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You're On The Clock, Mister: 20 Great Workplace Comedies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
June 6, 2013 3:10 PM
12 Comments
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This weekend's broad new studio comedy "The Internship" (our review) concerns a couple of schlubs (former wedding crashers Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson) who, finding themselves out of work and hopelessly outdated when it comes to modern technology, apply to become interns at Google. While there, the movie becomes something of a workplace comedy – one in which all of their coworkers are way younger, cuter, and more brilliant. 

It's the latest in a long tradition of movies that take our daily jobs and make comedic mincemeat out of them. Everything from wage slave drudgery to gigs in expensive offices in glass skyscrapers, few occupations have gone untouched by the movies. It was enough to get us thinking about some of our favorite workplace comedies, ones where you can practically smell the freshly cooling ink, taste the stale coffee and shake your head in recognition of the woes the characters face in those films. What made our list? Read on to find out, or wait for the TPS report....

How to Get Ahead in Advertising” (1989)
Johnny Depp doesn’t get out of bed for less than $20 million and franchise potential, right? Well, he did for the indie “The Rum Diaries” in 2011, partly because it was a Hunter S. Thompson adaptation, but also because it was directed by Bruce Robinson, the English writer/director responsible for one of Depp’s all time favorite movies, “Withnail & I.” But as fun as that depraved comedy is, we’d go as far as to say Robinson’s far superior work is the somehow kind-of-forgotten “How to Get Ahead in Advertising." Part of that may be due to the fact it’s not readily available on DVD: Criterion had put it out more than a decade ago, but the rights seemed to lapse rather fast and it quickly went out of print. Regardless, ‘Advertising’ is a pitch-black deliciously hilarious farce and scathing satire starring Richard E. Grant as an advertising exec who suffers a nervous breakdown while trying to create a campaign for a pimple cream. Developing a crisis of conscience about the ethics of advertising, Grant’s Dennis Bagley flirts with the idea of becoming more socially conscious and perhaps even leaving his industry. But as soon as that thought enters the copywriting character’s head, he suddenly develops a boil on his neck which grows and grows until it literally takes a life of its own. Not kidding, the boil evolves into an evil talking head; a malevolent alter-ego on the ad-exec's shoulder who constantly undermines him while whispering into his ear. There’s even a trading personas-like stage when the good self is relegated to the boil and the evil self jumps back into the vicious world of advertising with malicious zeal. All the while, his wife (Rachel Ward) has to contend with this maniac and then decide which persona she’d rather be with. Though it’s mostly a two hander, Grant playing off of Grant and a little bit of Ward, it still fits snuggly into the workplace comedy genre as office politics and the politics of advertising weigh through the film heavily.

"The Front Page" (1974)
There have been a number of adaptations or riffs on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play of the same name (including another one of our favorite workplace comedies, "His Girl Friday"), and while "His Girl Friday" is easily the most beloved adaptation, it's also a fairly loose one. As far as the more straight adaptations go though, it's hard to beat the 1974 Billy Wilder version, which reunited odd couple Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and maintained the original play's period setting (the play was produced in 1928, the movie is set in 1929). The witty back-and-forth is terrific, the script (co-written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) pops, and Wilder, working with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, gives the movie a nice sense of scope, cramming in period detail while never letting the movie's zippy pacing fall slack. While Wilder, who is normally quite opposed to remakes, would later claim that he wasn't particularly proud of "The Front Page," it's still a great workplace comedy, showing the rather loose morals and ethical standings of people in the newspaper game back then, and even if it is often cartoonishly over-the-top, it maintains a level of emotional realism that you can easily hold onto, even without the romantic subplot invented for "His Girl Friday."

"Working Girl" (1988)
Arguably one of the single best workplace comedies ever, Mike Nichols' adorably fizzy "Working Girl" is centered around a scrappy young woman from Staten Island (Melanie Griffith) who works as a secretary in a Wall Street investment bank. When her boss (Sigourney Weaver) breaks her leg and is out of the office, Griffith hatches a scheme to install herself in Weaver's position and secure a merger deal of her own invention. Oh and she also falls in love with Weaver's boyfriend, played by Harrison Ford. Energetically directed by Mike Nichols, with a score by Carly Simon ("Let the River Run," which starts out the movie in an amazing sequence that follows the Staten Island Ferry as it makes its way to Manhattan, would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Song). The movie is inspirational in a way that never feels sappy or saccharine and the cast is uniformly excellent (Weaver, Griffith and Joan Cusack, who plays Giffith's best friend and partner in crime, sporting some truly incredible hair, were all nominated for Oscars). It's the lighter side of something like "Wall Street" and when Griffith, looking to die for, coos, in a mixture of sexuality and sweetness, "I have a head for business and a bod for sin," you can't help but fall in love. Or at least offer her the executive suite.  

