*Stares into the Camera*: On The “Jim Look” and The Age of Irony

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A few weeks ago I was at a housewarming, and while using a phallic-shaped bottle opener to remove the cap from my beer because it was, regrettably, the only one available, some guy said “I can see you thinking; this one is slightly smaller than what I am used to”. Because I didn’t want to make the situation any more awkward than it already was, I laughed, trying to mute the discomfort that echoed through the kitchen. Yet it was not enough. I could still feel a cringe starting to work its way up my spine. So I did what I would normally do when the uncomfortableness can’t be laughed away: I picked a spot on the wall opposite of me and stared at it, pretending to look straight into the camera as if I were on The Office. It’s not that I like to flatter myself thinking that my life is being documented in a The Truman Show-like way[1], but at moments like these I find that the only way to properly deal with the sheer awkwardness of daily life is by reaching out to an imaginary audience. This is not just a personal quirk but symptomatic for the internet-driven chaotic experiences of modern life. From Modern Family to Parks and Recreation, the look into the camera assumes a stance that reflects contemporary tendencies to fluctuate between seriousness and the remains of the 90s-like postmodern irony.

Any person, be it someone who watches the show faithfully or someone who only caught a glimpse of it, would say that The Office is driven by awkwardness. The “cringe comedy” humor that is adopted in most mockumentaries like The Office relies on what humor theorists call “incongruity”, which refers a situation that is socially conceived as being out of place, or running against our expectations. The humor here does not lie in the incongruity itself, but in the characters’ realization of and reaction to the things that are out of place. American philosopher Noel Carroll links this notion of incongruity to black humor and argues that black humor an sich is not what people find amusing, but rather the idea that other people might find it annoying and uncomfortable. And the black humorists “revel in their discomfort”[2]. Likewise, Jim Halpert from The Office US doesn’t play practical jokes on office harlequin Dwight because he finds the jokes themselves funny, but because he revels in the awkwardness caused by Dwight’s reaction to them. For instance, in the very first episode of The Office US, when Dwight finds his stapler in jello (“again!”), he completely loses it in front of his boss, his new colleague, and the entire camera crew. This scene is not funny because of the incongruity (the stapler in jello), but because of Dwight’s embarrassingly exaggerated and inappropriate reaction to the incongruity. And the audience revels in the consequent discomfort (or awkwardness) created around the office. The Office is, then, a reactionary comedy; it does not primarily rely on jokes and punchlines but on the characters reactions to the incongruities that result in the signature awkward situations.

For Jim, the only thing that makes the awkwardness bearable is by reaching out to an audience that revels in the awkwardness with him. His look into the camera is a detachment from his here-and-now; by connecting with his (fictional) audience, he detaches himself from the present moment to a stance in which he observes his daily life with the same amusement as if he was part of the audience. This amused detached stance towards the awkwardness of daily life is similar to the iconic 90s irony. American scholar Adam Kotsko writes that, departing from the linguistic “irony” as saying what one doesn’t really mean, the 90s-style irony “created a more general stance of detachment from life in general – a stance of somehow not “meaning” whatever it is that they were doing”[3]. This typical indifference towards life is notoriously adopted in 90s icon Seinfeld, the show that was famous for being about “nothing” and whose observational humor (“What’s the deal with airplane peanuts?”) encouraged the audience to assume a detached and bemused stance from basically everything and everyone, even the most mundane realities of everyday life. Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are almost sociopathically alienated and apathetic towards the world and other people, using their irony and detached bemusement to shield themselves from the show’s signature awkward situations. With their ironic stance and chronic bewilderment they assume a detachment similar to Jim’s look into the camera when watching Dwight rage over his stapler, amusing themselves with the awkward quirkiness of others.

The “Jim look”, then, creates an ironic detachment that serves to shield oneself against the awkward and complex confrontations of modern life. In this context, the modern office space is the perfect environment for the 90s-like ironic detachment. Being a cultural symbol of monotony and pointless bureaucracy, nothing about the office calls for a genuine connection and enjoyment. In this it is only fitting that Jim works for a company that sells office paper. His weekdays revolve around something that is blank and in and of itself completely worthless. In other words, Jim’s job is quite literally about nothing. So Jim’s ironic detachment from his office life is a form of escapism. His shenanigans are defense mechanisms against the painfully pointless, bureaucratic, and mundane reality of his career. His look into the camera negates the seriousness of the office, turning the moment into an opportunity of ironic amusement.

Interestingly, it is mostly the young generations to whom Jim’s look appeals most. Actor Rainn Wilson, who portrays Dwight Schrute, says that whereas older generations find The Office too awkward to watch, the young kids allegedly “eat it up”. It is unlikely that these “kids” have already been scarred by the Kafkaesque ordeals of office life. So what’s the deal with that? Like Carroll, Wilson believes that The Office’s comedy doesn’t really rely on the jokes and the characters’ awkward behavior, but on the reactions to that behavior; “Dwight will do something stupid, but the laugh is on Pam or Jim seeing it and then turning to the camera. I think that that is how young people feel today. They’re seeing all this absurdity in life and if they could they would all just look at the camera and go, what?”.[4]

This may also explain why the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoji is the perfect representation of internet culture today. In a world where people spend the majority of their daily lives on the internet being exposed to a wide range of impressions varying from capricious memes and weird Japanese commercials to social media trolls and the poisonous hate culture of comment sections, their initial rage, fear, and confusion towards the incredible immensity of the World Wide Web is channeled to nihilistic emotional numbness. The easygoing shrug combined with the mildly amused smile conveys a detached bemused acceptance of the chaos of the universe. Like Jim watching Dwight raging over a stapler, the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoji serves as reversed John Nada glasses that turn the painful awkwardness of daily life into something amusing. Likewise, during my housewarming debacle I decided to just shrug it off, instead of mentally jumping into the rabbit hole of the sexist nature of inappropriate sex jokes I come across every day. In my mind, the audience I locked eyes with would feel for me and laugh at the guy’s cringing buffoonery. There was a group of friends watching silently, until one individual would verbalize what the whole group was thinking; “What’s the deal with this guy?”

[1] If it is, then feel free to laugh at this moment of dramatic irony.

[2] Carroll, Noel. Humour: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp 34.

[3] Kotsko, Adam. Awkwardness: An Essay. Winchester: John Hunt Publishing, 2010. pp 21.

[4] Hirschman, David. “Rain Wilson: Why the Awkward Humor in “The Office” is Funny.” Big Think. 20 May 2011.

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