It’s February 19, 1999, and plenty of moviegoers are missing Mike Judge’s workplace satire Office Space. Judge’s big-screen follow-up to Beavis And Butt-head Do America is based on his own experiences as a frustrated office worker and a partial adaptation of the animated shorts that were his first big break in showbiz: a series of cartoons about a mewling, stapler-coveting dweeb named Milton, played in the movie by an unrecognizable Stephen Root. But Milton’s merely a supporting character in this go-round, his appearances one of the many sketch-like elements of a script about software-company drone Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), who, after a disastrous hypnotherapy session, finds the solution to all of his work-related anxieties: He just stops caring about them. Unfortunately, audiences feel similarly apathetic about Office Space, and its $4.23 million opening weekend seemingly confirms the dismissal of one unnamed studio executive: “Nobody wants to see your little movie about ordinary people and their boring lives.”
It’s February 19, 2019, and to paraphrase Peter: I wouldn’t say anyone’s been missing Office Space in the past 20 years. The film’s gleefully profane rebuke of corporate culture found a cult following on home video; despite basic-cable bowdlerization, the adherents to the Tao of Peter only grew in number once the Office Space went into heavy rotation on Comedy Central. It was a word-of-mouth phenomenon that didn’t just appeal to the viewers who saw their own 9-to-5 existence replicated in the offices of Initech—as a high-schooler at the time, I saw the film become an oft-quoted phenomenon among kids who were years away from ever stepping into a cubicle. I even recall one of my teachers proudly unfurling her own rendition of Tom Smykowski’s million-dollar moonshot, the Jump To Conclusions mat. (You see, it was a mat that you put on the floor, and it had different conclusions, written on it, that you could jump to…)
At the tail end of a slacker culture that Judge’s crude animations helped define, after the dot-com bubble burst, Office Space touched a nerve. But while the exasperation of “PC LOAD LETTER” is forever, there’s much about the film that has a time-capsule quality today. It’s not just that Peter’s job at Initech—updating bank software to ward off the Y2k bug—now feels impossibly quaint. It’s that Office Space became its era’s definitive workplace comedy, making a specific, once overlooked class of white-collar workers feel like their lives were worthy of the silver screen, giving voice and shape to nuisances that they had once felt alone in noticing. It set an extremely high bar for follow-ups, which successive generations of workplace comedies have either had to take a tremendous, nuanced leap to get over, or simply obliterate by making up for some of the film’s more glaring oversights.
What set Office Space apart then and now is its elevation of the mundane. Few people work better in the medium of tedium than Mike Judge: the adolescent boredom of Beavis And Butt-Head, King Of The Hill’s square suburbia. Likewise, Office Space showed an uncommon knack for rooting out the humor and the story in the average office worker’s day-to-day, be it the surreal gantlet of memos and bosses Peter faces after making one mistake or the Sisyphean struggle of rush-hour traffic. This extends to the look of the film as well: During Bill Lumberg’s “Is this good for the company?” address, the camera pans across expertly arranged tableaux of ordinariness, the nameless Initech rank-and-file crowded together in their frumpy fashions, utilitarian eyewear, and uniformly blank expressions. Office Space is a visually busy picture with almost all of the color drained out of it—except when it comes to Chotchkie’s, the chain restaurant refuge where Peter meets Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), who’s similarly fed up with her job. There, the hues are oppressive, and pinned to the staff’s suspenders.
Judge, an animator-turned-live-action-filmmaker, finds spots to smuggle some visual invention into his purposely sterile environments. The pop of red provided by Milton’s Swingline stapler (an invention of the props department later spurred into mass production by the film’s popularity), or Peter and friends’ trudge through the drainage ditch that, as former A.V. Club film editor Scott Tobias once put it, “underlines how unnatural their occupations are.” Office Space allows itself cinematic indulgences like these, along with later sequences that tweak the blandness of the character’s lives by borrowing from mob and heist films. But many of its most memorable and resonant exchanges—the TPS-report hectoring, “sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays,” the fateful meetings with the consultants (a.k.a. “The Bobs”) helping Initech to shed a few pesky employees—take place in the type of one and two shots favored by TV productions. Their shallow focus, blurring the office backgrounds into smudgy fields of grays and fluorescents, look right at home on a smaller screen.
