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«Kai Hanno Schwind Like Watching a Motorway Crash: Exploring the Embarrassment Humor of The Office Abstract: This article focuses on the construction ...»

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Humor 2015; 28(1): 49–70

Kai Hanno Schwind

Like Watching a Motorway Crash: Exploring

the Embarrassment Humor of The Office

Abstract: This article focuses on the construction of embarrassment humor in

the British sitcom The Office (BBC 2001–2003) and will identify various aspects

of this kind of humor at work by employing a multilayered analysis of the

format. The analysis will focus on the specific discourse of embarrassment

humor and its relation to performance and narrative will be examined through textual analysis and contextualization. Finally, I will propose an embarrassment trigger model, which will provide an overview of the various areas of social interaction and conduct that the format’s humourous discourse draws from. The study will evaluate in what ways The Office’s embarrassment humor challenges an audience’s viewing pleasure by negotiating issues of empathy and moral disengagement with the conventions of darker forms of mediated humor and comedy.

Keywords: embarrassment humor, The Office, empathy, disposition theory, hybrid sitcom DOI 10.1515/humor-2014-0145 1 Introduction Both the original British version of the situation comedy The Office (BBC, 2001–

2003) and its American counterpart (NBC 2005–2013) have been subjected to a variety of interdisciplinary academic research focusing on style and content, as well as the dynamics of its transnational adaptations.1 “A mixture of cruel satire and playful parody, The Office was a fine example of the mock-documentary disrupting normal and serious communication to ask its audience to question 1 This article is associated with a PhD project analyzing the British, American and German versions of The Office as a case study in transnational format adaptation (forthcoming).

Kai Hanno Schwind, Avdeling for samfunnsvitenskap, University College Lillehammer, Postboks 952, Lillehammer 2604, Norway; Institutt for medier og kommunikasjon, University of Oslo, Postboks 1093 Blindern, Oslo 0317, Norway, E-mail: kai.schwind@media.uio.no Unauthenticated Download Date | 5/23/16 7:34 AM 50 K. H. Schwind both the form and the content of television documentary formats” (Lipkin, Paget, Roscoe in Rhodes and Springer 2006: 25). However, the distinct humor of the format has not been examined much.

This article aims at closing this gap and sets out to contribute to the ongoing humor research in the realms of television comedy. I argue that the format’s distinct situational comedy of embarrassment and awkwardness has become one of the dominant humorous discourses in British and American (and to a certain extent also pan-European) sitcoms in the last decade. This article investigates the embarrassment humor(s) prevalent in The Office, focusing on a blend of detailed analysis of individual sequences, Ricky Gervais’ performance as regional manager David Brent as well as a theorization of the format’s central humorous discourse of embarrassment comedy. I will consult and discuss relevant sociological and psychological theory by, among others, Goffman (1967), Billig (2005), Ford and Ferguson (2004) and van Dijk et al (2012) to place the concept of embarrassment and its mediation through television comedy in a wider socio-cultural context. I will pay particular attention to the aspect of empathy and discuss if and how an audience is supposed to morally disengage in order to enjoy the distinct comedy of The Office by reflecting on disposition theory as discussed by Raney (2004). It is important to acknowledge that, despite the format’s focus on embarrassment humor, there are still moments that do not rely on this specific comedic discourse alone; however, notions such as punch-line and verbal humor or slapstick will not be explored by this paper.

2 Methodology and approach In order to investigate the construction of The Office’s embarrassment comedy, this study is based on a review of all twelve regular episodes of seasons one and two and the two Christmas special episodes, as well as the original scripts of the original British version (Gervais and Merchant 2002a, 2002b). In addition, I have surveyed a variety of interviews with the creators and producers of the series as part of the extra material of the ten years anniversary DVD edition of The Office (BBC 2011) and BFI TV Classics volume on The Office (Walters 2005). Since Ricky Gervais’ portrayal of David Brent plays such a central role in the construction of The Office’s comedy, a discussion of his performance will constitute the next step of this study, employing textual and performance analysis. Finally, I will propose an embarrassment trigger model, which categorizes the specific comic moments related to notions of embarrassment within the series and identifies Unauthenticated Download Date | 5/23/16 7:34 AM Like Watching a Motorway Crash the areas of social conduct the format’s narrative is drawing from. As will be specified in the introduction to the model, individual scenes and sequences of the entire series have been assessed, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and categorized in order to provide a detailed overview of how the series constructs embarrassment humor as sitcom comedy and where these sites of embarrassment can be located within the narrative.

The content and performance analysis as part of the methodological design of the proposed model are combined with theoretical triangulation, therewith employing a mixed methodology which seems particularly suited for this interdisciplinary approach in humor research. This rationale is influenced both by the multiple methodological operations inherent to media studies, as well as the pluralistic stance of certain areas of social research, such as in the reflections of Lockyer (2006). Here, she argues for the application of mixed methods, particularly in humor research, by identifying humor as a complicated social phenomenon, “characterized by interpretive diversity, ambiguity, boundary oscillation and dualistic functions, [and] the complexity of the humor process and questions asked about this process makes the use of complementary modes of data collection and analysis essential” (Lockyer 2006: 55). This study, then, combines the qualitative and quantitative textual analysis of sequences employing the notion of embarrassment humour with interdisciplinary theory on the dynamics of embarrassment, Schadenfreude, empathy and disposition theory in order to facilitate a more complex and precise description of The Office’s comedic trajectory.





