Mike Judge’s Ongoing Workplace Comedy

Published on March 1st, 2011

James looks at Mike Judge’s career as a director, focusing on Office Space, Idiocracy and Extract.

Office Space is definitely a workplace comedy. It is about people doing jobs that you and I could see ourselves having, but probably not wanting. Beyond this, it is interesting to note how much of Mike Judge’s filmography can be viewed as being influenced by his employment record. The most famous and blatant example would be his first live action feature film, Office Space. It has become a cult classic for many who work in Information Technology, but  has connected with an even broader audience: anyone who has worked in a cubicle, in an office or in a white collar job can relate to it. Although I could have guessed this without reading the interviews, Judge has stated many times that much of the material for this film was drawn from his life. He had worked in offices and noticed how mundane, frustrating and dull the work can be, as well as how condescending and redundant having a series of bosses can be. He worked these jobs, such as alphabetizing purchase orders, or a job in the 80s working at an engineering firm that he describes as “in the heart of Silicon Valley and in the middle of that overachiever yuppie thing, it was just awful,” up until Beavis and Butthead became successful enough for him to work in film and television full-time. When he was given a chance to make a film more realistic than Beavis and Butthead Do America, it was these employment experiences that he drew upon. This led to more work and while it was just as personal to him, it grew increasingly alienating for moviegoers.

Office Space did not perform very well in theatres. It made its budget back, but only barely. However, it has since found a huge market on home video and in television showings of the film. When it premiered on Comedy Central in August of 2001, it was greeted with 1.4 million viewers. Over the next 2 years, it was aired on that same channel 35 times, in reflection and contribution to its cult status. Its rental figures were very impressive as well, making $9 million in rentals and becoming one of the top 20 DVDs Fox has released in terms of sales. It is widely regarded as a cult classic. Even today, 12 years after the fact, this film is still viewed as relevant and popular. I still hear this movie quoted constantly, and in researching this article I discovered that thousands of people are still having Office Space parties. It has been referenced in Family Guy (even before 100 pop culture references an episode over 9 seasons meant the show had to mention every piece of media created since Seth McFarlane was born) and has an intensely devoted fanbase. It has also been described as something of a cultural litmus test: if you’re a middle-class, educated person and someone doesn’t get your Office Space quote, you don’t want to be friends with them. Many in that class seem to think you’re either with us or against us, and if you don’t get Office Space quotes, you’re clearly against us. One recurring object in the film is a red Swingline stapler, an office supply dear to one of the characters. This stapler was not in production at the time of the film, but public outcry caused Swingline to start producing them again and this is chalked up to Office Space and its fans. Unless I’m missing something, I can’t really think of a fanbase so intense that they had a company create office supplies for them outside of a merchandising tie-in. How could a film that hits home with so many people have been such a lacklustre box office performance?

The comedic style of Office Space can be partially blamed for its mediocre theatrical run. Judge’s style is most often a quieter, more subtle form of humour. There is very little slapstick and most of the laughs come from sly or satirical jokes. These types of jokes are difficult to market and don’t make for great trailers and commercials. I believe the film’s impressive home video numbers and massive cult following don’t have as much to do with the style or amount of humour in the film but are more easily attributable to thematic elements. Office Space is the workplace comedy of our generation not because it is the funniest movie set in a work place but because it is a good comedy movie that nails so many elements of what is frustrating about the contemporary workplaces of so many people. However, I feel we often forget something about workplace comedies while they poke fun at our jobs: that making these movies is somebody else’s job. While Judge’s next 2 films, Idiocracy and Extract are less easily classified as workplace comedies, particularly Idiocracy, they are both informed by Judge’s continuing working life.

