy Chase’s fault, writing Pierce as a sympathetic (or even just harmless) character made racism seem like a valid form of comedy.
Though this phenomenon can probably be traced to the dawn of television, the most linear connection comes from All In the Family. Archie Bunker is a working class father who has been disenfranchised from modern society. He refuses political correctness and pontificates on the shortcomings of liberals. The show was intended to be commentary on the everyday racism of white America but there was just one problem. They didn’t get the joke.
Instead, Archie Bunker became a hero of sorts to conservatives who whole-heartedly agreed with him. They unironically bought “Archie for President” shirts and quoted them with little understanding of the satire. Archie Bunker was even given his own spinoff show––he was the funny guy, people rooted for him despite his bigotry.
Despite their good intentions, All In the Family highlights a few major problems in the television industry. First of all, Bunker and his family were one of the very first portrayals of working class people in sitcoms. Unfortunately, this revolutionary portrayal was rooted in making fun of their ignorance. It was slightly irresponsible to make a comedy poking fun at the working class for their prejudice from an industry that is rooted and entrenched in whiteness.
When the show was co-opted by people who related to Archie, it set a standard of normalizing and even praising racism as a comedic device. From then on, characters who started out as social and political commentary began to slide into sympathetic characters to root for. Yes, all people have nuance, but what exactly is the message other than “good people can be racist”?
This problem, like so many others, can be traced back to one thing: capitalism. As long as television is driven by money and money alone, writers will continue to “develop” racist characters into lovable and docile figures. Rather than sending a message, most networks and streaming services would rather pump out eleven lukewarm seasons of a show that half-heartedly slaps racists on the wrists.
It’s not exactly helpful that American audiences love resolution. Let’s face it: it would be hard to watch shows like The Office if Michael remained a completely insufferable tyrant. But there is an easy solution: de-center these characters.
We don’t need yet another racist white man at the center of our 22 minute comedies. Acknowledge that whiteness doesn’t hold the key to comedy and writers and actors of all races can deliver funny one-liners without using racism as a personality trait. At this point, we’ve established that white men will be racist, so they don’t have to be at the center of everything. As we move into an era of great comedy writing that does exactly that, it’s important to reflect on the error of our ways. We can love The Office and recognize that Michael Scott should’ve been fired in episode one.