"Clerks" (1994)
For a certain generation, "Clerks" was it. If you want to know what it was like having a dead-end job in the early nineties, look no further. Largely consisting of a convenience store clerk (Brian O'Halloran) and a video store jockey (Jeff Anderson) bull-shitting about everything under-the-sun in lo-fi black-and-white, "Clerks" was the "Gimme Shelter" of Generation X: a totemic statement about the bored, disaffected youth in plaid shirts and backwards baseball caps whose lives are strictly catalogued according to the number of women they've slept with and how many "Star Wars" references they can make in a single conversation. But at the same time it's more universal than that – if you've ever worked any kind of middling service industry or retail job, then there's something to connect with in the slacker protagonists. "Clerks" announced the debut of an original voice in independent film, writer/director Kevin Smith, and while he might not have lived up to that initial promise, "Clerks" is the kind of cult classic that will be watched for decades to come, long after video stores and convenience stores have gone the way of the dodo. It's telling too that Smith plans to close out his career as a filmmaker with "Clerks III," thus ending the trilogy and concluding a franchise that would go on to include a wonderful (if frustratingly short-lived) animated series, sequel, and ongoing comic book. In a way, "Clerks" has become the convenience store that Smith probably should have left a long time ago but just can't seem to quit.

His Girl Friday “ (1940)
A nearly perfect comedy, this Howard Hawks film adapts the play “The Front Page,” switching out the two male leads of the original for a bickering divorced couple. Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) wants his ex-wife – and best reporter – back, despite the fact that Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is about to marry another man (Ralph Bellamy) and give up the fast-paced life to be a wife and mother. To lure her away and back into the game, Walter has Hildy cover the execution of a murderer, with the story about to explode. The screwball comedy has twists and turns in its plot from there (with elements cribbed from real life), but it’s the dialogue and performances from Grant and Russell that land this on best-of-all-time lists. Screenwriters today could learn a thing or ten from the fast-paced, witty screenplay from Charles Lederer based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play, and the chemistry between charmer Grant and spitfire Russell is a master class for actors as well. While it’s at once forward thinking and entirely backward when it comes to feminism and women in the workplace, the film feels far younger than its 70-plus years.  

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12 Comments

  • B. | September 27, 2013 3:24 PMReply

    Why is 'Waiting' not on this list?? At first glance, it looks like a dumb, easy comedy, but when you watch it, it's actually kind of genius. The whole thing takes place in just one day-- at a typical chain restaurant one finds usually on the fringe of a mall or shopping center. Anyone who has ever waited tables or at least worked in such a place can relate to it. It follows multiple haphazard plot lines, just as one often does find multiple themes recurring among certain people throughout a typical work day. There are laugh-out-loud moments, but there are also ones that really make you think about what it means to work in the same low-pay job for long periods of time, and whether or not it's really worth it to go finish that college education.

  • Runcil | June 7, 2013 1:59 AMReply

    Please get your hands on this Indian film called Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. Can easily fit in the list.

  • Oogle monster | June 6, 2013 7:38 PMReply

    What about Adventureland? Sure it doesn't take place in a traditional office but it is still a workplace dark comedy.

  • YEP | June 7, 2013 2:42 AM

    I second this.

  • wes | June 6, 2013 4:22 PMReply

    Clerks is terrible. Huducker Proxy is overrated (though I love the Coen Bros). Glad to see His Girl Friday and Swimming with Sharks.

  • cirkusfolk | June 6, 2013 4:00 PMReply

    Oh and how can u not include a film that's title is "Horrible Bosses"? I know u all didn't like that movie either but I have to admit I just love Justin Bateman.

  • wes | June 6, 2013 9:47 PM

    who's that?

  • cirkusfolk | June 6, 2013 3:56 PMReply

    I clicked on the article to see two things: 1) To see if The Promotion was mentioned. It was (barely). And 2) To say Extract is actually better than Office Space because I knew the article was going to compare the two.

  • Alex P | June 6, 2013 4:00 PM

    The Promotion is godawful.

  • yer | June 6, 2013 3:44 PMReply

    Looks like you just found 20 things that fit 'workplace comedy' instead of 20 GREAT ones.

  • Edward Davis | June 6, 2013 3:59 PM

    There are 3 great movies on the first page. 4 if you count the tripe that is clerks.

  • Sean | June 6, 2013 3:49 PM

    You make it sound like that it's wrong to like 9 to 5 or Working Girl. Good movies.
    I also have a soft spot for Career Opportunities.

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