2006’s Idiocracy, Judge’s first feature film after Office Space, dealt with a contemporary man played by Luke Wilson being frozen as part of a military experiment, only to wake up 500 years later in a culture completely overrun by consumerism and anti-intellectualism. Advertising is ubiquitous and extremely crass.  Carl Jr’s slogan has become “Fuck You, I’m Eating” and Starbucks sells handjobs.  It’s not just the lowest common denominator form of advertising.  Corporations wield significant power in daily life and even government. While these criticisms can be understood by everyone watching the film, as we are bombarded by increasingly prevalent and insulting advertiser in our live, Judge criticizes television networks of the future and companies with huge advertising budgets with a special insight. In between writing/filming Office Space and Idiocracy, Judge dealt with 2 projects that led him to an increasingly pessimistic view of how large corporations and advertisers do business. He had been through the unpleasant experience of Office Space’s marketing and release, as well working on TV’s King of the Hill with increasing interference by the Fox Network. It was 20th Century Fox that helped to make Office Space and they didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Judge. He recalls hearing from the studio after seeing what he had shot each day and saying everything needed to have “more energy” and that he was failing as a director before the film was even done. Judge’s style, in film and television, is rarely one of high energy. Judge has a complete vision of where the humour will come from, but it is not as obvious as the people at Fox clearly wanted it to be. He was not even able to complete the film as he wanted to. When the picture was done being edited, he felt the entire 3rd act needed a rewrite but Fox wouldn’t have it. We will return to the ending of this film later. The problems between the studio and Judge were still not over, even after editing was complete. The posters, the commercials, the trailers and the tagline were all handled by Fox while Judge was vocal about how he felt they were getting it all wrong.

Things weren’t much better with King of the Hill, the animated show Judge did for Fox from 1997-2009. The first few seasons of the show did very well, even outperforming The Simpsons at times, the widely recognized champion of prime-time animation. The ratings were good and the show had started to be syndicated, a great money maker for the studio. However, Fox started to intervene in this show as well, pressuring Judge to make changes to the content. After seeing how much money could be made from syndication, they demanded episodes become more self-contained, with fewer multi-episode story arcs. With each episode as a self-contained unit, it is easier to sell into syndication. The show was doing well in its own timeslot, but Fox wished to make more money from it elsewhere as well. Fox intervened and had Judge and his crew change their vision. I have not seen all of these episodes of King of the Hill, perhaps the ones he was pressured to change are just as funny or maybe funnier, but it seems like when such restrictions are made, the creative vision for the show is impeded upon and the work is bound to suffer. This request in particular could very easily lead to less characterization and simpler, less subtle and clever jokes. It’s easy to imagine that this kind of dumbing down and corporate intervention that made informed the dystopian, overly-commercialized culture we find in Idiocracy.

Instead of middle management, Judge now had other entities instructing him on how to better do his job. He had studios and advertisers on his back. Instead of the quiet, somewhat feeble characters like Bill Lumberg as antagonists we find in Office Space, our protagonist in Idiocracy is up against faceless, disturbingly powerful corporations reaching into our lives for monetary gain.  His fight is to protect our culture and species from the effects of these powerful corporate machines, an idea that seems to resonate well with Judge.

Office Space was a very cool movie to like. It was subversive. It poked fun at management and had characters listening to gangster rap and essentially stealing from their bosses. It was not a huge theatrical success or popular when it was released, which makes it cooler and less mainstream to enjoy.  Whereas Office Space barely made its budget back in theatres, Idiocracy lost money. While this wasn’t great for Judge or Fox, it makes it an even cooler and less mainstream movie to enjoy. Office Space was about hating your boss and your job, but Idiocracy was about hating corporations and everyone dumb enough to fall for their advertising, which made it even hipper than its predecessor. If Office Space was Radiohead, then Idiocracy was whatever the fuck Radiohead listens to… I just don’t know who that is because I’m not cool enough.

In one way, Idiocracy is less personal than Office Space because it is no longer about the people and the jobs in these big companies, but the companies themselves. However, the subject matter is still personal to Judge. These corporations have become his coworkers and his bosses as he moves up the ranks in the entertainment world.

