‘The Office’ vs. ‘30 Rock’: Comedy Goes Back to Work

Photo: Courtesy of NBC

The writers' strike may have ended in February, but for many people it won’t really feel like it’s over until tonight. That’s because The Office and 30 Rock, TV’s two best comedies, are finally returning with new episodes. The shows are, you might say, back to work — which is appropriate, given that work is what both shows are about. That doesn’t mean the shows treat work the same way. On The Office, work is a bad dream; on 30 Rock, it’s a bad marriage.

In making the case for 30 Rock’s inclusion in New York’s recent Culture Canon, Emily Nussbaum called it a comedy about “the romance of workaholism” — a distinctly New York punch line. The Office, of course, is not at all about workaholics: It’s about the banality of work, or more specifically, the romance of banality. Now, it's not easy to make boring funny. And the workplace comedy about corporate drones and TPS reports, all set to the metronomic monotony of the photocopy machine, is by now a well-worn comedic premise. (See also Dilbert, Office Space, the Joshua Ferris novel Then We Came to the End.) So The Office has flourished precisely by not lingering on workaday absurdities, but instead by evolving into another breed of hardy comedic species: a situation comedy, stocked with well-drawn characters. In essence, The Office isn't much about offices anymore: It's more like Cheers, set among cubicles instead of barstools.

30 Rock, on the other hand, isn’t so much a workplace comedy as it is a comedy of chaos. (This seems to be a pet theme for Tina Fey, seeing as it comes up again in her boutique American Express ads, where she’s also cast as an overwhelmed show runner, the harried hand at the rudder of a splintering ship.) The workplace here is many things, but it’s never boring or banal. Your job isn’t a prison sentence. It’s a domineering, demanding spouse, and Liz Lemon is abused for laughs.

This might explain in part why one show — The Office — has grown into a hit (now with a forthcoming spin-off) while the other — 30 Rock — remains that kind of fragile suckling that critics coddle but that America never quite warms up to. It’s because The Office is how America sees work, while 30 Rock is how New Yorkers see work. And these are directly opposite visions: The former presents work as a maddening dead-end and the latter treats work as a mad dash with no finish line. Ironically, it’s The Office’s version of work that looks to have legs, while 30 Rock’s run is the one that we worry will be cut short. —Adam Sternbergh