How The Office is Changing the Face of the American Sitcom (And Nobody’s Watching)

Think back ten, maybe fifteen years. If you remember prime time television from back then, you likely remember one thing: the best shows on TV were sitcoms– little half-hour vacations from real life into the funny world of wacky but likeable characters. In the late 80’s and into the 90’s, the sitcom was king. From 1986 all the way through the 90’s and early 2000’s, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Cheers, Home Improvement, Seinfeld, and Friends all held the title of “most watched show on television” for at least one year, and each one of them, in their own way, captured the attention of America and will remain a part of its cultural landscape for years to come.

But the American sitcom is dying. Since Seinfeld left the airwaves, the only comedy show to hold the number one spot was Friends, and that was only for one year. The top-rated shows from 1999 on to the present include ER, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Survivor, CSI, and American Idol. In fact, it was right around the start of the new decade that the sitcom began losing ground against reality TV, with Survivor leading the charge, opening the door for American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and Why Exactly Does He Have a TV Show? Featuring Flava Flav.

But there’s one show on TV now that I believe is leading the charge towards a new brand of comedy show, a show that breaks the older mold of what a sitcom should be, and does it in a way that appeals to the new cultural mindset while still remaining completely hysterical.

The Office is the only reason I turn on my television. It’s the only thing I watch other than sports (careful readers will note I also have admitted to dabbling in American Idol, but I watch that on YouTube. And I also watch 30 Rock, but that comes on right after The Office, so there’s no need to turn the TV on again, now is there?) The Office is smart, witty, and touching, and its premise is far more realistic than any other show on TV. But The Office is doomed to fail unless more people climb on board, and there’s a simple reason why:

Nobody watches The Office. At least, according to the standards with which networks judge a program’s worth, nobody watches. The Office is currently the 56th most watched program on television (shocking, considering how much a part of the cultural lexicon it is). When the show first aired, it was #102. Friends, during its entire 10 year run, never dipped lower than 5th, and Seinfeld, in its last five years, never dipped lower than 3rd. The thing is, it’s not just The Office that’s struggling, it’s the sitcom in general. Two and a Half Men, which CBS regularly advertises as the “number one comedy on television” is 19th overall, meaning there’s nearly twenty other shows that Americans would watch rather than a sitcom (and a poor excuse for a sitcom, at that).

So since the sitcom is dying, naturally those in charge of creating sitcoms are trying hard to reinvent their genre and breathe new life into it, and in many ways they are doing a solid job of it, despite the lack of viewership. Sitcoms used to follow a very standard pattern: they were filmed in front of a live audience, they featured live or canned laughter, and they were typically about a small cast of main characters that in many cases lived well above what their means would be in actual life. Also, each episode featured one main storyline and occasionally another minor storyline, both of which were always resolved nicely by the end of the episode. Now however, many shows have been revamping those old guidelines, shows like Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Scrubs, and you guessed it, The Office.

Now sitcoms typically feature a main character surrounded by a wide and diverse cast of funny minor characters and regularly recurring guests. These shows are increasingly self-referential, meaning that not only are regular viewers are rewarded for their loyalty to the show, but that repeat viewings often provide more laughter. Storylines are more and more complex, and can last over the course of many episodes, or even over the course of multiple seasons. And there’s no laugh track. This is important, because without laugh tracks, shows can be funnier, because they don’t have to spend so much time waiting for people in the studio audience to stop laughing. This is growing increasingly popular–watch an evening of NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday, (My Name is Earl, Scrubs, The Office, and 30 Rock) once considered the “gold standard” of comedy television, and the only laughter you’ll hear is what you produce yourself.

So why is it that The Office is leading the charge among all the other “new sitcoms” out there? Because The Office does one thing better than any of those other shows out there, something that most of those 90’s sitcoms almost never did. The Office utilizes pathos, making you sympathize with its characters, and relate to them on a level unlike any other show. Old sitcoms never had this pathos. Think about Seinfeld: what made the show genius was its complete lack of pathos–if anything, you felt sorry for the people that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer encountered, but you never felt sorry for the four characters themselves (a fact that served as the basis for the show’s series finale). In last night’s masterstroke of a season finale of The Office, there wasn’t a character in the whole episode that you weren’t meant to feel some level of sympathy for at some point, surprising considering the focus of the show is to make you laugh. But the show wants you to relate to the characters like they are real people, which is only emphasized by its mockumentary format.

So in essence what The Office has done is taken the old sitcom and made it as close to reality television (what’s popular today) as it could while still remaining outlandish, hysterical, and most important–smart. But in many ways it’s that intelligence that may doom the show. Americans have increasingly shown that when they watch television, they don’t want to think. That’s why American Idol needs its ‘professional’ judges to tell people how to vote, and that’s why dumbed down shows that tell you when to laugh like Two and a Half Men succeed while The Office flounders. And if you know anything about me, you know I’m staunchly against the dumbing down of American culture, so it’s not surprising that I’m in the corner of The Office on this one. That’s not to say that I think The Office is going to make geniuses out of us all, but at least it can give you something more to think about while you’re watching television.