It is important to note that this study is not based on empirical data of audience reception research about The Office (for this, see Bore 2009); rather, it adheres to the generic definition that describes the audience as a textual element of sitcom itself. In the words of Mills (2004), “[…] by discarding the laughter track, The Office abandons the audience’s function as metacommunication signaling comic intent and instead uses the audience as part of the diegetic comic meaning of the programme” (Mills 2004: 71f). Since the sensation of embarrassment is highly influenced by the personal outline of each individual exposed to this phenomenon, a broad variety of emotional reactions towards the embarrassment humor of The Office must be anticipated. Thus, this study defines audience in more general terms as the projection screen, essential for the format’s comedic trajectory to work. In this sense, it seems helpful to borrow the notion of the ‘implied spectator’ from the theory of performance analysis, where “[it] actually stands for the ‘role’ (in the sociological sense) that a performance-text imposes for its full meaning to emerge” (Rozik 2008: 162).

This, then, works as an important modification for the conception of audience for this study, in particular with regards to a format that, in parts, deliberately

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remains unclear as to its generic intent, and employs performances that expose different layers of meaning that can be experienced as equally ambiguous.

3 Defining embarrassment humour The sensations of embarrassment and related phenomena such as shame, mortification and humiliation have long been identified as “social emotions” (Morrison 1999), as indicators of how and where we position ourselves as human beings. Sartre asserts, “I am ashamed of what I am. Shame therefore realizes an intimate relation of myself to myself. Through shame I have discovered an aspect of my being” (1943: 221). The definition of embarrassment humor, however, is by design a problematic undertaking and its conceptualization has been discussed from a variety of analytical angles – from a historical perspective (Davies 2007, 2009) via sociology (Billig 2001, 2005) and psychology (Freud 1905; Ruch in Raskin 2008; Proyer et al. 2009) to media studies (Gray in Pickering and Lockyer: 2005, 2009). In his critical discussion of the established humor theories by Hobbes and Bergson, Davies suggests the careful examination of two social variables, shame and hierarchy (2009: 54). He provides a quasi definition of the term by asserting that these variables “can be seen in action at one and the same time in the curious British humor of embarrassment of the first half of the twentieth century, when the depiction of the fear of laughter in published humor became itself a subject for mirth” (ibid: 58). I suggest that this dynamic still serves as a valuable answer to the question why embarrassment can cause laughter, but that, through time, it has partly shifted its domains. Contemporary forms of embarrassment humor are not solely restricted to transgressions of social class but focus on faux pas and mishaps in interpersonal and psycho-social relations. Since the concepts of both embarrassment and humor are directly linked to a person’s individual moral make-up and sociocultural disposition, it is also difficult to determine what exactly could or should be identified as genuinely embarrassing in a variety of humorous discourses.

Furthermore, it is of vital importance to distinguish between real-life social acts and situations in which embarrassing incidents are witnessed or experienced and dealt with in humorous or laughter inducing ways on the one hand, and, on the other, intentionally fictionalized products of entertainment media where embarrassment is part of the comedic trajectory. The Office as a sitcom clearly must be studied as the latter.

Thus, for our purposes, it seems helpful to address the complex relationship of an imagined audience’s expectation towards an entertainment product and Unauthenticated Download Date | 5/23/16 7:34 AM Like Watching a Motorway Crash generic format such as a sitcom and the processes of moral judgment, which have to be reconciled with the suspension of believe necessary to enjoy such a format. The Office’s conception, production and scheduling clearly identifies it as a sitcom with the “comic impetus” (Mills 2005, 2009) inherent to that genre, thus adding its portrayals of social embarrassment to the comedic trajectory of this particular format. We are supposed to and expected to laugh at the scenes of humiliation, faux pas and social transgression displayed in the series despite feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable watching them. It is important to note, then, that embarrassment humor in this case works on two levels: first, as the embarrassment of the fictional characters and events as part of the series’ narrative and, second, as the actual embarrassment experienced by the audience watching the series, effecting each viewer’s moral judgment and personal feelings of empathy. How the distinct humor of embarrassment of The Office is constructed and in what ways these two levels interact, will be analyzed in the model and its discussion proposed in this article. First, though, I would like to briefly position The Office in the generic canon of sitcom.

4 The Office as hybrid sitcom The analysis of distinct types of humors in sitcom and their socio-cultural denotation has been the subject of a variety of academic studies (Marc 1997;

Wagg 1998; Medhurst 2007; Mills 2004, 2005, 2009; Walters 2005; Pickering and Lockyer 2005, 2009; Senzani 2010). As documented there and elsewhere, in recent years (the last decade in particular) the sitcom format has been abandoning an array of its traditional features, as well as embracing other genres – both in terms of aesthetics, production style and content. I would like to suggest that The Office can be considered a prime example of this iconoclastic development and, due to this vast “generic hybridity” (Mills 2009), denote it as a “hybrid sitcom”.



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