How ‘The Office’ Accidentally Became One of the Funniest Shows on Television

The Office ended its run on NBC in May 2013. Still, the series remains wildly popular, thanks to Netflix. Brian Baumgartner’s podcast An Oral History of The Office seeks to uncover what it is about the show that makes it beloved by so many. 

Ironically, the type of humor that The Office has become known for was an accident. In episode 6 of Baumgartner’s podcast, “Mom, We Made It,” showrunners explain how the show accidentally became hilarious.  

Oscar Nunez, Brian Baumgartner, and Angela Kinsey
Oscar Nunez, Brian Baumgartner, and Angela Kinsey | Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

Brian Baumgartner wants to know why ‘The Office’ remains so popular 

To this day, The Office is one of the most-streamed shows on Netflix. Baumgartner — who played Kevin Malone — is searching for answers with his podcast. It explores the aspects of the show that make it so popular, even with generations of fans who weren’t born when the show originally aired. 

In speaking with his castmates, directors, writers, and even camera operators, Baumgartner has started to uncover an explanation for the show’s popularity. 

‘The Office’ balanced comedy and drama

The Office became a meaningful show by striking a balance between drama and comedy. 

Yes, The Office is a series about the employees at a mid-level paper company. But it’s also about Michael Scott’s (Steve Carell) incredibly awkward journey to find love. 

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“[Greg Daniels] said ‘tonally, separate out the scenes that are dramatic tone from the scenes that are comic tone,” Brent Forrester said. “He called it the McDLT. [Greg] used to say — keep the funny side funny and the drama side dramatic.”

Striking that balance was part of it, but the type of comedy showrunners tapped into that made The Office memorable. 

Cringe comedy was an accident

Before The Office came along, shows like Arrested DevelopmentFreaks and Geeks, and The Larry Sanderson Show found success with cringe comedy. 

But showrunners never intended for The Office to be a cringe-worthy series. 

Baumgartner called the co-creators of the British version of The Office “accidental pioneers.” Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais “weren’t thinking cringe when they wrote it” — but cringe is what makes the series so watchable.

“It was not an intention to make people squirm,” Merchant said. “[But] it was so much funnier when someone who was trying to be funny said a joke and then you heard the silence and then you just sat in the silence. I don’t know why — Ricky and I just found that so funny.”

Gervais referred to a “wide gap” between who Michael Scott/David Brent wanted to be and who they actually were. That gap helped amplify the cringe factor and ultimately, make The Office successful. 

Cringe-worthy moments are what has made ‘The Office’ so popular 

As Ed Helms explained to Baumgartner, it takes a special kind of viewer to enjoy The Office

“Our generation embraced the comedy of failure and awkwardness,” he said. “That’s a thing that’s extremely funny to our generation. My parent’s never got The Office — they were mortified by it. They weren’t able to see the humor in it. But [cringe] is so much of what drove comedy writing at that time.” 

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Showrunners realized the value in turning people’s worst experiences into a joke and ran with it.

“To me, the most awful embarrassing moments in your life are so hellish when you’re going through them, that to sit like a horror movie in a safe position and watch somebody else go through something that you’ve been through, is so liberating,” director Paul Feig explained. 

That liberation is why The Office is still a successful and relatable show — even today.