So yes, the sitcom is currently in a bad way, but The Office has the ability to revitalize the genre and insert a bit of intelligence into TV watching. The only question is: does America want it to?


7 Responses to “How The Office is Changing the Face of the American Sitcom (And Nobody’s Watching)”

  1. 1 Sponge
    October 3, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    The Office is not a sitcom. There’s no laughtrack or any of that cheesey crap. It’s a mockumentary. Everyone is watching.

  2. October 3, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    Sponge, first of all, while I always appreciate comments or input, I’m curious of the motivation behind leaving a comment like yours, that is so clearly meant to instigate. Secondly, The Office is, in fact, a sitcom. The fact that it doesn’t have a laugh track or that it isn’t “cheesy” doesn’t preclude it from the category. That’s the whole point I was making. The sitcom as a genre is changing and The Office is leading the charge. Lastly, I agree that The Office is growing in popularity, but it’s also shifting the field in that respect as well. People don’t primarily watch The Office on television, thus the lower ratings, but it has huge numbers as far as online viewings, and thus is changing how Americans view television. The whole point was that The Office is changing the traditional idea of what a sitcom is and how it is received.

  3. 3 Mel
    January 24, 2009 at 12:17 am


    I agree with most of your article, but disagree with some. It’s great to hear that someone thinks about this kind of stuff as much as I do. To begin, yes, the Office is definitely a sitcom. Sponge, I know it’s weird to think that it can be listed in the same genre category as such a typical, cheesy show like Two and a Half Men, but it’s definitely true. It’s just much better quality.

    The first point I agree with you on is that The Office is an amazing show. I’ve been watching every new episode since I first discovered it years ago. It is by far my favorite modern show. The main point, however, that I want to thank you for pointing out to people is the dumbing down of American television. It’s happening more and more and I can’t stand it. The examples you used in your article were dead-on: American Idol, and especially Two and a Half Men. It’s nothing but cheap shots and sexual innuendo to attract today’s teenagers (add “How I Met Your Mother” into that last category as well). Unfortunately, it’s not just the writing or the characters or the show’s premise that is being dumbed down, even the cinematography is joining in. (As a student videographer, I take particular notice of this.) I’ve noticed, mainly in dramas, that they are using shots to explain situations now. They take a subtle, but still understandable situation and add an extra shot (usually an extreme close-up) to make it obvious. I hate that, because, come on, give us some credit! It’s frustrating; you’ve understood the situation, are ready to move on, but they insist on keeping the scene going to make sure the slow people get it. I’ve even noticed the Office dumbing itself down a bit recently, unfortunately. A couple superfluous talking heads that explain something that shouldn’t need explaining.

    It is a shame that nobody’s watching The Office. People just won’t give it a chance. They expect only jokes they don’t have to think about. Verbal jokes only, that are clever, surprising, and that they could never come up with themselves. But that’s not what The Office is about (I know it seems like I’m insulting The Office here, but bear with me). While, of course, The Office does have these types of jokes, any fan of the show knows that it is 70% subtlety and character humour. That is what makes The Office so great. I believe that is how the show is changing the traditional style of sitcoms.

    One part of your article I disagree with, Andy, is the part where you discus the relatability of characters. Be careful here– pathos and relatability are different. It’s one thing to feel sorry for the characters, but its a completely different thing to relate to them. The Office does induce sympathy for its characters, but really, what show doesn’t? I can’t think of a show where I didn’t want the main character to win or achieve his goal, and didn’t feel sorry for him if he can’t manage it. In terms of relatability, on the other hand, The Office is much more lacking.

    When it comes to character relatability, there are two factors: situation and personality. The characters in The Office have the situation part down pat, everyone has had a boss that is a little nuts. But the personality part? No way. There is no one who can relate to Dwight’s personality, or even Michaels. The most relatable (/sane) character is Jim, but he’s not enough.

    As well, I wish you’d switch your opinion on Seinfeld. I think Seinfeld is the most relatable show in the history of television, and that’s why it lasted so long. (I mean, what else could it be? It’s a show about nothing! Haha.) Okay, obviously no one can be getting into the crazy situations that Jerry, Ellaine, George, and Kramer do, but they are just four friends who are trying to live their life day-to-day, just as we do. They satisfy the situation aspect of relatability. Personality-wise, I think everyone can relate. The example that pops into my mind is when Jerry and Ellaine are discussing how Tim Watley said the line, “Why would Jerry bring anything?” Jerry asks Ellaine if he put the accent on the word “Jerry” or “bring”. And we understand, as an audience, as humans, the scene that is going on: one way means Jerry is invited to the party and the other way he isn’t. Little things like that are why Seinfeld was so relatable.

