The Office, a comedy television series, is an adaptation of Ricky Gervais’s and Stephen Merchant’s comedy sitcom of the same name that aired in the United Kingdom. The Office follows the office lives of the employees at the Dunder Mifflin paper company, located in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and their boss, Michael Scott. At the Scranton branch office, the “cameraman” documents the daily lives of the employees and their boss, often capturing their silly antics on camera. All of the characters are fully aware of the camera’s presence and act with that notion in mind. The show is produced in the style of a “faux documentary” and therefore follows the conventions of a regular documentary which includes confessionals and on-site footage. The camera acts as a link to the audience so that when they watch, a closer connection forms between the characters on the show and the viewers watching. The show’s single-camera setup provides the viewer with a feeling that he or she is standing in the very office of Dunder Mifflin. The Office’s use of the camera supplies an interaction between the characters in the show and the viewers in order to enhance the comedic realm of the show in a way that other contemporary comedies do not.
In The Office, viewers are exposed to the facial reactions of the entire office.
Whenever a character is speaking, the camera focuses on the character and then zooms in closer to his or her face. In the episode “Sex Ed,” multiple characters are lecturing Michael
about his cold sore. The camera rapidly shifts back and forth between the characters that are speaking at that very moment. This camera movement mimics a normal conversation in the way that a listener would look at the speaker that is talking. It makes the viewer feel as if he or she is right there in the room, standing and listening to the conversation as it progresses. The close-up shots force the audience to pay full attention to the character that is speaking, which exposes to the viewer every little detail including facial expressions, tone of voice, and hand motions. As a result, when the camera zooms in on someone’s face and he or she reacts humorously to what was said, the audience chuckles not only because of the actual joke, but also because they, as characters in the same room, are fully focused on that one person, just as listeners would be in a real life situation.
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The confessionals that exist throughout each episode of The Office act as a one-on-one conversation, filling the viewer in on the joke. In the confessional, the character being interviewed explains to the viewer the reasoning for his or her actions. For example, in the episode “Costume Contest,” Angela gets angry at Kelly for “cheating” by wearing multiple costumes in the Halloween costume contest. The scene afterward turns into a confessional with just Angela. In the scene, she explains, “this is an amazing prize. I mean, I don’t even want to give Pam a compliment because she’s so bleh…but she did a good job. I really want that coupon book.” This private one-on-one session with Angela gives viewers insight into her mind. If we, as viewers, only defined Angela’s personality through her actions, we would only see her as up-tight, judgmental, and condescending. However, during the one-on-one, we see her competitive side, which adds to the comedy of the show because it actually reinforces her condescending personality and her notion of being better than others. Another example of the comedic effectiveness of confessionals also exists in the same episode and involves Angela as well. In this scene, she walks down the Halloween
runway in a skimpy nurse costume. In the following confessional, she defends “I don’t like your tone. Look, they were sold out of all the other costumes, okay? [pause] I think we all live in the real world here. Let’s not pretend to be unaware of what sells in this office.” In this one-on-one, we see a side that is completely opposite to her conservative and well-mannered side. Normally when a female co-worker would dress in a scandalous manner, she would judge and lecture her in an instant. This time, she actually tells us viewers directly not to judge her. She was only doing what it took to win. The confessionals are able to reveal a hidden side of Angela – something completely opposite and hypocritical of her. Because her thoughts and confessions either show a side that is different from her usual outside character or reinforce her character in an extreme way, the audience, as a result, usually generates a chuckle. Without these one-on-one confessions between the characters and the audience (using the camera as a medium), we would never really know about the characters’ true natures or reasonings and the comedy therefore would not be as enhanced as it is now.
The characters on The Office sometimes like to interact directly with the camera through speech or facial expressions, which provides viewers with a punchline for a joke. For example, in the episode “Sex Ed,” Dwight picks up a maintenance worker off the street and brings him to the office building in order to deal with a hornet’s nest. As everyone at work gathers around the window to watch the worker, Dwight provides commentary.
