Why the Awkward Humor on "The Office" Is Funny

Rainn Wilson is an actor best known for his role as the egomaniacal Dwight Schrute in the NBC sitcom "The Office." He grew up in Seattle, Wash., as a member of the Baha'i faith, and attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.  He is the founder of the Web site Soul Pancake (and the recently published book of the same name).

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TRANSCRIPT

Question:  "The Office" relies heavily on embarrassing moments for humor. Why are we so into awkwardness in humor?

Rainn Wilson:  Our show is the most kind of awkward, embarrassing and kind of real show on TV that deals with that color of comedy.  I think we’re the best in that genre, which we inherited from the brilliant English show, but what is so interesting to me is how much young people like that kind of humor.  They love it.  Older people, they don’t like it.  They’re like, “I can’t watch it. It’s too awkward. It’s too painful. The people are too gross. They’re weird. They’re mean and it’s awkward. I can’t stand it.”  Young kids I mean down to 9, 10, 11, 12 year-olds they eat it up.  They love "The Office."  They have it memorized.  They love that kind of awkward humor. 

I don’t know what it is, but it seems that Ricky Gervais was able to just capitalize almost on a generational shift with an understanding that so much of the comedy is not in the set up, set up, punch line.  There is very few "jokes" on our show.  It really is behavior, characters behaving and the reactions to that behavior.  You know Dwight will do something stupid, but the laugh is on Pam watching it or Jim seeing it and then turning to the camera because that is I think how young people... that is how young people feel today.  You know they’re seeing all this absurdity and it’s like if they could young people would just be like and just look at the camera, so it’s less say a comedy of awkwardness and more a comedy of reactivity. 

Question: Do you have a similar sense of humor?

Rainn Wilson:  I really like the stuff that is very absurd and very real at the same time.  I think Anton Chekhov is the greatest comedy writer of all time.  I think he would make a great addition to The Office staff. If you look through Chekhov plays there is a lot of awkward pauses in there. His mixture of pathos, absurdity, truthfulness and whimsy is just mixed together perfectly.

Recorded November 11, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler


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