    I’m not sure if that makes sense, it’s difficult to explain but I tried my best. Basically, I believe that Seinfeld is relatable, and The Office isn’t as much. I think what makes The Office stand out against other sitcoms is its subtlety. It’s a completely different brand of humour than the traditional sitcom.

    Penny for your thoughts, Andy =)

    Mel B.

    Sidenote: Andy, I would love to hear your opinion of the show “Fringe”. You want to talk about dumbing down America? Check this show out– it’s HILARIOUS. Even the actors can’t believe what they’re saying. I don’t know how J.J. Abrams gets away with it!

  4. January 24, 2009 at 7:32 am


    First of all, after re-reading my article, I’ve got to say a lot of it is moot now, considering the Office has grown tremendously in the ratings even since just last season (a year ago it ranked 77th, this season it’s up to 35th). Also, in the minds of TV executives, the Office might as well be the highest rated show on television, because it leads the way in delayed viewing (meaning it regularly increases its viewership percentage more than any other show on TV due to delayed DVR viewings) and recently became the number one comedy among 18-49 year olds (even better among 18-30 year olds) and the number one comedy in households where income is above $100,000 annually. All of that matters moreso to TV bigwigs than simply the number of overall viewers. So with that in mind, a lot of what I said in the second half of the post is completely moot, considering a show like The Office now HAS been embraced by the American people, and has been embraced by a younger generation of American people, which means we’ll be seeing more and more shows like it in the future.

    As for my opinion on pathos and relatability, I’m stickin’ to my guns here. First, let’s get Seinfeld out of the way. I never said Seinfeld wasn’t relatable, I simply said it lacked pathos. I know (and knew when I originally wrote the post) those things are different. Anyone who knows me knows Seinfeld is probably my favorite show of all time, so I’m not bagging on it because it lacks pathos, I’m saying that’s what made it work. George is probably one of the most pathetic characters ever put on television, but you never felt sorry for the guy, you LAUGHED AT HIM. That’s the difference with The Office. The episode I wrote this post about, “Goodbye Toby,” featured loads of pathos: you felt sorry for Jim because he didn’t get the proposal he had planned and paid for, you felt sorry for Andy, who Angela seemed to marry out of spite, you felt sorry for Dwight, because Angela was getting married in the first place, you felt sorry for Toby, who just couldn’t get over his crush on Pam, you felt sorry for Holly when Michael rejected her date proposal, and you felt sorry for Michael, who had to deal with the fact that his girlfriend got pregnant in vitro WHILE they were dating. That’s a load of sympathy for one hour, and that’s not even half of it. And remember, this is a COMEDY show.

    I’m also sticking to my guns that The Office features relatable characters. True, Dwight is an outrageous character played up for comedic purposes, but everyone knows someone who tries too hard to impress their superiors, who’s desperately nerdy but thinks they’re cool, who takes themself way too seriously, and who is just plain weird. And true, Jim and Pam are the characters the show wants you to relate to, but you relate to them because they’re surrounded by idiots, and we know what that’s like, because we know people at our jobs that are just as crazy as the people at theirs. If these characters weren’t relatable, The Office would be no better than any other sitcom from twenty years ago, filled with punchline machines rather than realistic people who just happen to say funny things.

    And finally, I’ve never seen Fringe, but I could guess the reason “J.J. Abrams gets away with it” probably has a heck of a lot to do with LOST, which is far and away the standard by which television will be judged (as far as storytelling is concerned) when people look back at the 2000’s. LOST has proven that you can take the most convoluted, complex, multi-directional, hard-to-follow storyline in the history of television, a storyline that by all means should confuse and alienate viewers, and it just makes people watch all the more. So I don’t know anything about Fringe, but I do know that Hollywood tends to give a lot of leeway to people who have already proven themselves to be creators of revolutionary television shows (just like how the creators of the U.S. version of The Office will be getting a second show with Amy Poehler in the spring). The problem is, those creators don’t always strike gold twice, and in your opinion it sounds like that’s the case with Fringe. Let’s hope it’s not the case with the Amy Poehler show.

  5. April 28, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    I didn’t read the above two comments, so excuse me if I restate something.
    I love Two and a Half Men. It’s on after Jeopardy and is well-written, funny, and a fine “family” show. Actually, no it’s not. There are copious amounts of sexual humor nuanced into Charlie Sheen-isms that make the show watchable.
    Course, my opinion isn’t super valid; I also get a kick out of nerd comedy Big Bang Theory.

  6. 6 Mel
    April 30, 2009 at 10:42 am

    I’m sorry, you lost me at “I love Two and a Half Men”.

  7. January 28, 2013 at 7:47 am

    Hi there, its good article regarding media print, we all be aware of media is a great source of information.

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