By Madeline Lane-McKinley
In her 2021 book Work Won’t Love You Back, Sarah Jaffe makes the convincing case that “work itself is no longer working,” and that the “exposure to capitalism’s cruelty makes the demand to love our jobs a brutal joke.” As 2022 comes to an end, with a wave of historic labor struggles from railroad workers to higher education and the publishing industry, the joke of work can be a powerful weapon. But it can also be a potent drug: it is precisely as joke that we learn to live with work’s brutality as well as to question it. Against the tyranny of back to normal and the panicked chatter over “quiet quitting”—and whether to mock or perhaps to merely cope with the supposedly “post”-COVID world of work—the workplace comedy has seen a notable resurgence in the last year, bringing with it crucial questions about what we are doing when we laugh at work.
Historically, the workplace sit-com has often had the function of disciplining workers, imposing a vision of the workplace as the not-quite family, or as even better than family—what Ted Lasso is now carrying forward into our current era of streaming wars. Although this latest boom of workplace comedy preserves elements of that disciplinary function, it also marks a clear shift toward anti-work critique.
A return to form for the workplace sit-com, Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary updates the mockumentary style of work-based comedies from the early aughts, leaving behind the premise of the pointless office (as in The Office’s Dundler Mifflin, the paper company in a paperless economy) to dive into the more complex terrain of the social reproduction workplace. Focused on the day-to-day lives of overworked, under-valued school teachers, Abbott Elementary has little interest in making fun of its workers, but rather the situations that they find themselves in as they navigate the frustrations and exploitation of care-based labor.
While Brunson’s interventions to the workplace sit-com have revitalized the genre in network television, some of the most biting anti-work comedy of this time has taken place in other genres, in many cases troubling genre in the process. In February 2022, Severance unnervingly mirrored the horrors so many workers experienced in their jobs since the pandemic, as work became more and more dangerous, but also increasingly senseless. In its dystopian portrait of the biotechnology corporation Lumon Industries, Severance follows employees who are part of a “severance” program in which their non-work memories are neurologically separated from their experiences at work. For some employees, the severance program seems to offer them the prospect of having a life free from work, in a not-quite present world where work somehow lingers over all aspects of everyday life, just like in ours.
Less of a “situation comedy” and more like an extended Black Mirror episode, Severance steadily taps into its critique of work through humor. On a blind date with his pregnant sister’s midwife, severed employee Mark (Adam Scott) awkwardly fields questions about his “work self.” “So… Lumon… like half this town” she says, trying to make conversation—“and half of me,” he interjects. Without taking a beat, he explains “that was a joke.” “It was funny,” she tells him, without laughing. Mark’s inability to laugh becomes increasingly important to understanding the ways that even his non-work self—what severed employees call their “outties” (outside work selves)—exists in this inescapable work-hellscape.
What’s most dystopian about Severance is its fundamental contradiction: to be truly severed from work is impossible, but at the same time, even while at work the employees have no idea what they’re doing. They spend the day staring at data on desktops. Newly severed employee Helly (Britt Lower) is advised to look for the “scary numbers.” Eventually Helly asks Dylan (Zach Cherry) “what even are these numbers?“ and he shares his theory that they’re cleaning the sea.
Hopscotching between sci-fi dystopia and conspiracy thriller, Severance draws on anti-work comedy to express what exceeds genre, as it revolves around this joke of the meaningfulness of meaningless work. A similar joke proliferates in Industry, a bleak depiction of investment banking, which is most fascinating when it grapples with the abstraction of this work.
Industry focuses on a young cohort of employees at the bank Pierpoint & Co who endure a toxic workplace of non-stop harassment with high-end drugs and escapist sex, sometimes but not always to self-destructive ends. In this world, there is no such thing as being off the clock, there’s only blacking out. Otherwise, they throw numbers and financial jargon back and forth as they “play the game,” always living in fear of moments of pause in which ethical questions inevitably intrude. Each of the characters takes turns haunted by what they know to be evil about their jobs, chasing away these feelings whenever possible.
As in Severance, the joke of the workplace in Industry is what can never be spoken about work: that while our survival may depend on it (to varying extents), the majority of work under capitalism is in direct conflict with our collective survival.
When it came back for its second season in August, Industry opened with the most compelling account of returning to the in-person workplace that I have seen so far into this “return to normal.” Harper (Myha’la Herrold) is bullied back to in-person work by her supervisor Eric (Ken Leung), after retreating in a hotel for most of the pandemic. The only Black woman on Pierpoint’s sales floor, Harper spent her first year at the firm experiencing constant harassment, ranging from racist and misogynist microaggressions to sexual assault. As a remote worker, she’s convinced that she’s better off in isolation, and insists that she can do her job more effectively outside the workplace. She swims in the morning, drinks beer for breakfast, and talks to Eric on zoom. “Everyone’s back in the office,” Eric tells her. “You’re invisible where you are.”
Harper’s dilemma throughout Industry is over how to be seen and unseen in order to protect herself from what she understands to be the underlying nature of her job. Once Harper’s experiences of workplace harassment could very easily prompt a lawsuit, the London office president Sara Dhadwal (Priyanga Burford) tries to win Harper over by speaking of her predecessor, who ran the business as “an invisible man pushing people to sell invisible things.” She speaks of their obligation to “change the culture,” and to face the “choice between the invisible man and the visible woman.”
