The US Office Character Studies

OTHER CHARACTERS

MEREDITH

There’s nothing very inventive about Meredith’s character. We’ve seen her elsewhere. Meredith is the classic burlesque witch.

KEVIN

Kevin is likewise a familiar comedic archetype. He is the big, dumb, fat guy. A comedy cast usually has someone who fills the role of ‘stomach’ and Kevin is it, a grown up, office-dwelling take on the Cookie Monster. (This comparison becomes a gag for one of the episodes, utilised semi-regularly after that.)

Kevin is childlike, whose response to anything risque is to laugh like a child. But he is also a creep. This combination is novel, though not unrealistic, and the actor pulls it off.

OSCAR

Oscar is funny if you recognise the ‘Actually…’ guy. His shortcoming is that he cannot fail to take the bait if someone offers a factually incorrect statement. In an office like this one, that happens frequently. In this regard his behaviour is robotic. He simply cannot resist correcting people. It is assumed that Oscar absorb’s Kevin’s uselessness, doing Kevin’s entire job for him, shielding the rest of the office from Kevin’s childlike stupidity.

The twist is that Oscar is at an intersection of two different marginalised groups. He needed his own shortcoming to avoid becoming a one-dimensional victim of homophobia and xenophobia.

ANGELA

Angela is your mean girl from high school all grown up. The twist is that she is also a lonely cat lady, and a bigot under the name of Christianity. Angela is funny because she has no sense of humour whatsoever. She is also a hate sink. We are supposed to hate her, especially when set up in contrast to Pam.

Angela’s motivations aren’t usually relatable to the audience. She finds Dwight sexually appealing when he is clearly ridiculous. Later she has Dwight’s baby while trying to pretend the baby was conceived with her gay high-profile husband. (We ‘know’ he is gay because of Oscar’s insight.) This is a classic example of transgression comedy. The mask eventually comes off. This happens the episode Dwight goes to visit Angela in hospital. It is revealed that the ‘premature’ baby is huge.

TODD PACKER

Todd is another hate sink, and I really can’t stand watching him. For good reason, he is only an occasional cast member. Too much more and I would be alienated from the show. It is not fun to watch a misogynist in action.

PHYLLIS

Phyllis is a well-drawn comedic character who is mostly the victim in someone else’s fat joke, but who has been brought up to be a lady. A lady (according to Phyllis’s view) doesn’t express her discontent directly, but in an underhanded way. The conflict between Phyllis and Angela brings out the underhanded and petty competition between them. Each wants to be in charge of the social club.

When fictional characters become embroiled in battle over an issue which looks utterly meaningless to the outsider, a story shines light on the futility of human pecking orders. We are reminded of chickens in a coop, establishing their hierarchy… for what?

Phyllis surprised us early by revealing herself to be horny. This goes against stereotype — aren’t nice, middle-aged ladies supposed to be sexless? Phyllis is nowhere near the lewd levels of Angela. This is a different take on a similar behaviour — while Meredith is all about the hedonism, part of Phyllis’s motivation derives from wanting to find her place in the patriarchy. She can do that best by aligning herself with a well-off white man.

KELLY

If Angela is a grown-up take on the mean girl from high school, Kelly Kapoor is right there. She hasn’t grown up at all. In one episode we see Kelly bickering with her younger sisters, revealing herself to be emotionally at the age of a teenage girl herself.

Kelly is a woman of colour, and explicitly uses that to garner privileges meant for women of colour. This is an interesting commentary on affirmative action in the workplace, and I wonder how well it has aged. Comedically, Kelly knows even less about her own supposed cultural background than a lot of the white characters who try to engage with her about it. But Kelly is American. Why should she engage with white people about something she has never experienced first hand? The bitchy antics of Kelly are without subtlety. But much of the comedy around Kelly contains sophisticated social commentary about race in America.

CREED BRATTON

Creed is one of those characters we love to see appear. He lurks in the shadows (we assume) and is given comparatively few lines. He is mysterious. We are given just the choicest details of his dodgy background, which we know is full of crime and debauchery. We’d love to know more.

Creed is therefore an excellent comedy character, because we will never know more. I doubt the writers have a fleshed-out backstory. If they did this, Creed’s mysteriousness might dissipate, and the very best aspect of his character lost.

Creed’s standout quality is that his dodgy accumulation of life experiences have given him a fortune-teller’s instinct for human behaviour. He gets away with things because he can predict how others are going to react. This is exhibited metaphorically when Creed has a game of chess with Jim.

We’ve seen the laconic, mysterious comedic character before. These guys (almost always guys) are given very little to say, but also have some of the very best lines.

Ice Bear of We Bare Bears is an animal, children’s (actually dual-audience) version of this comedic archetype. Ice Bear barely says anything. He retreats to the freezer as much as possible, like Creed retreats to the hidden recesses of The Office. Another mysterious character in a closet is the goth, Richmond Avenal from The IT Crowd. These characters only work so long as their backstories are mostly kept from us. They can never be rounded. This archetype also requires a cast of talkative characters (or a least one) to exist in contrast. The talkative characters now seem ridiculously garrulous.