This brings us to Extract. This was to be the follow-up to Office Space that would get the proper opportunity that evaded Idiocracy. Extract was to have a full theatrical release with some big name stars in the cast made by “the guy who brought [us] the cult classic, Office Space.” Extract was a disappointment to nearly everybody and often for different reasons. First, it didn’t do very well in theatres. This was disappointing to Judge and his producers, who had set up a production company to avoid the corporate interference Judge had experienced in the past. It was distributed by Miramax, who surely would have enjoyed a more profitable performance. Extract didn’t fail in a cool way like Office Space, in that it gained a massive cult following only after its theatrical run. It didn’t suffer from a distribution nightmare like Idiocracy, which largely served to prove the point of that film: corporations are dumb and evil and great art and entertainment barely see the light of day because of this. Extract just wasn’t very good, and it performed that way, with few excuses this time.  The Washington Post called it “the most disappointing American comedy of the decade” and I have heard many disagree.  It’s not the worst American comedy of the decade, but with all the hype surrounding Judge’s long awaited return to workplace comedies and his increased control of the product, it was the most underwhelming.

There are a few main themes in Extract that could easily be linked to Judge’s then-recent experiences as both a film director and his work in television. The first is the constant threat of litigation: much of the plot revolves around lawsuits. Many main characters are involved in trying to press charges, sue, create or destroy evidence that could get a lawyer on their ass. I have little doubt that the long and tedious legal trouble that Judge had in relation to Idiocracy helped to inform this view as legal action as a threat and weapon. After an excruciating back and forth, Fox released Idiocracy in 7 cities on under 200 screens. It is a widely held belief that this was done after a long legal battle and Fox only gave this much to fulfill its contractual obligations.

One major change between Office Space and Extract is an inversion of the relationships in Office Space. Whereas in Office Space, we were supposed to identify withprotagonist cubicle-dwelling Peter and perhaps his co-workers who occupy a similar rung near the bottom of the corporate ladder, Extract asks us to empathize with management. Joel is the owner and founder of an extract company and he is the protagonist we follow throughout the film. While he does lots of things that we could feel sorry for him about (including a largely sexless marriage, a shortage of real friends, employees that try to take advantage of him, lawyers looking to sue him and a woman playing with his feelings to get money), he is still the highest figure within his company and he gives the orders. This, I suspect, may have a lot to do with why Extract could never be a cult hit in the same way that Office Space was. There simply aren’t enough managers and factory owners that could get together and watch Extract, even if it were as funny as Office Space (which it certainly is not). It could never be anthem of the down-trodden, a rallying cry for the proletariat, a summation of the feelings of a subculture, as cult classics often are.  It is not hard to see how Judge’s success could have caused this switch.  Even while making Beavis and Butthead Judge describes himself as working alone or at least seperately from others involved.  However, as work became more and more popular, he was given people to work under him.  As the executive producer and co-creator of a successful TV he, likely begrudgingly, started giving orders to people.  As the writer and director of major motion pictures later in his career, he described having more than 100 people working under him.  He was the boss.  He was the one telling people how to do their jobs and he maybe even had to ask them to come in on…”yeah, Saturday.”  People who dislike Extract have said he lost his touch on reality in Hollywood.  The truth is, his reality is simply much different than many people who watch his movie and can’t relate to being in charge and having to worry about people taking advantage of him and not doing the work they were paid for.  In Extract, we are meant to sympathize with the owner, the manager, the white collar guy who tells everyone what to do and that is not what the masses want to relate to.

