More than just an “American Workplace”

One of the many areas in which I am a hypocrite is in my love of the entirely fictional worlds of various movies and television shows. I find myself easily and completely absorbed into these worlds and caring about these characters on the screen far more than I should. The thing that makes it hypocritical is I think that’s completely ridiculous when people (including myself) become so engaged in something completely fake.

Possibly the best example of this is Boy Meets World, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. As much as I love Cory, Topanga, Eric and Shawn and wish Mr. Feeney had been my teacher, there is only one fictional world that I commandeered for my college capstone presentation. That’s right: the “crowning achievement” of my undergraduate career featured a 15-minute speech that was entirely based on the dull, boring world of the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company in Scranton, Pa.

I guess the major disclaimer should come right about now, although I really hope my capstone professor doesn’t read this part: I chose to use The Office – in its sixth season at the time – as the “metaphorical narrative” for my capstone presentation because I thought the whole thing was ridiculous and wanted to point out how crazy a “metaphorical narrative” was by relating my college experience to a mockumentary television show.

I went back through my old school work archives and found this gem from December 2008. It is my proposal for using The Office for my capstone presentation:

The metaphor I am using to describe my PLU experience is the television show The Office. While I don’t fit every aspect of any one character, I believe that the various experiences of different characters throughout the show’s existence can be used to represent the experiences I have had here at PLU. I used some examples in my keystone speech, such as taking risks and making mistakes like Ryan Howard working as a temp and setting a fire with his cheesy pita. The ever-entertaining Dwight K. Schrute offers countless examples of the need to critically and reflectively think before moving on with various aspects of your life. Michael Scott offers the perfect example of how not to lead. I believe that the varying experiences of the characters prove as a fascinating and enlightening metaphorical narrative that can (almost depressingly) easily fit my PLU journey.

That right there is some official, “college-level” Tyler Scott B.S. right there. When I had to cite references and supporting material that I would plan to use in the 17 months before my capstone speech, I wrote that I would use “various episodes of The Office... Depending on the progress of my capstone speech, I will add different quotes and storyline references.” I figured it would be shot down as ridiculous and I would be told to get serious about my education. But my professor loved the idea.

Flash forward almost 16 months to the final weeks of my time at Pacific Lutheran, the weeks leading up to my defining speech. (It should be noted my 40-page capstone research paper had nothing to do with The Office and I actually got an ‘A’ on an analysis of the future of student media at PLU, which I have since been told was put to use – who knows how much – by the communication department as it looked to make changes to the structure of the student newspaper, television and radio stations. It probably should not be noted that I wrote about 95 percent of that paper in a 30-hour stretch one weekend.) I was required to put together a speech outline, complete with quotes I would use from reputable sources, all cited below the outline. To “research” my speech I spent about a week rewatching the first four seasons of The Office and writing down any quotes I found entertaining and potentially useful.

Fans of the series will know that after doing that I had to pare down that list drastically, and I also included a couple of reviews of the show for good measure – I quoted one review that called the show “unique and audaciously clever” and said in the speech that I felt that quote could be referring to me. Really.

Now with that lengthy prologue out of the way, I watched the finale of The Office on Thursday and received one last reminder of how much I love the show and that fictional world, even if the past several seasons have fallen far short of the lofty heights of the first four. It also finally hit me that I actually used this world and these characters as a metaphor for my college experience in a pretty major speech. Two things about that in retrospect: I’ve been absorbed into that world far more than I even realized and my speech was actually fairly prescient about the way the series would end.

I opened my speech with one of my all-time favorite Jim quotes, from the third episode of the first season: “Right now, this is just a job. If I advance any higher in this company, then this would be my career. And, well, if this were my career? I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.” As written on my speech outline, I went on to tie that quote into my speech with the two sentences that included my thesis statement: “Jim eventually finds contentment in the office when he looks past the monotony of his job and realizes the relationships and experiences it has given him. My four-year experience at PLU has resembled The Office in that it has taught me that what matters most is not what you do, but the relationships and experiences you enjoy along the way.”

Even now I face the same issue I did when writing my speech outline – this show has so many amazing/hilarious/terrifying quotes that are pretty much perfect for so many situations. But in the very first episode of the series, the bumbling boss Michael Scott (whom I jokingly identified with my PLU boss Nick Dawson, who – probably thankfully – had never seen the show) offers some existential wisdom: “What is the most important thing for a company? Is it the cash flow? Is it the inventory? Nuh-uh. It’s the people.” He goes on to completely blow the moment in what would become classic Michael Scott fashion: “My proudest moment here was not when I increased profits by 17 percent or when I cut expenses without losing a single employee. No, no, no, no, no. It was a young Guatemalan guy. First job in the country, barely spoke English. He came to me and said, ‘Mr. Scott, would you be the godfather of my child?’ Wow. Wow. Didn’t work out – we had to let him go. He sucked.”