In many ways, and within the ‘prestige’ quasi-metaverse of HBO drama series, Industry positions itself as a Succession from below. Increasingly, this seems like a conscious effort in the series: “Any reason you’re dressed like Kendall Roy?” Eric at one point asks Rishi (Sagar Radia), an associate at the firm. Similarly, masquerading as ‘drama’ is key to the comedy in Succession. In both cases comedy operates as a kind of parasite, generating critique from within. For Industry, the critique of work and the workplace most powerfully emerges through cringe—punchlines that don’t land, awkward silences, disastrous misunderstandings, and the general horror of going through waking life with the lingering feeling of actively destroying the world—whereas Succession seems far more invested in a critique of the powerful than a critique of power itself.
Stretching across genres, anti-work comedy moves as a political tendency in these serial narratives, tampering with the ideologies of work that otherwise dominate cultural representations of workplaces. In many ways, this is more fascinating in the domains of drama and sci-fi, than in forward-facing anti-workplace comedies like Comedy Central’s The Corporate or Hulu’s Workaholics. Some of the most politically vibrant variations on anti-work comedy in recent years have taken form as the underlying conflicts of narrative worlds otherwise fixated on romanticizing work, rationalizing precarity, and even estranging work with fantasies of artistry.
The Bear, FX’s surprise hit of the summer of 2022, stages a mesmerizing conflict between these competing ideologies of work in the workplace, in its gritty-yet-funny and often poignant account of the post-COVID restaurant business. Set in a short order kitchen and failing yet beloved Italian Beef sandwich shop in Chicago, the show troubles its own romance with work through the power dynamics of different stations and hierarchies in its workplace.
At the center of The Bear is Carmen (Jeremy Allen White), who inherits the restaurant from his brother, who died of suicide. As Carmen grapples with the responsibility, and what it means to be a boss, he’s often shaking off his own experiences working up the chain in fine dining after being trained at the Culinary Institute of America. His verbally abusive boss in New York City flashes back to him, as do memories of his brother. But the show doesn’t fixate on Carmen, and often its really powerful moments happen around Sydney (Ayo Adebiri), who begins as a new sous chef. As a trained chef, Sydney has much in common with Carmen, at first setting her apart from the others in the kitchen. Sydney starts from a place of imagining herself, and idealizing Carmen, as artists—but as the series unfolds, she comes to understand herself more clearly as a worker. And yet for Marcus (Lionel Boyce), the kitchen bread baker, Sydney opens up a new set of artistic possibilities around baking, and inspires him to pursue his love of pastries.
Laughing at the kitchen as a workplace is precisely how Sydney and Marcus deal with this confusion between the pleasures that brought them to cooking and baking and the abject reality of working the line. “It would be weird to work in a restaurant and not completely lose your mind,” Sydney tells Marcus at one point. “Is that not weird, though?” he asks back, smiling. They don’t sit with that question, really—partly because they already know the answer to it. Joking about it gives them an ambiguity to inhabit together, while they also keep coming back to what they love about the kitchen. “I wanna cook for people and make them happy and give them the best bacon on Earth,” Sydney tells Marcus.
The anti-work critique of The Bear reaches a fever pitch with an impressive 20-minute episode filmed in one shot, wildly tracking Carmen through a nervous breakdown in the kitchen that leads both Sydney and Marcus to walk out on the job. “You are an excellent chef,” Sydney tells Carmen on her way out. “You are also a piece of shit.” As we watch Carmen steadily turn monstrous, yelling at his workers as he moves frenetically from station to station, putting out figurative fires while starting one literally, we know that it is not the food or the people, the death of his brother or even the big dreams of culinary artistry, but working itself that has done this to him.
What distinguishes The Bear from the dark anti-work imaginaries of shows like Industry and Severance, however, is the utopian quality explored in its representation of food. Unlike the hyper-alienated corporate employees of those other series, the kitchen workers know, on some level, what they’re doing together—and for exactly this reason, they also know what the world of work is robbing from them. Inasmuch as the kitchen is toxic and hierarchical, it is also a space of discovery, where Marcus dreams up beautiful, colorful pastries, and a space of experimentation, where Sydney rounds up what’s being unused in the kitchen to make a unique recipe to feed her co-workers at their shared mealtime.
The longing for a world in which making and sharing food can be experienced outside the constraints of work comes out most clearly in The Bear through comedy. Comedy carves out the space for such feelings, putting us into contact with what might otherwise feel too difficult to confront about how we relate to work in our everyday lives. And yet, while pronouncing some of our deepest longings, and perhaps helping us to listen to them, comedy also expresses a certain unwillingness to take these questions elsewhere, or to take them seriously. This is the tension playing out everywhere that anti-work comedy might take us—across genres and workforces, wherever there is work, and with the hope that laughing at it might help us to destroy it, if not just catch the sparks of such possibilities.
Madeline Lane-McKinley is a co-editor of Blind Field. Her book Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times came out last month from Common Notions Press.