What do Office Space, The Office, The IT Crowd, and Dilbert have in common? Well, obviously they’re all office-based comedies of some sort or another, but they share something else in common: In all four productions, they are told with a perspective most sympathetic to the grunt and least sympathetic to management. Only The Office serials break this mold at least a little where upper management (Neil in UK, Wallace in US) is just as exasperated by the middle managers as the underlings are. But in all of the cases, the problem is depicted as being with management getting in the way, distracting, harassing, or otherwise denigrating the protagonist grunts.

It seems to me that some comic opportunity is really being missed here.

When I was working for Falstaff in Deseret and early on in my tenure at Monmark, I used to produce a comic strip. No one at Monmark ever knew about it, but it gave me a tidbit of celebrity cred when I was working at Falstaff. I won’t reproduce any of it here, but if anyone is interested I can send you a link to my archives. The somewhat unique thing about the strip, though, is that it is primarily told from the point of view of the middle manager. The character, Gil, was based off of my former boss (and current HC commenter) Willard. Gil was essentially stuck between an exceptionally obtuse corporate managerial structure and at least a couple lazy employees. That’s not to say that Gil is without his quirks and double-dealing, but a lot of it is in response to the pressures he’s under. Management dictates on one hand, common sense on the other or the need to be a tactful supervisor and employees that could care less). By and large it’s more critical of management than of the employees (who are themselves often sympathetic), but I focus on the trials of Gil somewhat because it’s a point of view that is often missing from office comedy.

It’s not entirely missing. It’s often the case where the main character has an underling or two that are quirky, lazy, or somehow agitating. But it’s usually just their personal secretary or something of the like. And most of the time, it’s the “office” part of a comedy that primarily focuses on the main character’s family life or the office is itself an atypical one. An example of this would be News Radio, where the station manager is the straight man with a wacky corporate owner (Stephen Root’s Jimmy James is one of the cooolest characters on television ever) and a bunch of oddball employees (Phil Hartman and Andy Dick being the primary examples). Murphy Brown also followed this mold. But it seems that any show that focuses primarily or substantially on the office and where the office is intentionally generic so that the viewer can relate to it, it’s Grunt vs Management and we’re obviously supposed to side with the grunt.

I guess it’s part of the egalitarianism of the US that this is the way that it’s supposed to be. We supposedly like siding with the little guy. Even middle managers are generally more cogniscent of the pressures from above than the pressures from below and so maybe they’re more likely to laugh at the managers than the employees. Hard to say for sure. In any case, it makes me want to make a show from the manager’s point of view.


Category: Office, Theater

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10 Responses to The Forgotten Upper Middle Man

  1. Peter says:

    Middle managers don’t always have it easy. They have to deal with disgruntled underlings in a way that the top managers don’t, while at the same time their authority is often quite constrained. In addition, in some companies they are held accountable for results over which they have relatively little control.

    A common misperception about Dilbert is the belief that the characters are lowly cubicle drones making $10 an hour if they’re lucky. In fact, Dilbert and his co-workers are engineers, highly paid professionals.

  2. Willard Lake says:

    Trumwill, you already recieved a glowing review, in addition to my signature you can place on any that you wanted to write yourself. 🙂

    Middle management can be extremely difficult, being usually promoted from within because you are good at what you do, and now no longer having any time to do it. Not to mention needing to calm everyone’s concerns and motivate them to meet the unreasonable goals that have been handed down from on high from people who have never worked on your projects.

    Conflict generates humor. Catching conflict from both sides COULD generate twice as much. There are the humorous stories of me falling through the ceiling and of me getting stuck in BFE for two days because I missed the five signs that I was putting diesel in my gas tank. Good times all.

  3. Webmaster says:

    Currently working at a semi-mid-management position (and looking to move up further in that chain shortly) it’s going to be interesting. The dealings of middle management match pretty well with the dealings of (non-basic-level) IT as well, especially given the situation at SoTech.

    I’ll post on that sometime down the road.

  4. kevin says:

    I’m reminded of the observaton that, in any corporate bureaucracy, an individual rises to the level of his incompetence and remains there. The idea is that, if you do a good job, you’ll get promoted to the next level, and this will continue to happen until you are no longer doing a job worthy of promotion. There are obviously lots of exceptions to this rule (e.g., degree requirements for certain levels, assumption that an individual can get promoted forever) but I think the fundamental idea is solid. Thus, the middle manager has his incompetence displayed both to his underlings and his superiors.

    I’m also reminded of a certain middle manager type who ascended to the ultimate middle manager position, President of the United States, and whose incompetence provides the entire world with comic relief …

  5. Webmaster says:

    re:kevin… sigh.

  6. Becky says:

    Middle managers aren’t always where people go to die in corporate America, but it is often rung on the ladder for people trying to move up. It shouldn’t be the position that’s disrepected but the person behind it (if he/she really is incompetent). Even with the change in the focal point of the comedies, it’s still relatable for anyone that has a boss, no matter what level you’re at.

  7. trumwill says:

    Peter,

    Despite the money that they make, engineers (and software engineers) are often undervalued resources within the corporate structures. More than one of the companies that I’ve worked for were run by former salesmen who think that sales and marketing were what make a company float. Beyond that, a lot of companies generally seem to be run by MBA types without as much a technical background. You have the CTOs and CIOs and all that, but they’re outnumbered by purely business-types. This is even true at companies that in technical fields. It’s kind of strange. And annoying.

  8. trumwill says:

    Willard,

    According to your post recent endorsement, I saved Falstaff from financial ruin and a terrorist attack. I thank you for your glowing words 🙂

    I don’t know what you mean by “people who have never worked on your projects”… don’t you realize that the former(?) president at our company was working on our job for an entire day!!

  9. trumwill says:

    Kevin,

    Michael Scott seems to be the embodiment of that rule. A good salesman turned incredibly bad leader. On the other hand, there are frequent complaints by technical-types that they become too valuable where they are to ever be put in a position of actual authority, so I guess it works both ways :). On the other hand, those complaints might be made by the same people that never get dates cause they’re “too nice”…

  10. trumwill says:

    Becky,

    I think it’s that there are so many middle manager positions and so few management positions at the top, so people get promoted to a place where they can make it on core competence and seniority but not much else. To get above there, you need to be really good at what you do or really political.

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