Office Space, while being funny and popular, fails in the same way that most social commentaries of its kind fail: it fails to provide a satisfying resolution. There is no way out provided for these characters. It is an attack on something without providing an alternative to it, similar to Rage Against the Machine. They taught me to rock out and dress like I’m fighting in a South American civil war and that guitars can sound like turntables, but this did little to provide me with ways to bring down the evil governments and corporations they made music about. None of the characters in Office Space provide a viable resolution at the end. Peter’s colleagues Samir and Michael Bolton go work at a rival firm despite their rejection of cubicle culture and dissatisfaction with the work. Milton, the Red Swingline wielding mumbler,  is the only one who ends up in a favourable position.  After Peter leaves the stolen money and a confession in the office of his bossPeter’s solution at the end of the film is to get a job with his friend Lawrence, our representation of the blue collar workforce throughout the film. He is a loud, crude, beer-drinking, porn-loving manual labourer who lives next to Peter. When Peter quits, he works alongside Lawrence. His first job is to clean up his former workplace after arson destroys it. I feel that after they are done cleaning up the remnants of the burnt down building, which Peter would love, he would be just as unhappy with this job. He wants to do nothing.  When asked what he would do if he had a million dollars at one point he states he would just want to sit on his ass and do nothing. It’s a lot harder to get away with doing nothing in a manual labour job. Writing an email to your friend and backing up bank files for the Y2K switch probably don’t look that different from a distance, but Peter would have someone making sure he was moving at all times on the job site. He could expect more intense labour, more extreme weather conditions and maybe longer hours. More importantly, Lawrence (and perhaps eventually by Peter), seem like the characters we find inhabiting the future in Idiocracy. It seems that our only escape from the mundane white collar world is to become what eventually causes the downfall of our society. Mike Judge, you succeed in making good movies about the intellectual regression of our culture and the dangers of modern corporate power, but you fail to provide any possible solutions. I know he did not make these movies as a social call to arms or a guide to bringing down capitalism, but even within the worldview of his own films, the messages are self-contradictory. As Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine would say… “COME ON!”

Comments

  1. Posted by george on May 15th, 2011, 14:41 [Reply]

    i loved all 3 of these movies. they were all different to me, but they all had that same mike judge quality. they have these subtle moments or instances that i actually experience and relate to in real life. just simple character reactions to the moronic moments in everyday life. somedays i just think about how dumb brad sanchez was or lines like, “go away i’m ‘batin”, and i just crack up.

    the overall story arcs could be stronger, but the real comedic genius shows through the character development and delivery.

    none of these movies would stand a chance in the idiocracy world. the people that don’t get his movies are the ones that he makes fun of anyway. i guess people don’t like being made fun of. what such irony…

  2. Posted by Jon Construction Worker on March 11th, 2012, 21:04 [Reply]

    I am in the construction business right now, as well as a film major in college. The authors statement in the last paragraph about the guys new job after cleaning up the burnt down mess is rubbish. There is A LOT and I mean A TON of downtime in construction. About half of the day is spent standing around doing nothing as other departments ship their materials into the worksite. The author was also wrong about the end of the movie, atleast partially. The solution that i saw was to change careers out of the office world. I have worked in construction, restaraunt, and office work (all 3 represented in the film office space), so i can relate to everything the movie was about. All together office space was a GREAT MOVIE given the budget that it had- 10 million- which is peanuts intodays movies. Keep it coming mike judge.

  3. Posted by Rick on July 3rd, 2012, 15:58 [Reply]

    The movie ending was just fine. Everything worked out in the end, Peter’s friends went back to another office job because none of them were brave enough to make the career jump, and Peter found out exactly why Lawrence was so relaxed and laid back in life when he started doing construction work with him. I’m assuming he got his job through him, so its a positive outcome. Peter loses his malaise and eventually snaps out of the hypnosis, and he gets his girl back. Milton gets an unexpected reward after being abused almost daily for 5+ years by management. We all assume the rest of the world goes back to normal….Lumbergh and the crew probably move to different mind-numbing computer companies and continue on as before.

  4. Posted by Mike Jones on September 21st, 2012, 20:35 [Reply]

    I was teaching some college classes between 2005-2010 and one of the things we did to introduce ourselves to one another was name our favorite movie. For at least half, usually closer to three quarters it was Office Space hands down.

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