Working Hard? Or Hardly Working?

Are you a workaholic? According to the latest research there is more than one kind. Typical workaholics are “pushed” to their work and may suffer from poorer relationships at home and at work, as well as heart attacks and other illnesses caused by stress. But the latest discovery is people who qualify as “engaged workaholics,” who are “pulled” to their work because they love to work. According to Danish researcher Wilmar Schaufeli, these engaged workaholics “work because work is fun.” They also suffer less burnout, and perhaps fewer health deficits, than the typical workaholics.

I raise this question because Comedy Central just broke out its third season of Workaholics, an addictive show about three continuously baked twentysomethings who work as telemarketers. The three office mates/house mates are not “aholics” when it comes to work, but they are addicted to just about everything else: weed, rap, booze, porn, shrooms, acid, and wizards. Seriously, they love wizards.

The buddies on Workaholics have the same names as the actors who play them, Blake (Anderson), Adam (DeVine) and Ders (Anders Holm). Their boss is a woman—a barracuda with a soft spot for the slackers, and the plots usually revolve around a wild party, sometimes taking place at the suburban tract house they share, and sometimes taking place at work, like the time they camped out in the office while tripping on mushrooms, or the time they brought drugs on a business trip and were able to close an important deal by plying their client with acid.

However poor the work ethic of the characters on Workaholics, their real life counterparts probably qualify as “engaged” workaholics. Blake and Adam met at Orange Coast College, a community college in Costa Mesa, and after they found Anders at The Improv they began uploading sketch comedy to the internet in their spare time. Before they made it big, Blake, the show’s front man, with a mop of orange ringlet curls and a caterpillar mustache, was simultaneously going to school, delivering pizza, and becoming an internet phenomenon.

Fortunately for the show’s 2.2 million viewers per episode, mostly men between the ages of 18-34, the comedy trio took off. A Comedy Central executive saw one of Mail Order Comedy webisodes and agreed to bankroll their pilot. Ironically, of course, Blake, Anders, and Adam hit it big making comedy from their own nerdy, druggy, loserish lives. Most Americans are not so lucky. Any real worker who came to work as drunk, hungover, and stoned as the boys on Workaholics would be terminated.

Season one of Workaholics debuted in 2011 and featured wacky workplace intrigue, peppered by drugs, a bitchy boss, indecent exposure, and potty humor galore. The hilarious pilot featured a sadistic work place drug tester who threatened to expose the merry band of bromancers for the druggies they were. In an action sequence inspired by the film Die Hard, Blake busted through the office’s ceiling tiles, crawled through the air ducts, and broke into the room containing the vials of urine waiting to be drug-tested.. Blake then contaminated the samples with his own stream. In the final scene, the bested drug tester fell for one of the boys’ favorite pranks, stooping down to pick up a rolled up dollar bill filled with dog poop.

You wouldn’t think that a comedy this juvenile would have much to say about real workers, but the employees of TelAmericorp can be devilishly wry in their commentary on the modern-day dead-end-job. Almost every episode involves a real life situation that workers face in the new recessionary economy, such as getting fired, being denied vacation time, being fired for striking, being denied a raise or  a promotion, losing health insurance, being evicted, and failing a drug test. While the resolutions to these conflicts are often wildly fantastic and hallucinatory, and would never resolve a similar situation in real life, the jokes in each episode have nearly as much bite as an episode of The Office, that short lived 1990s comedy, Working, starring Fred Savage, or the 1960s comedy I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, which I reviewed last month.

During a memorable episode in the first season, for example, Blake, Adam, and Ders stumble across a group of strikers. “What are you on strike for?” The workers reply: “More pay, better hours, health insurance.” The boys are confused, but in a good way: “Now let me get this straight. You guys are standing outside, not working, and yelling? Strikes are awesome! Strikes are freaking cool!” Later in the episode the boys stage a strike of their own when their boss refuses to let them celebrate, as is their tradition, “half Christmas” in July.

Many television reviewers and interviewers have noticed that Workaholics echoes the current economy. MTV Geek observed that, “the show is…about these guys working these crappy jobs just so they can have enough money to party, and it’s all happening in the context of this pretty crappy economy.”

But is it possible that the recession is making some workers rethink the workaholic treadmill? American productivity, which has risen aggressively over the last decade, was down significantly last quarter. As the Associated Press reported, this could mean that “companies are struggling to squeeze more output from their workers.”

Tim Jackson, an Economics professor at the University of Surrey, took up this idea in a recent New York Times Op Ed, “Let’s be Less Productive.” He makes the radical suggestion that we try to loose ourselves from the vice grip of efficiency and productivity and revel in “slow work,” taking time to expand the professions that require craft and care for others—including hospital work, the arts, and education.

On Workaholics, the characters definitely revel in non-productivity, and they do care a lot for each other at the end of the day. As with most fraternities, theirs is built on fantasies of sexual exploitation, usually thwarted, of course, because they are wannabe players. Ultimately, their fraternity is closer to the old union brotherhood than you might think. Blunt in hand, they stick by each other, go on strike with each other, contaminate drug tests for each other, close business deals for each other, fight drug dealers, mean office mates, and cold-hearted ladies for each other. On Workaholics there is just enough brotherly love and slacker-class-consciousness to keep me coming back for more.

Kathy M. Newman

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, The Working Class and the Economy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Working Hard? Or Hardly Working?

  1. Pingback: All Shook Up: What a Viral Video Movement Can Tell us about Global Class Politics | Working-Class Perspectives

  2. Jessica Lehmann says:

    The 20-something’s American generation is generally viewed as lazier than its predecessors’. I had a co-worker, not originally from the US, who recently stated she believes this phenomenon stems from the US’s ongoing reign as “#1 in the world”: Young adults have inherited a sense that “everything will be fine” without working hard to prepare for the future. While an alarming under/un-employment rate of this age group likely contributes to a further lack of motivation of this demographic, I believe the attitudes of employers attempting to over-work existing employees in lieu of hiring additional help, can also contribute to workers feeling mistreated and under-appreciated…not exactly an appealing future to young applicants with their careers ahead of them.

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    • Kathy M. Newman says:

      Thanks for commenting, Jessica, and I think you make a good point. I don’t see that 20somethings are actually working less hard, and, as you point out, they ARE being overworked!

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  3. Joseph Entin says:

    Thanks, Kathy, for this terrific post. I especially like your link to the idea of “slow work.” Our entire society seems to be undergoing a steady speed-up, and it’s fascinating to think that this show might be registering some resistance. Given the focus on the show’s male protagonists, where do women workers and their concerns fit into the show? Thanks again, Kathy!

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    • Kathy M. Newman says:

      Thanks for commenting, Joseph! The women on this show are definitely not the stars, though the boss and the female co-worker (I forget her name) get a lot of airtime. I think the creators have created a sort of upsidedown world, in which in most of the episodes, they, the white men, have the least power. Of course, on the other hand, it usually works out for them, so they end up “on top” at the end of the episode, where they “should” be. That’s why the idea of fraternity or brotherhood occurred to me. There is solidarity here, but its reach is limited, to be sure!

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  4. Pingback: Chicago Labor & Arts Festival Blog

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