The best workplace comedies: From The Office and 30 Rock to Utopia and The Bear

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
6 Min Read
Shelved is a Canadian workplace comedy set in a library.
Shelved is a Canadian workplace comedy set in a library. Credit: CTV

It might seem counterintuitive to get home from a day at the office, the worksite or from behind the counter, only to then relax by putting on a show that takes us right back there. It’s ironic.

But instead of being triggering, workplace comedies have the opposite effect. They’re oddly calming. Even on your worst day at work, these stories reminds us there’s (almost) always a better way to be in an environment where you’re thrust together with people not of our own choosing.

Sometimes it’s just to chuckle at a familiar scenario or character – we’ve all met bullies like The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker – but when you inject humour into it, it makes our stresses seem smaller. We’re all in on the joke. And sometimes it’s like a manual for conflict resolution.

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On a more warm-and-fuzzy level, think of what the greatest examples of the genre have in common. They’re about found families, they’re about how people who would never share a drink in a pub together come to deeply care about each other. Especially when we often see our co-workers more than we do our friends and family.

Ultimately, we are part of a tribe and we can make the best of it.


Shelved is a Canadian workplace comedy set in a public library.
Shelved is a Canadian workplace comedy set in a public library. Credit: CTV

This Canadian comedy starts in Australia this week and if you want a heart-warming sitcom where everyone is trying their best in a hard situation, this is it. Vibes-wise, it’s similar to Abbott Elementary except with Canadians saying “aboot”.

The show is set in a public library and centres on the odd employees (cue men’s rights worker who tries to dissuade any boy reading a feminist book) working with reduced resources, kooky patrons (a woman who loves to stand very close to you) and a love of books.


THE OFFICE -- "Christmas" Episode 3009 -- Pictured: Back Row (l-r), Creed Bratton as Creed, Paul Liberstein as Toby, Brian Baumgartner as Kevin Malone, Kate Flannery as Meredith Palmer, Leslie David Baker as Stanley Hudson, Phyllis Smith as Phyllis Lapin, Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor, B.J. Novak as Ryan Howard, Front Row (l-r) Rainn WIlson as Dwight Schrute, Angela Kinsey as Angela Martin, Jenna Fischer as Pam Beesly, Steve Carell as Michael Scott, John Krasinski as Jim Halpert -- NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater
The Office US clocked up 201 episodes. Credit: Paul Drinkwater

This may be a blasphemous but hardly original take, but the US version of The Office eventually surpassed its UK parent by the time it hit its peak in the third, fourth and fifth seasons.

For adherents of this belief system, it comes down to Steve Carell’s performance as Michael Scott, a character who started off as prickly as Ricky Gervais’s David Brent but revealed himself to be a complex human with teeming insecurities, vulnerabilities and a great desire to be loved.


PARKS AND RECREATION -- "One Last Ride" Episode 712/713 -- Pictured: (l-r) Rashida Jones as Ann Perkins, Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Hugs! Lots of hugs! (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images) Credit: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Could there have ever been two less like-minded people than Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson? One is an eternal optimist who believes in the power of government to change people’s lives and the other is a surly libertarian who abhors centralised power.

But what they have in common is their innate decency and treating people as they deserved to be treated and on that, they found in each other a kind of platonic soulmate.

Funny and warm, Parks and Rec is always, always good for a rewatch whether you need a pick-me-up or not.


Tony (Rob Sitch) and Katie (Emma Louise Wilson) in season five of Utopia, coming to ABC
Incompetence and bureaucracy abound in Utopia. Credit: Hwa GOH/TheWest

Anyone who has worked in the public service can vouch for the accuracy of Utopia, set in a fictional “nation building” department charged with infrastructure projects designed to set Australia up for the future.

But it’s amazing that they can even commission a toilet block given the vast amount of time wasted by bureaucracy, pointless agendas and publicity stunts. Even if you’ve never worked in the public service, there’s a lot of familiarity in Rob Sitch’s comedy because everyone knows someone who continues to rise and rise despite their glaring mediocrity.

All you can do in the face of such frustrating scenarios is laugh.


In this 2011 image released by NBC, Alec Baldwin portrays Jack Donaghy, left, and Tina Fey portrays Liz Lemon in the NBC comedy series, "30 Rock." NBC says “30 Rock” will be returning next season for a final, abbreviated run. (AP Photo/NBC, Ali Goldstein)
30 Rock ran for seven seasons. (AP Photo/NBC, Ali Goldstein) Credit: Ali Goldstein/AP

The intersection of comedy, media and New York City gave 30 Rock a rich vein of stories to tap into but really it was the series’ sharp wit about the absurdities of fame, ageing, power, money, politics and friendship.

