‘Dilbert’ Is Canceled but Cubicle Comedians Thrive, on TikTok
Nothing about work is funny. Except when everything about work is funny.
Cubicle dwellers love to laugh through their pain — even when that cubicle is actually a desk chair at a dining table at home.
For decades, comedy about the drudgery and absurdity of corporate life has resonated with wide audiences. “Office Space” remains a cult classic decades after its release. According to Nielsen, in 2020 viewers streamed 57 billion minutes of “The Office,” which premiered in the United States in 2005.
And “Dilbert,” which followed the titular engineer through various white-collar woes, was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers across the country until this week, when the comic strip was widely dropped after its creator Scott Adams’s racist rant on a YouTube livestream. For some, it was no surprise that Dilbert was disappearing — a bigger surprise was that “Dilbert” was still a thing more than 40 years after it was created (especially given Mr. Adams’s history of offensive remarks).
But the material — life under the glare of fluorescents, the joys of middle management — provides eternal inspiration and fellow feeling.
“When workplace comedies poke fun at these shared experiences and identities, they reinforce a sense of camaraderie,” said Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford business professor and co-author of “Humor, Seriously.” Her colleague and co-author, Naomi Bagdonas, added that workplace humor, including on social media, can help people deal with the “exceptionally unfunny times” we are living in. “When many are experiencing stress and burnout, humor can be particularly effective at boosting morale and productivity,” she said.
A new generation of comedians is creating content that responds to and sends up the shifting norms of work. On TikTok and Instagram, memes and videos lampooning everything from Zoom etiquette to Gen Z email signoffs and layoffs are going viral.
DeAndre Brown, 23, who refers to himself as “The Corporate Baddie” on Instagram and TikTok, said that his videos about bosses asking employees to turn on their Zoom cameras always get a lot of views. “So many of us are experiencing the same things,” he said, adding, “It’s super relatable.”
Mr. Brown said he thought his comedy resonated in part because “there is a huge conversation happening about Gen Z in the work force.” He added, “My generation is entering at a time when people are starting to question their jobs.”
In one recent TikTok, Mr. Brown slams shut his laptop and uncorks a bottle of wine with his teeth the moment the clock strikes 5. “When the time hits 5 consider me dead!” the caption reads. Many comments are from people agreeing with and supporting this boundary-setting energy.
But it is the internet, so people do often have something negative to say. “A lot of older generations feel like Gen Z is entitled, we’ll never get anywhere in life, our mind-set is not feasible for a productive corporate environment,” he said. But he added that he also receives comments saying that the future looks brighter because of Gen Z’s approach.
Laura Whaley, 28, who has amassed 2.3 million Instagram followers and 3.1 million TikTok followers, portrays a series of co-worker characters in different wigs and hats — including “the person that creeps their co-workers’ calendars” and “the person who works during their time off.” (In both, a Dolly Parton-esque character named Donna Sue offers support, recalling the classic pro-working woman comedy “9 to 5.”)
Ms. Whaley posts about the trials of remote work, including the tiresome experience of telling a co-worker he’s on mute (again). She said that “with the pandemic speeding up the evolution of work, there were a whole lot of new things coming to the surface that were relatable for a lot of us.”
Christian Maldonado, 28, had just left a job at a car dealership in North Carolina when the pandemic began. After becoming active on TikTok during a period of unemployment, he started a corporate job at a software company. In 2021, he started sprinkling workplace jokes into his posts, noting that videos about bosses and paid time off performed well. He also satirized retail jobs, showing a manager shift from scolding to obsequious in front of a customer. (Mr. Maldonado played all three roles.)
“I get ideas from my audience,” he said. “They comment their experiences they’ve had at past workplaces.”
Rod Thill, 32, who posts about corporate life to some 1.6 million followers on TikTok (and nearly a million followers on Instagram), said that millennials, in particular, have grown up seeing corporate drudgery portrayed in television and movies. But while shows like “The Office” develop characters across seasons, social media creators may have just a few seconds to craft a persona or tell a joke. “It’s still the same relatability but the execution is different,” he said.
Mr. Thill added that content about mental health at work resonates with his audience — and that followers tend to share posts about work friends. “When you talk about your work bestie, they’re sending it to their work bestie,” he said.
Though cubicle comedy tends to focus on the indignities of life as a corporate underling, some corporations have started partnering with the creators that lampoon them.
Natalie Marshall, 25, who posts as @CorporateNatalie, parlayed her 492,000 TikTok followers and 473,000 Instagram followers into a job consulting with tech companies and doing sponsored posts for brands like Dell.
“While I’m making fun of work from home, @CorporateNatalie is incredibly brand friendly,” Ms. Marshall said. She added that many brands like to use humor to appear relatable to their audiences, and said that her own audience included millennial professionals with strong buying power.
Ross Pomerantz, 33, began posting as his character “Corporate Bro” after gathering inspiration from his time working in sales at Oracle. “I wanted to be the modern video version of Dilbert,” he said. But given the events of last week, he said, he now cringes at the comic.
Mr. Pomerantz now does speaking engagements for corporations, especially at sales events. Why would a company in a sector he lampoons invite him to speak? “Self-awareness wins these days,” he said. “People are so sick of the tone deaf, out of touch C.E.O.”
Even some people who work in human resources — who might be expected to balk at the jokes — are in on the fun.
Jamie Jackson, who works in H.R. for a start-up in Nashville, started her meme page @HumorousResources in September 2020. “Millennials especially really gravitate toward memes. They’re like our comics now,” she said.
“Any time I post hybrid memes — I look like this at home vs. this at the office — those always get millions of hits,” said Ms. Jackson, 41, adding, “People will say ‘accurate,’ ‘relatable,’ all those comments.”
The logo of @HumorousResources is a sketch of a hand extending a middle finger — not at anyone in particular, just at the concept of at corporate life. On a recent Microsoft Teams call, a gold-embossed statue of the logo was visible in Ms. Jackson’s home.
Ms. Jackson held a pair of Crocs: They were adorned with a charm version of the logo, too.
“We are at our jobs so much of the time,” she said, so she likes to have fun with the humorous parts of work. “Let’s be honest, we are all just living on a rock floating through space.”