I recalled a story that Mike Scully had told me earlier, about the most intense laughter he had ever heard in the rewrite room. The incident had occurred several years before, on a day when the staff was working on a subplot in which Homer, at a police auction, buys an impounded muscle car that formerly belonged to the town’s resident criminal, Snake. Snake wants the car back, so he escapes from jail and contrives a recovery scheme worthy of Wile E. Coyote: he stretches a wire across a road in the hope of decapitating Homer as he drives by. The wire misses Homer, but his car is followed closely by another.
"The driver of the second car is holding a sandwich at a ridiculous angle high up over his head and saying, ‘I told that idiot to slice my sandwich,"’ Scully explained. "That’s where we were going with the joke. But then George suddenly said, ‘What if the wire cuts off his arm?’ That made the people in the room laugh so hard that they were coughing they were literally choking because the joke was so unexpected.
That’s a great joke, where you’re set up for one payoff only to be led somewhere completely different.
So I was pleased when this week’s episode of The Office was able to deliver on a similar (but not as gruesome) joke. The setup is this: Mike, Jim, and Dwight have recruited Meredith to pretend to be the CEO of an imaginary company. She calls a meeting with a rival salesman played by Timothy Olyphant so that the gang can watch his sales pitch and steal his ideas.
However, because Olyphant is – as the episode goes to great pains to point out – quite the looker, Meredith abandons the plan and attempts to seduce him.
So, the gang calls in Oscar. The new plan is for Oscar to pretend to be a vice president or something similar who must summon away Meredith to tend to other matters while Oscar takes her place.
Now, Oscar is the only openly gay character on the show, so the obvious joke we’re expecting is that Oscar will take Meredith’s place and then start going ga-ga himself for the dreamboat salesman. I’m sure the writers could make this work, but it’s too expected. Too, oh, let’s say CBS.
Instead, as soon as Oscar enters the room, Meredith looks up and immediately says, “Oh. This is Manuel, my cleaning staff. Clean those windows.” Now Oscar must play along and clean windows, and we’re thrust into a situation that’s like an absurdist screwball improv comedy bit, where Meredith has all the power, and everyone around her must play the “Yes, and…” parts, a brilliant payoff to a mundane setup in an insane situation.
So, you can lament all you want that The Office might never top its second season, but it seems to me like the writers have still got it.