Tina Fey drew on her experience as a head writer for Saturday Night Live and rounded it out with a ragtag group of personalities who always behaved as they shouldn’t but you loved them all the same.

A pre-trigger happy Alec Baldwin’s performance as Jack Donaghy remains one of the most iconic characters of American TV.


TOD TV Veep season seven 21/08/2018
Julia Louis-Dreyfus won six Emmys for playing Selina Meyer. Credit: Supplied/Supplied

In the pre-Trump years, Washington political staffers cited Veep as the most accurate representation of their day-to-day working lives, which is deeply disturbing but also checks out.

In the world of Veep, the characters are motivated purely by their own ambitions but the one thing that holds them back, thank god, is their incompetence. So, so incompetent.

The writing is razor-sharp with some of the most cutting insults heard since, well, creator Armando Iannucci’s other political satire, The Thick of It.


Abbott Elementary
Abbott Elementary has three seasons under its belt. Credit: ABC

Abbott Elementary is a big hug, reinforcing all the things you want to believe about hardworking teachers at public schools, trying to educate the next generation of kids, instilling in them a love of learning and creativity.

Created by Quinta Brunson, the format is a mockumentary which allows for all those comical asides and piece-to-camera confessionals that brings the audience closer to the characters.

The characters are distinct, from the clueless principal Ava to the veteran teachers Barbara and Melissa, who knows all the challenges but gives it their best anyway.


The gang are back together! A new series of Party Down is set to hit Stan.
Party Down came back for a revival series in 2023. Credit: Supplied./TheWest

The baby pink satin bowties are not the only indignities the Party Down team have to suffer, it’s a weekly rotation of strange clients and even stranger colleagues in this comedy about a group of caterers who work at different events each episode, from Young Republican parties to high school reunions and funerals. Even Steve Guttenberg’s birthday party.

Starring Adam Scott, Ken Marino and Lizzy Caplan (in the original two seasons but not the revival), the show also contends with the frustrated ambitions of characters whose goal wasn’t to serve finger food to leery drunks.


Retail has never been so funny. Credit: NBC/TheWest

The people you’ll find working in one of those “big box” sells-everything stores are as varied as those you’ll find shopping there.

The employees of the fictional Cloud 9 shop spend their days dealing with weird customers but the real drama is between the workers – the authoritarian assistant store manager Dina, the sweet but dim sales associate Cheyenne, the sassy Mateo, who discovers he’s an undocumented immigrant, and, of course, business school drop-out Jonah who definitely has a thing for the smart Amy.


Carmy and Sydney, played by Jeremy Allen White and Ayo Edebiri, in season two of The Bear.
Season three of The Bear is coming this June. Credit: Chuck Hodes/TheWest

There are some former and present hospitality workers who actually can’t watch The Bear because it truly is triggering.

The critically acclaimed dramedy made stars out of Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri and Ebon Moss-Bachrach but what fans loved more than anything else was its visceral portrayals of the emotional, physical and mental toil it takes to work in that restaurant.

And whether it attracts people like Carmy, so damaged from his past relationships and crippling self-worth issues.

But through it all, Carmy and Sydney form a close working bond as two people who recognise something in each other – not just pain but an ambition to be the best. The Bear is about competence and that is very, very hot.


The Thick of It
This face, this terrifying face. Credit: BBC

How terrifying is the spectre of Malcolm Tucker that when you think of a bellowing bully, his picture is still the one you conjure in your mind, along with whoever is at the end of his vociferous and vicious tirade.

And the worst thing is, despite the strong language and tone, Malcolm is usually correct. That person is an idiot. But he’s also a monster. Armando Iannucci’s British political satire would make us weep if it wasn’t so damn funny.


Kitty Flanagan returns for series two of Fisk.
Kitty Flanagan co-created Fisk. Credit: Supplied/ABC./TheWest

Far from the hallways of fancy American law firms in skyscrapers and filled to the brim with fast-talking lawyers dressed in Burberry and Hugo Boss is Fisk, Kitty Flanagan’s comedy set in suburban Melbourne at legal practice that mostly handles wills, probates and the odd bit of conveyancing.

It may not be glamorous but it’s plenty droll thanks to Flanagan’s brown-decked Helen Tudor-Fisk, a woman who returns home after a marriage breakdown and is hired without even a reference check.

The cast is rounded out with Aaron Chen, Julia Zemiro and Marty Sheargold – all very funny people.


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