The Office used straight characters to become this generation's most popular comedy
By Julien Rodger
Netflix notoriously hides its ratings but it’s no secret their most viewed shows are The Office and Friends and will have to pay a premium price to keep them going forward. While a hit in its time, The Office never had the ratings of a juggernaut like Friends or Cheers. But after a generation grew up with single cam shows instead of multi cam sitcoms in part thanks to it, it’s now this generation’s equivalent of those shows.
What’s the secret to its success? Certainly Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute are the highlight comedically but if lunacy was all that’s required to connect on such a high level then Arrested Development would be more popular. Jim and Pam as the TV will they or won’t they of this generation is just as critical. Everyone has had a crush at work and in an era where romcoms have declined in popularity they filled the void for romance to aspire to. The romantic storylines like Jim and Pam or Andy and Erin allow the audience to take a break from comedic ridiculousness and then laugh harder when they come back around.
The real secret of the show however is the supporting cast. In addition to scene stealers like Kevin or Creed, the show has confidence in straighter hard workers like Oscar, Stanley or Daryl to be at the center of storylines or be the perfect foil to show how ridiculous characters like Michael and Dwight are. While characters like Meredith or Toby are often used in comedic situations, the pain of their addiction or depression makes them feel more real and like someone you could easily come across in real life. Even in the case of Michael and Dwight, the former is clearly in pain from not being loved enough growing up and the latter being a homegrown farmer closer to the earth helps balance out feeling like he’s from another planet.
In this light the documentary format was essential. It made its world feel lived in and organic, and the show’s humor could not exist with a laugh track as it relies on awkward silences and reactions. Characters like Michael Scott act like they are in a sitcom while in the real world and everyone but them knows they’re embarrassing themselves. The straight characters can act as a conduit for the viewers of the show of what it would be like for a normal person to meet lunatics like Michael or Dwight much like the Frank Grimes episode of The Simpsons. There’s no doubt that the hilarious characters are also at the center of the show’s success, but Jim and Pam and the rest of the wide range of straighter characters is key to having people emotionally connect to it.