Mike MacDonald and Jilly Gagnon on the Comedy of Office Life

The fascinating and terrible thing about office culture is it's constructed representation of life itself. The search for meaning, the competition for social standing, the possibility of love -- they're all there, but in a confined, artificial space. And just like life itself, there doesn't seem to be any possibility of escape.

It all makes office culture a rich subject for comedy. Mike MacDonald, a former contributing writer for the Onion, and Jilly Gagnon, author of the forthcoming YA novel #famous, are the co-authors of Choose Your Own Misery: The Office Adventure. The book is a choose-your-own-path narrative that investigates the many ways a morning commute can go disastrously wrong. It joins Dilbert, The Office, and Office Space in the canon of storytelling about a circle of Hell so sinister -- and so insidious -- that even Dante wasn't able to imagine it.

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I interviewed Mike and Jilly over e-mail, sending them questions, losing track of their answers, and ultimately patching together the following near-seamless replication of a casual chat in a coffee bar. We talked about the banalities of office culture, the semiotic structure of the choose-your-own-path narratives, and the coming apocalypse the upcoming presidential election.

Sean: The alienating terror of office life, with its gimlet view into the emptiness of human experience, seems like a bottomless well of comic inspiration. What made you want to dive into it?

Mike: At the time we were toying around with the idea for the book, we both had office jobs that didn't really suit our personality types. Of course we complained to each other about these jobs, but that can only make you feel so good for so long.

Jilly: I think what Mike's trying to get at is "petty revenge." Having to endure the soul-sucking, grinding misery of daily office life, with no end in sight, is a pretty grim prospect. Turning that very pain into our escape route was extremely emotionally satisfying. 

Sean: The sense of repetition in the multiple story lines reminded me of Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence, as well as the movie Groundhog Day. Did your office jobs feel that way, too?

Jilly: My office job felt so deeply that way that the rest of my life started to feel that way as well, and eventually I found it hard to look forward to anything, even the brief hope of the weekend, because I knew it would be taken away again all too soon.

Marketing calendars double down on the Groundhog Day effect, by the way. You keep doing the same few strategies, in the same cycles, and while the upside is the ability to "deliver" in your sleep, the downside is that creeping dread that your life is one long, waking nightmare playing on repeat. 

So you know! Positive mental attitude!

Mike: At least Bill Murray had the luxury of ending his day early by taking a bath with a toaster . . .

Sean: One interesting thing about writing a book like this is that you are not only torturing your protagonist in the repeating alternative story lines, but the reader as well. So my questions are, was it liberating to torture your protagonist in that way, and, did you really need to do that to the reader? Was that really fair? It seems like piling on.

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(Detail from Rodin's The Gates of Hell, Rodin Museum, Paris)

Jilly: I mean, is life really fair? Would you prefer to live in a fantasy world of promotions that will never come and putting a positive spin on the things that actually make you feel like an increasingly empty, purposeless, drone? 

Also, there's at least one ending where you wind up suing for damages, and another where you're given a three month mandatory mental-health "vacation," so really, it's not correct to characterize the entire book as negative. 

Mike: My first thought was that the protagonist should get fired at the end of every story line. It quickly became apparent that the book would become too one-noted if we did that. Creatively, it was a challenge to come up with different miserable endings that felt original and funny. 

Sean: Speaking of horrific experiences that cause despair, it looks like Donald Trump might actually become President of the United States. Mike, you're Canadian and, Jilly, given your childhood in Minnesota and your amiable disposition, you might as well be. If Donald Trump becomes President, how easily can I move to Toronto? What are rents like there? How much for, say, a two bedroom with high ceilings close to downtown?

Mike: My understanding is that councillor Rob Ford has plans to recapture the mayorship in the next municipal election, so you might want to consider another Canadian city instead. I hear most of them are within walking distance of a Tim Hortons!

Jilly: You'll probably want a comedy-writing roommate to help ease the transition to all that Canadian politeness. Just saying.

Sean: Mike, I had forgotten about Rob Ford. Thank you for making those of us south of the border feel less alone. Jilly, I'll e-mail you.

Did writing the book change your feelings about office life? Did it make you nostalgic for your old office jobs that you hated? Did it confirm your decision to leave them in the dustbin of your past?

Also, what's next? Do you have any plans to collaborate on any other projects?

Mike: Writing about office life was pretty cathartic, but it didn't exactly make me pine for the days of sitting in a cubicle, endlessly staring at a screen.

Jilly: I'd say writing the book only confirmed what I already knew about office life: that I am spectacularly ill-suited to it. Which is probably why Mike and I are planning lots of projects that will (ideally) keep us from having to go back to that. The second book in the Choose Your Own Misery series is already in the works, we're planning for a third, and we're coming up with loads of other projects in the meantime so that we can justify our office-free existences to ourselves.

Sean: Mike and Jilly, thank you for your time. This has been a lot of fun. On behalf of all of us who have been banished to basement offices to clutch our giant red staplers like security blankets, I wish you the best.

Mike: Thanks Sean!

Jilly: The pleasure has been all ours! And remember, no one visits the basement office, so no one has to know how much time you're spending doing anything but work!