It’s a template for the film’s most obvious TV successor: Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original version of The Office. In that series, the beige plainness of the Slough Trading Estate both conveys a comedic tone and establishes a verisimilitude for the show’s mockumentary format. There’s a minimum of manicuring on display that’s instantly transportive, depressing as hell, and less of a factor in the show’s U.S. adaptation—which was, at one point, offered to Judge, but wound up under the supervision of his King Of The Hill co-creator, Greg Daniels. “They sent over the British version with a letter and some reviews,” he told Entertainment Weekly this year. “The first said, ‘The Office succeeds where movies like Office Space failed,’” which is almost exactly what Tom Shales wrote in The Washington Post when The Office came across the pond via BBC America in 2003:
“Mike Judge, creator of Beavis And Butt-head, made a darn good try at a seriously funny workplace comedy with his 1999 film Office Space, but Gervais and Merchant have even greater success. The Office is hilarious in a very hip and flippant way.”
More flippant than Peter telling Joanna, “I don’t like my job, and I don’t think I’m going to go anymore”? At the very least, there’s some Gibbons DNA in Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), and their many international equivalents, all stuck in jobs that don’t challenge them, yet bereft of the ambition to do anything about it. Branch manager David Brent (Gervais), meanwhile, serves as something of a mirror image to Peter’s second-act ascension, in which his post-hypnosis, no-bullshit meeting with the consultants gets him branded “a straight shooter with upper management written all over him.” Rather than being the cause of his reward, Brent’s lack of a filter has stranded him in the middle of the Wernham Hogg org chart, where he’s risen to the level of his incompetence. (What’s the term for that again?)
But The Office also has the luxury of fleshing out a full ensemble beyond its wearied entry points; in the American version especially, the constraints of satire were cast aside in order to dig into the sorts of surrogate family dynamic that defined the workplace comedies of the 1970s and ’80s, beginning with The Mary Tyler Moore Show and continuing through the longest-lived of the shows created by its alumni: The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, and Cheers. The U.S Office’s offspring follow a similar pattern, down to the successive shedding of white collars: From Parks And Recreation and The Mindy Project to Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore. Those first three shows bend even further away from The Office and Office Space to depict more conventionally televisual jobs—government, medicine, law enforcement—that the characters are likelier to view as callings.
There’s only so much fun to be had at the expense of corporate drudgery, and The Office took the desk-set humor of Office Space—and contemporaneous works like Dilbert, Clockwatchers, or Working—to its furthest logical conclusion. As the American series wore on, the stifling nature of Dunder Mifflin became less of a factor, and diversity seminars and office olympics were replaced with romance and kids and moving on to other occupations. When interoffice turmoil came to the forefront in later seasons, it was with higher stakes and diminished returns, the introduction of a new parent company or an eccentric CEO feeling less like fresh narrative fuel and more like a distraction from stories that had run their natural course.
It’s also worth noting certain realities about the working world that changed over the course of the series’ run. A whole host of capitalist sins precipitated the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, dot-com survivors consolidated while new tech giants emerged, and millennials entered a workforce whose prospects were rockier than they had been for their Gen-X siblings and baby boomer parents. Yet (and let’s just delve into gross generalizations here) they also expected to derive a greater degree of identity and fulfillment from their work. The cushy, often-imitated, and eventually-satirized-by-Judge amenities offered by Google, Facebook, and their competitors—laundry services, lecture series, kegs in the kitchen—alternately drove and preyed upon these expectations; I wonder if early and frequent exposure to the cubicle-bound miseries of Peter Gibbons had any of its own impact. I can’t imagine that the screening of Office Space offered at my college orientation helped any.
Somewhere in all of that, the everyman grousing about his suit-and-tie straitjacket lost some of its punch. Cube walls fell, open-plan offices came back into vogue, and the industrial parks with attached cookie-cutter restaurants that had inspired Judge started to look like symbols of a faded prosperity. Office Space remains a keen commentary on the things that can make work suck: The daily grind, the petty annoyances, the corporate greed that reduces employees to line items on a ledger. The best workplace comedies that have followed in its wake seem to recognize that Peter, Tim, and Jim et al. were dealing with caviar problems.
At first glance, you might think the same of Matt Engelbertson (Matt Ingebretson) and Jake Levinson (Jake Weisman), the leads of Comedy Central’s Corporate. They’re young, cis-het white dudes working draining office jobs—and they’re junior executives, to boot. Corporate’s stroke of genius is that its Initech, the innocuously named conglomerate Hampton DeVille, isn’t passively destructive. It’s actively malevolent, a profit-hungry monolith where the motto is “We don’t make anything—we make everything” and where HR professional Grace (Aparna Nancherla) once asks Jake, “Remember the joy you felt the moment you decided to stop living life to the fullest?” Like the series it visually mimics and occasionally takes the ever-loving piss out of, Mr. Robot, Corporate is dystopian fiction about our current dystopia-in-the-making.
