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Monday, May 21st, 2012
TV

How Realistic Are Our Sitcom Workplaces?

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Workplace-centric sitcoms have been a TV fixture since the days of Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, when it was discovered that basing a show around a group of oddballs who are forced to work together can be a successful formula for scoring laughs. As with most shows and movies, entertainment is the top priority, not realism, and that’s very much the case with the workplace comedy, where accurately depicting a job environment takes a backseat to amusing audiences.

With that in mind, we took a look at four modern sitcom workplaces and compared them to their real-life equivalents to see how America’s nonfictional paper companies, parks and recreation departments, diners, and late night talk shows stack up against the ones we see on TV.

NBC’s Parks and Recreation vs. a Real Indiana Parks and Recreation Department
As with most workplace comedies, probably the biggest difference between Parks and Rec and actual governmental parks departments is that the real ones aren’t filled with the same wacky characters that populate the sitcom. While that’s to be expected to a certain extent, it seems that the political aspirations of the show’s protagonist Leslie Knope don’t match up with real parks department employees. This past season of the sitcom focused on Leslie’s run for city council, but I spoke to the director of Noblesville, Indiana’s Parks and Recreation Department, who says he “doesn’t know of anyone within the Department who is contemplating a run for political office.”  Needless to say, the real parks department doesn’t have a sister city in South America or feel a hatred towards local libraries, unlike Leslie Knope and company.

The events run by Pawnee's parks department seem to be the most accurate part of Parks and Rec. The show has seen Leslie and her staff running summer concerts in the park, and Noblesville’s parks department regularly hosts concerts and movie screenings in the city’s parks. Sadly, Parks and Recreation’s breakout character Ron Swanson doesn’t seem to have a real-life counterpart in Noblesville. When I asked the director of the parks department if there were any Libertarians with impressive mustaches working there, he told me, “I don’t ask about anyone’s political beliefs and I can’t think of anyone with an impressive mustache.”

The Office’s Dunder Mifflin vs. an Actual Paper Company
The Office, America’s current longest-running workplace comedy, depicts the lives of a group of employees at a Pennsylvania paper company. Much of the show’s humor is derived from how cluelessly offensive ex-boss Michael Scott can be, and in real-life, he would have been fired about 700 times in just the first season alone. Michael’s actions have been so irresponsible that an employment lawyer named Julie Elgar started up a blog several years ago analyzing the legal bill if lawsuits were filed in response to Michael’s actions in each episode. Michael Scott withstanding, Dunder Mifflin seems to be pretty close to its real-life counterparts. I talked to an employee at a Southern California-based paper company, who says that, like Dunder Mifflin, his employer faces stiff competition with national and international paper chains. Unlike Dunder Mifflin, however, this company’s warehouse is behind its front offices rather than underneath, and the employees haven’t had to go through sensitivity training, which may have something to do with Michael Scott not being the boss there.

The 2 Broke Girls Diner vs. a Real Diner
 Since 2 Broke Girls is the only sitcom on here with a traditional three-camera setup and a live studio audience, it’s to be expected that the setup-punchline pitter-patter would be very different from how people talk in real-life diners (and in real life, in general). I ate at a diner in Santa Monica to compare it to the titular Broke Girls’ workplace and found some more inaccuracies. My waitress was right around the age of the show’s main characters, but she wasn’t taking every opportunity she could to bash hipsters in a comedic way. The pay-at-the-front cashier system depicted in the show is true to how most diners work, but the cashier at the place I went to wasn’t making snappy pop culture references like Garrett Morris’s characters does in 2 Broke Girls. Other differences: This diner was not previously owned by the Russian mob, and my waitress didn’t adhere to the lead Broke Girl’s maxim, “Don’t smile,” because smiling is a big help when trying to earn tips.

TGS, the Show-within-a-show on 30 Rock vs. Saturday Night Live
Tina Fey drew from the seven years she spent as SNL’s headwriter when creating 30 Rock, so one would assume that the show would offer a more realistic workplace depiction than most sitcoms (I don’t think Ricky Gervais ever worked at a paper company). Oddly enough, the biggest inconsistency between SNL and 30 Rock’s fictional sketch show TGS is the way the writing process is depicted, according to SNL writer Sarah Schneider. Schneider says, “While we do have a TGS-esque writer's room and round table, most of the writing is actually done in our offices, either solo or in small writing teams. The only time we're all around the same table is during Thursday rewrite sessions. Another difference is that at SNL, the cast is a big part of the writing process, instead of just being written for.” Liz Lemon’s relationship with network exec Jack Donaghy is also one of the more unrealistic parts of the show. Sarah Schneider remarks, “Also, as far as I know, Seth Meyers doesn't have a touching, mentor/mentee-type friendship with any of the NBC business executives, despite what I'm sure are his best efforts.”

Similarity-wise, Sarah Schneider says, “The TGS studio, from the page desk and quick change stalls to the studio floor, is dead-on. Luckily, our pages are more helpful than crazy.” Like SNL, 30 Rock is also produced by Lorne Michaels’s company Broadway Video and a lot of the same people work on/have worked on both shows. There are occasionally real-life production overlaps between the two shows where characters who work on TGS are played by people who have these actual jobs on SNL. For example, SNL’s Wardrobe Director and Stage Manager appear on 30 Rock as TGS’s Wardrobe Director and Stage Manager, respectively. Also, John Lutz, who plays TGS writer J.D. Lutz was a longtime writer for SNL and his stints on the two shows overlapped for a few years. I’m assuming the other writers were nicer to him on SNL than the ones on TGS are to his character.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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