STANLEY

Like Kelly Kapoor, Stanley Hudson is a Black person working in a white-culture workplace, and he is over it. Stanley’s ‘over it’ demeanour is almost as enduring as Angela’s irritation. But unlike Angela, Stanley comes to life after he leaves the office. He is revealed to be a player, unfaithful to his series of wives, and (both literally and metaphorically) a wearer of Hawaiian shirts whenever he is not in office wear.

Like a disproportionate number of men in this office, he is a sleaze. But he is endearing for his ‘over it’ attitude, which all of us can relate to when it comes to the workplace, or the family, or any other social situation we are required to attend. Occasionally Stanley brings his outside-the-office joie de vivre into the workplace and laughs heartily at some of the goings-on. Even more than Jim at times, Stanley is our viewpoint character.

ANDY

Initially presented as a highly unlikeable frat boy who punches holes in walls (and who may also be a contender for domestic violence), Andy grew on us as we learned this frat boy is also an underdog — the older son who has been cast aside in favour of the younger son. This disfavour is exaggerated to a comic degree. Andy has never grown up. He is a people pleaser.

Andy’s trajectory is a knowing and wise commentary on how some white men who are hopeless at their jobs can also make pretty good bosses, or, adequate bosses, anyhow. Andy never stops wanting to be popular, and he shares this in common with Michael Scott.

Andy’s people-pleasing shortcoming is really put to the test when he is promoted to middle management, because any middle manager can never, ever please everybody. It’s part of the job. So it was an excellent comedic choice to put Andy in charge after Michael’s departure.

ERIN

Erin Hannon, like Dwight (Kurt) Schrute, has a slightly ridiculous name, with both her first and last name almost forming a rhyme. Erin is a comedic archetype we’ve seen before — the only minor adjustment is that she’s not blonde. She is, however, relentlessly sunny, chirpy and stupid.

RYAN

I find Ryan Howard a difficult character to watch. Ryan’s character is a prime example of how characters in The Office ‘turn on a dime’, though in hindsight we should have expected Ryan would turn out to be a cocaine-snorting criminal who through bullshitting skills will nonetheless keep his job and keep out of prison.

Ryan is very much the schemer, in his work, in romance. He’ll take what he can get for however long he can get it. It is fitting that a guy like this lives on cocaine.

There’s a very sophisticated underside to Ryan’s character, and I think it is this that really pushes my discomfort to the limits: Ryan is a parody of the Nice Guy™. He’d probably even call himself feminist, all the while persuading Pam that it’s her job to clean the microwave, and he couldn’t possible, despite returning as the disgraced intern, because he’d “only make it worse”. In common with Oscar, Ryan will point out the injustice in a system, but unlike Oscar, Ryan will then turn it into something which only benefits himself. He fools enough people to continue his lifestyle of addiction, erasing his history of fraud.

On the less sophisticated level, Ryan is simply a parody of the young, white MBA graduate who is very good at talking the talk, but enters management with no wisdom.

TOBY

Toby Flenderson is one of the few characters who doesn’t ‘turn on a dime’. His character arc is more gradual and barely noticeable until one of the other characters points out to the camera that Toby seems to have ‘checked out’. Then we are shown the extent of this. Michael Scott bans him from a meeting and Toby is now fine with it.

Toby is one of the realistic and reasonable characters on The Office and the audience should therefore enjoy him as a viewpoint character, but unlike Jim and Stanley, Toby is not utilised in that way. He is a little too pathetic. The actor’s droopy eyelids and quiet, non-confrontational way of speaking contribute to this vibe, but Toby is lacking in drive, and this is what alienates him from an audience. At one point he does go on holiday, but he meets with calamity. He returns to his old life, despite temporarily wishing for me. Despite his balanced views, Toby is comically hapless. Michael’s extreme hatred of him also establishes Toby as a straight guy rather than a funny character, and if we look forward to seeing Toby on screen, it’s because we want to see what someone else does to him, not what Toby does himself.

DARYL PHILBIN

Daryl’s promotion to upstairs is a clear example of affirmative action, comedic because it’s not clear exactly what Daryl’s new role is, and because he was very good at his job downstairs.

Daryl is one of my favourite characters, and is the embodiment of Poe’s Law, because you don’t always know if he’s being mock earnest or actually earnest. His dialogue often sounds like it’s the parody account Confucius Say (Black edition), or could be the lyrics to some soul blues (but isn’t).

Daryl Philbin is the most complicated man I’ve ever met. Who says exactly what they’re thinking? What kind of game is that?

Kelly Kapoor

ROBERT CALIFORNIA

Robert California has the most on-the-nose symbolic name of the entire cast. He is the emnbodiment of the rich old hippie, always seeking something spiritually, never finding it. He makes his way to the tough through confidence and bullshit, and is ridiculously impressed at other bizarre displays of dominance.

The actor who plays Robert California has perfected a strange way of speaking which involves treating full-stops as run on sentences, but inserting unusual pauses between unexpected words, resulting in false gravitas.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.