Did You Get That Memo?
An Ode to 'Office Space'
In 1999, Mike Judge was known primarily for the MTV series called Beavis and Butt-Head. The show was such a hit for MTV that it had been turned into a video game and also a feature-length movie. Before that, he had directed a few episodes of SNL, and had even created a cartoon character named Milton, a schlep of an office drone who seemed to be invisible to everyone.
However, Judge was not known for Milton and the cubicle filled office universe in which Milton lived. Judge was known for Beavis and Butt-Head, which is why twenty years ago on February 19, 1999, no one seemed to care that he released a movie called Office Space—a movie that featured his SNL creation Milton become flesh and blood. Despite some very decent critical reviews, though, three weeks after its release, Office Space could scarcely be found in theaters. It made a grand total of $12 million.
In the twenty years that has passed since Office Space was released, it has become a powerhouse of pop culture with quotes like: “Sounds like someone’s got a case of the Mondays…” “Did you get the memo about the TPS Reports?” “Peter, what’s happening…?” “Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead come in tomorrow. … mmmk… oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay.” “Lumbergh fucked her!” “I’d like to show her my O-face.” Then, there is the “flair.”
Also, who can forget about the scene in which Peter and his friends destroy an office printer?!
…And then, there is the red stapler!
The red stapler was so popular that Swingline, famous for their staplers, had to make a red one when the public started demanding it. You can buy your veery own Rio Red Swingline stapler right here.
But of course, as with all things great, the movie had a troubled production history. The studio, 20th Century Fox, had little faith in Judge. This was his first live-action feature, and although the movie had Jennifer Aniston in it, her part was so small that Fox didn’t feel they could even put her on the poster. Fox also did not like the dailies they were seeing. The movie was behind schedule from almost the first day, and Fox definitely did not like the gangster rap in the movie, which is so prevalent to the movie’s comedy.
It might even be fair to say that Fox had no faith in the movie whatsoever.
Nonetheless, Mike Judge — and with the help from his crew, who was much more experienced than he was (and with whom he didn’t try to hide anything) — persevered.
To create an endlessly quotable movie and introduce a new color of stapler to the public at large (though that was never Judge’s intent) is impressive. Also, just like with Beavis and Butt-Head, which was a commentary not on the idiocy of youth, but the way TV stations, like MTV, dumbed down their schedule (how many Spring Breaks could there really be?) for its youthful audience. With Office Space, what Judge wanted to do was create a commentary about what it was like to work in a corporate office, which is a world filled with incompetent bosses, unclear expectations, and hour upon hour of mind-numbing, soul-crushing drone work in which the companies care not one whit for their employees, and the employees, similarly, care not one whit for their work.
It is a situation that has improved slightly since the movie came out, but to be fair, Judge was not trying to incite a revolution. He just wanted to bring something to light; the soulless corporate environment of the office parks with adjoining chain restaurants that were on the rise.
“There were a lot of people who wanted me to set this movie in Wall Street,” Judge said in an interview, “or like the movie Brazil, but I wanted it very unglamorous, the kind of bleak work situation like I was in.”
With Office Space having been largely ignored (Judge hated the poster and hated the way it was marketed even), Judge was ready to move on to bigger and better things, which included his new series for Fox called King of the Hill.
Yet, it was clear that the movie had not gone unnoticed.
On August 5, 2001, Office Space premiered on Comedy Central, drawing 1.4 million viewers—this was a large enough audience that over the next two years, it would be shown on Comedy Central another 35 times.
In 2003, when Judge was working on Extract (which he sees as the companion piece to Office Space), he went to a Starbucks in Austin, TX, and he overheard the baristas quoting Bill Lumbergh. Other cast members had similar experiences. Gary Cole, who played Lumbergh, works service jobs when he is not acting and had people shouting dialogue at him. Jennifer Aniston, who has a small part in the movie as Peter’s love interest, said that when she would eat “at certain types of restaurants,” people would ask her if they like her flair.
Ron Livingston, who plays Peter, even shared that he got “a lot of people who say, ‘I quit my job because of you.’” He admitted that sentiment was “kind of a heavy load to carry,” but he does appreciate it when people tell him the movie made them feel better about their own jobs.
In 2008, Entertainment Weekly ranked Office Space fifth on its list of “25 Great Comedies from the Past 25 Years.”
So, why wasn’t Office Space an immediate hit? On Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus for it reads: “Mike Judge lampoons the office grind with its inspired mix of sharp dialogue and witty one-liners;” Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Livingston is nicely cast as Peter, a young guy whose imagination and capacity for happiness are the very things making him miserable;” and Susan Wloszczyna from USA Today said, “If you’ve ever had a job, you’ll be amused by this paean to peons.”
Roger Ebert wrote, “Mike Judge’s Office Space is a comic cry of rage against the nightmare of modern office life. It has many of the same complaints as “Dilbert” and the movie Clockwatchers and, for that matter, the works of Kafka and the Book of Job. It is about work that crushes the spirit. Office cubicles are cells, supervisors are the wardens, and modern management theory is skewed to employ as many managers and as few workers as possible.” He “has taken his SNL Milton cartoons as an inspiration for this live-action comedy, which uses Orwellian satirical techniques to fight the cubicle police: No individual detail of office routine is too absurd to be believed, but together they add up to stark, staring insanity.
Finally, Ebert writes that Judge “treats his characters a little like cartoon creatures. That works. Nuances of behavior are not necessary, because in the cubicle world every personality trait is magnified, and the captives stagger forth like grotesques.”
Therefore, why was it gone in theaters after three weeks?
Well, because although it is funny, it is not laugh out loud funny. Fox couldn’t market it because there aren’t any trailer moments the way you might think of them in a traditional comedy. The humor in Office Space is subtle. It’s the kind of humor that becomes funnier the more you think about it.
Fox President, Tom Rothman, would later say:
“Office Space isn’t like American Pie,” which also came out in 1999. “[Office Space] doesn’t have the kind of jokes you put in a 15-second television spot of somebody getting hit on the head with a frying pan. It’s sly. And let me tell you, sly is hard to sell.”
Indeed, but it is so worth it.
So, if you’ve never seen Office Space, get your “flair” and your red stapler ready, and pop it in. I’m sure it’s on demand somewhere, and you just might laugh so hard you’ll make an O-face.
Until next time,