And in that reality, the main characters aren’t trying to destroy the machine from the inside, à la the benevolent exec at the center of the thematically similar Better Off Ted—they’re feeding themselves into its gears. They’ve gradually received more shading, but Matt and Jake are initially presented as two sides of the same walked-all-over coin, distinguished by archetypal workplace-comedy perspectives. Matt’s a guileless go-getter; imagine Dwight Schrute minus the authoritarian streak, plus the feigned enthusiasm of Brian the Chotchkie’s server. Jake’s the above-it-all cynic, like Michael Bolton (not that Michael Bolton), or Ryan Howard after his catastrophic run in New York. They share a dimly lit, glorified closet of an office, and they’ve yet to earn a spot at the boardroom table, their regular seats instead pinned to the outer wall. One of Corporate’s primary gags is that these guys, despite their lofty titles, are as powerless as all the working stiffs who’ve come before them.
Corporate is a confident balancing act, with a tilt that favors Jake’s borderline nihilism while also leaving it open to mocking. Sometimes, Hampton DeVille’s actions are both outrageously insidious and troublingly plausible, like CEO Christian DeVille (Lance Reddick) opening a meeting with “an open call for pitches on new addictions.” Sometimes, its absurdist lens lends a humdrum occurrence tremendous stakes, like the tale of an excessive expense report that descends into a Lynchian nightmare of networking, margaritas, and Kyra Sedgwick in custom western wear. Other times, it just grounds its absurdist flights in relatable office bugbears like tone policing, email punctuation, and bring-your-dog-to-work days—each one a potential “case of the Mondays” for 2019. (For the love of god, unless it’s a service animal, please leave your dog at home.)
Of course, that’s still looking at the recent history of workplace comedy through an exclusively salaried lens; for the past three years, the most consistent TV work in this particular field has been done by NBC’s Superstore. Created by Office veteran Justin Spitzer, the show once felt stocked with big-box clones of the Dunder Mifflin cast. Its Jim figure, Jonah (Ben Feldman) is introduced as an overqualified business-school dropout who’s slumming it as a sales associate, but as the series has evolved, it’s developed a knack for calling him on his pretentiousness, using Jonah to illustrate that working in retail is beneath no one. Likewise, Spitzer and company have used the show’s setting—a fictional chain called Cloud 9—to put fresh spins on workplace will-they/won’t theys and holiday celebrations, while digging deeper into stories that feel uniquely suited to it: An ongoing thread about Mateo (Nico Santos) and his undocumented immigrant status, or the many sources of tension between management and hourly staff.
If Office Space were told from the perspective of the Chotchkie’s crew, it might look a little something like Superstore—but it’d probably be closer to Support The Girls. Andrew Bujalski’s comedy about a day in the life of a chintzy Hooters knockoff bears a number of similarities to Judge’s film: Both were shot in Austin, Texas; both open with scenes from the city’s tangled network of highways; both end with their protagonists—having ditched the job that was ruining their lives—experiencing a moment of catharsis outdoors. But while Peter gets out because he cares too little, Lisa (Regina Hall) comes to recognize that she cares too much about the cheekily named Double Whammies—and Double Whammies doesn’t reciprocate. The paycheck’s all right, and she’s formed a lasting bond with and a sense of responsibility for her employees, but that trust is easily exploited, the job has driven a wedge between Lisa and her husband, and the owner—who’s supposed to be on vacation—is a hot-headed idiot who at one point ropes her into a pathetic attempt at getting one over on a guy who cut him off on the freeway (while she’s still on the clock). At the end of her shift, she walks out the front door, and doesn’t look back until she discovers that her car battery is dead.
And that’s another Office Space parallel: The conclusion of Support The Girls feels both of its time and timeless. (If you really want to make a weekend of it, Bujalski’s film is the shot, and the first season of AMC’s Lodge 49 is the chaser.) Like organized labor’s return to the American workplace in recent years, Lisa’s journey and the barbaric yawp she sounds over the roofs of the world are a dawning recognition of all the ways the Initechs, Wernham Hoggs, Dunder Mifflins, Hampton DeVilles, and Double Whammieses try to squeeze us dry. Sometimes, you can laugh at all the petty annoyances. Sometimes, you can choose to stop caring. Sometimes, you don’t have to light a fire to burn the building down.