But by the time Thursday night came along, three of my favorite quotes came from Andy, Pam and that same Jim who contemplated suicide in the first season. Andy mentions that everywhere he goes he finds himself talking nonstop about how much he loved his experiences and the people where he used to be. He sums it up with a statement we’ve all probably thought: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

The final words of the series are left to Jim and his wife Pam, who over the years became the heart and soul of the show. After promotions led his horrible job to become a decade-long career, Jim does not end the series by throwing himself in front of a train (which would have been quite morbid, even as possibly the greatest series finale callback of all time) but instead saying, “Everything I have I owe to this job… this stupid, wonderful, boring, amazing job.”

Finally, Pam concludes the series recalling how she used to wonder why a documentary film crew (the whole premise and structure of the series is that a film crew is following a simple office workplace to make a documentary, which aired in The Office universe in the penultimate episode) would care about a small paper company in Pennsylvania. Her statement concludes with yet another realization: “I think an ordinary paper company like Dunder-Mifflin was a great subject for a documentary. There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”

Those are the final words of the series. And I think they were perfect. Nine seasons of The Office revealed to us just how significant a long stretch of seemingly banal events can be. Normal lives are experienced in repetitive daily fashion, with inconsistent interruptions by major incidents both good and bad.

Prior to my sophomore year at PLU I’d never seen an episode of The Office. Suddenly during a month-long January Term when my roommate left me to study abroad and a couple of my friends had a “living room” next door to my dorm room, I found myself devouring the first three season DVDs on their couch for hours each day. It was in those times that some of my deepest, most-meaningful friendships grew, as we laughed together at the hijinks of the Dunder-Mifflin crew and longed for Jim and Pam to finally get together. As it was during the 2008 Writers’ Strike, we had no new episodes of any shows to look forward to, but every episode of this show was new to me until I’d seen them all probably 10 times.

Somewhere between then and the following year when I decided to use The Office as my metaphorical narrative, I became a part of the Dunder-Mifflin universe. I don’t know how exactly, but it seemed as if I was in that Scranton building every day with the workers – probably not in the main bullpen, but maybe off in the annex somewhere or hiding out in the break room. I dressed up as Dwight for Halloween and carried around a Dwight bobblehead and a green recorder. As much as I wanted to be Jim, I was willing to admit that I was probably closer to Dwight or Michael.

When I delivered my speech I dressed as Jim and spoke casually and (hopefully) humorously about how alike PLU and Dunder-Mifflin actually were. Among an audience of about 30 people (most forced to be there), probably about half were familiar with the show and cracked up throughout as I related the ridiculousness of the show to my life. The other half sat there awkwardly wondering what I was talking about and why everyone else was laughing. Thankfully my professor knew the show – I got an ‘A’ and concluded the presentation with a paraphrase of Dwight’s Season Three speech to his co-workers when he temporarily resigns his post.

Dwight is heartbroken when he is forced to resign, admitting that “one of my life goals was to die right here in my desk chair. And today, that dream was shattered.” He steps on his desk and asks for everyone’s attention before delivering a defiant farewell that served as the perfect conclusion to my capstone speech:

Although I love this company more than almost anything in the world, I have decided to step down from my post and spend more time with my family. I do not fear the unknown. I will meet my new challenges head on and I will succeed. And I will laugh in the face of those who doubt me. It’s been a pleasure working with some of you, and I will not forget those of you soon. But remember, while today it is me, we all shall fall.

And now as I drag over 2,000 words – because if there’s one thing my communication classes never adequately taught me (my fault; not theirs), it’s how to write concisely – I find myself cherishing The Office more than ever following Thursday’s finale. Even as I’ve moved away and in many ways left those PLU experiences behind me, and even as the show struggled through the past few seasons and I just kind of watched out of a prior commitment, it is finally beginning to dawn on me the impact of such a ridiculous show.

The awkward humor, the pranks and the tense relationships all feel like they could almost be lifted straight out of my life. Awkward humor pretty much is my existence, and maybe I never would have realized that without this show. It gives hope that, like Jim, we can progress from merely surviving a boring job to having our dreams come true partially thanks to that job. Even Dwight (mild spoiler alert) had his dreams come true in the end.

But even if we don’t have tidy start and end dates to look back on, this show helps us appreciate the little things in life. The daily occurrences that we’d otherwise overlook and the depression we could easily fall into from the boring grind can’t get the best of us. Because as hypocritical as it might be for me, I’ve become a part of this fictional world and seen the good it can bring to my own.

After all, as exaggerated as this show was, it mirrored life. Life is full of ordinary things. And as Pam says, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”

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One response to “More than just an “American Workplace”

  1. Awesome! I was referenced in your blog! : ) Nice thoughts Tyler! Allison absolutely balled watching the finale with Carrie, Thomas, and I. It was a very well done series finale, and a great series.

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