Back in the 80’s, one of the movies my family watched over and over on HBO was 9 to 5. Sure, the movie was something of a feminist call to arms, but there was a deeper resonance within the movie. After all, if it was fun, it wouldn’t be called work. It’d be called “party.”
I wondered how long it would be before someone else came up with their take on office hell. There were a few movies in the 1980’s, but nothing that really grabbed people. Then came the tech boom.
And Inatech. And Scott Adams. And David Brent, who begat the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company.
Maybe 9 t0 5 packed enough of a wallop to corporate America to leave it reeling long enough to take a right cross from Oliver Stone’s less-than-comedic Wall Street.
I myself toyed with a doing a comic in the late nineties called Techies, based on my three months on a doomed startup’s help desk. I later dusted off the idea and retitled it Tales From the Cube Farm, after the blog by podcaster Mat Weller of the same name, which I contributed a few posts.
But it never materialized, so I’ll have to content myself with the Canon of Corporate Hell that began in 1980 with…
9 to 5
The original corporate hell comedy. Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton play three women who work for a Cleveland-based consumer products company. Their boss, Franklin Hart (“He’ll always be ‘F. Hart’ to me,” says Tomlin’s Violet Newsted.), is the epitomy of a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss.
Hart (Dabney Coleman) is abusive towards Judy (Fonda), his new receptionist, steals credit from office manager Violet, and has the office convinced that he’s been banging busty Doralee (Parton). Eventually, they snap when an accident prompts them to kidnap Hart and institute regime change. Mrs. Hart is out of town for a few weeks, so they truss the boss up like a pig, keep him on ice for a month, and implement some long-overdue changes such as equal pay, day car, and flex time. Hart escapes and forces the ladies back to the office at gunpoint, only to find the CEO (Sterling Hayden, though it’s clear from his performance they wanted John Huston) waiting for him. Hart believes he’s fired, but instead he is promoted for his innovative thinking and sent to South America.
A classmate spent part of her junior and senior year in Brazil when this one came out, and she took a lot of flack for the implication at the end of the movie that Mr. Hart was eaten by cannibals in the Amazon basin.
Yeah, I’m going to need you to go ahead and come in on Saturday, and while you’re at it, come in on Sunday, too.
The tech boom reawakened America’s loathing of corporate culture in this Mike Judge film. Three guys working for Inatech find themselves facing layoffs after putting up with its soul-sucking corporate culture. Peter Gibbons is a basket case when the movie begins and sees a shrink to help get a handle on his depression. The therapist hypnotizes him, but dies during the session, leaving Peter more relaxed than he’s ever been. He blows off a weekend at work, comes in shabbily dressed on Monday, and announces that he did nothing all weekend. “And it was everything I hoped it would be.” Peter even blows off his evil boss, Lumberg, a reptilian corporate drone prone to wearing suspenders with his belt, and has his meeting with corporate hatchet men, “The Bobs.” Impressed with his don’t-give-a-damn attitude, they promote him, but fire his two best friends, Michael Bolton (“Why should I change my name? He’s the one who sucks!”) and Samir Nagheenanajar. So Peter decides Inatech needs to go down. They hatch a plan to steal money from the company fractions of a penny at a time. When it backfires, Peter tries to make amends to keep his friends out of jail. Only he is saved by Milton, the one person in the office who is more put-upon and abused than he is. Milton gets his revenge. Oh, yes, he gets his revenge.
This cult favorite has provided cultural touchstones. TPS reports. The red Swingline stapler. (My brother and Laura Lippman have both been involved in pranks involving painting a Swingline stapler to look like Milton’s. In Ziggins’ case, he put it on the desk of a guy who could have played Milton. His Milton was not amused.) “Did you get the memo? I’ll get you a copy of the memo.” “We’re using a cover sheet now.”
My favorite scene, and that of many people, is the gangsta hit on the office fax machine. They take the machine out to a field with a couple of baseball bats and smash the bejesus out of it while rappers shout “Die, muthaf—–, die!” The scene was famously recreated by Brian and Stewie in a Family Guy episode.
Scott Adams’ comic strip emerged around the same time as Office Space and has brought about its own cultural touchstones for corporate America. Dilbert, a long-suffering engineer at a generic company that probably leverages synergies or some other bullshit oversized conglomerates say is their reason for existing. His dog is a white kitten away from giving James Bond a hard time. His best friend is Wally, a man who has raised slacking to an almost Zen-like art. He has a host of mentally damaged coworkers, including Alice, quite possibly the most dangerous engineer to walk the earth. Alice’s fist of death is responsible for the company’s high death toll. The center of this corporate armpit is their pointy-haired boss, a slow-witted man who believes his biggest strength is leadership. His biggest challenge, aside from understanding any technology more complicated than a toaster, is defining leadership.
If Scott Adams has left any marks on corporate culture, it’s “the Dilbert moment,” that point in any job where the day-to-day functioning of the office suddenly spirals into the absurd. I myself had many of them working at BigHugeCo. We even made them topics of Toastmasters speeches. (Ours was a corporate club, so that tells you BigHugeCo knew when not to take itself seriously.) The other is the Pointy-Haired Boss. I once told a former boss I had no interest in going into management as my hair would get too pointy. I’ve run across a few PHB’s over the years. As I worked in IT, I, my coworkers, and my boss could just smile and shake our heads when we had to bail these guys out.
First, there was the boorishly ignorant David Brent and his creepy assistant Gareth Keenan fighting the good fight for the Wernham-Hogg Paper Company (“Where life is stationery”). Then along came the childish savant Michael Scott and his authoritarian assistant Dwight Schrute, who, despite their incompetence, keep Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton, PA office humming along.
The Office is a natural candidate to translate from British to American television and beyond. There are versions of The Office in Quebec, France, Sweden, Chile, Israel, Germany, and versions planned for Russia, India, and China. Why?
While the David Brent character varies from series to series (and occasionally, as in the US version, shows up in original form), there is something universal about a lovable idiot in charge, the conniving second who craves authority when he doesn’t deserve it, or the cast of neurotic characters who have to prop up the boss, or put him in his place.
While the other versions have their own added characters, I’m most familiar with the American version. The brilliance of The Office is that each version is allowed to evolve with minimal use of scripts from the earlier versions. (Besides, with a few exceptions, scripts don’t cross the Atlantic or the Channel very well without a complete rewrite.) One of the most brilliant strokes for the US version was having sixties rock musician Creed Bratton play a creepy version of himself. The real Bratton, a former member of the band Grass Roots, is a ex-hippie with a dry, if warped, sense of humor. The fictional Bratton is exactly the same, only sleazier. But what made the show work for most of its run was Steve Carrell’s man-child portrayal of Michael Scott, the regional manager. Scott started out every bit as dark and menacing as David Brent, but evolved into this idiot savant that, in spite of his boorishness and neediness, his staff needs to protect and humor. After all, he somehow has managed to keep the office profitable and fully staffed even when the company has downsized. Besides, when you can survive an affair with the emotionally unstable Jan Levinson, you’re probably smarter than even you think you are.
Every office has a Stanley. Every office has a Jim. And every office has a Dwight Schrute.
Creator Ricky Gervais (who played David Brent in both the UK and US versions) knows this. And that’s why he’s salivating over bring The Office to China and India, two countries ripe for punching some holes in their corporate culture.
And if you want to bring it full circle, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton have said they would, with the right script, do a sequel to 9 to 5. Unfortunately, it would mean that F. Hart survived his encounter with the cannibals.