Dwight: I’ve left him all the tools he needs. This is do or die. If he chooses correctly, he’ll conquer the hornets…
Andy: And if he doesn’t?
Dwight: [turns to the camera] He’ll die.
Obviously, the maintenance worker will not die from something as trivial as a hornet’s nest,
but Dwight’s use of exaggeration creates a comedic atmosphere. He delivers the punchline
and directs it straight towards us. We, as the audience, feel like we are in that very room looking out the window at the maintenance worker while listening to Dwight’s commentary that is direct towards us. If he did not face the camera when giving the punchline, it would have just been another one of Dwight’s over-the-top comments. However, by speaking directly to us, he actually engages us into the joke, which enhances the comedic effect. In the same episode, Dwight once again uses the same technique of facing the camera in order to give the punchline. In this scene, Michael is on the phone with Holly to warn her about his herpes, but he is not able to do it.
Dwight: [turns to the camera] He forgot to mention the herpes.
Michael: It didn’t come up organically.
Like in the last example, we feel as if we are sitting in Michael’s office listening to the phone conversation as Dwight tells us the joke. Without the camera acting as a second character, his statement about forgetting to “mention the herpes” would almost seem like serious advice that Michael forgot to address. However, because the camera was there, it creates the illusion that both characters (Dwight and the camera) are making fun of Michael’s failure to address the issue. These interactions between the characters and the camera draws the audience in instead of letting them idly watch the show.
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Characters also use the camera to boost their own self-image, resulting in comedic decisions chosen by the characters. The fact that we as the audience know that they are attempting to show themselves in a better light makes us laugh because of the lengths they take to do so. In the episode “Christening,” Michael is inspired to be altruistic when he sees how friendly church goers are. On impulse, he and Andy decide to join a bus full of youth ministers who are going to help Mexican schoolchildren. On the bus, a female youth
minister praises Michael and Andy for the good that they are doing.
Girl: If the whole world were like you guys, we wouldn’t have so many problems.
Michael: Hmm…that’s not gonna happen [looks at camera].
Andy: We’re one in a million.
Girl: I know. Nobody I know would leave their jobs and friends and families to do manual labor for three months.
Michael: Well, you know, everybody thinks that I am crazy [looks at camera] and that tells me [looks at camera] that I am the sanest person I know.
In this dialogue, Michael looks at the camera a total of three times. It confirms Michael’s acknowledgment of the fact that the camera is recording his words and actions. We, as a result, laugh at his behavior because we know, through Michael’s constant glances towards the camera, that his words are not genuine. If the camera was not present, he would not be trying so hard to boost his own self-image. Because it exists, however, he ends up performing outrageous actions to show how good of a person he is.
The Office follows a unique format in terms of comedy shows. One of the main reasons for its unique qualities is the use of the camera as a character. In other contemporary comedy shows like Glee or How I Met Your Mother, the characters on the show do not acknowledge the existence of the camera. The writers of these shows have to create comedy with jokes based purely between characters. However, the writers of The Office have the option of bringing the audience into the joke as well. Another contemporary show, Modern Family, is a comedy that, like The Office, supplies an interaction between the camera and characters. Unlike the characters in pure comedies such as Glee and How I Met Your Mother who are clueless of the camera’s existence, the characters in Modern Family actually interact with the camera, just not at the same level that the characters in The Office do. In Modern Family, one-on-one confessionals is the most interaction the viewers will get from the characters. In Modern Family, we are forever voyeurs. We do not get the sense of actually standing in the actual setting of the
show. The Office, however, manipulates the usage of the camera in order to make us feel like we are a part of the television show. The usage of the camera is what makes the show extremely unique, and, as a result, it attracts viewers to the show and provides them with a
comedic experienced that can only be felt when watching The Office as opposed to other contemporary comedies.
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