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Dashed Dreams, Empty Promises, and Laptop Batteries

‘The Office’ made its name by finding comedy in incredibly uncomfortable situations. But even by its own standards, “Scott’s Tots” towers above the rest as too cringe to watch.

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On Friday, Nathan Fielder will bring a close to the first season of his mind-boggling, skin-crawling HBO series, The Rehearsal. No matter how you feel about the show, one thing that can’t be denied is that it’s pushing the boundaries of cringe comedy. So in its honor, The Ringer hereby dubs today Cringe Comedy Day. Join us—if you can stop clenching your teeth and covering your eyes—as we celebrate and explore everything the niche genre has to offer.

The story of the most brutally uncomfortable episode of The Office ever begins with a cute two-word phrase. Executive producer Paul Lieberstein came up with it, wrote it down on a notecard, and threw it onto the writers’ room idea pile. “‘Scott’s Tots,’” fellow Office staffer Lee Eisenberg says, “was just a notecard in a sea of notecards.”

It didn’t take very much for Lieberstein—who also played one-man HR department Toby on the show—to sell his coworkers on his pitch, which wasn’t as innocent as it sounded: Dunder Mifflin regional manager Michael Scott promised a class of third graders that if they graduated from high school, he’d pay for their college tuition. A decade later, when the tots turned teens hold up their end of the bargain, a still-cash-strapped Michael has to break the news that he doesn’t have the money to make their dreams come true. Naturally, it goes horribly.

“You knew it was funny, but there obviously was a fine line that you had to ride with it,” says Eisenberg, who cowrote “Scott’s Tots” with his creative partner Gene Stupnitsky. “It felt like a dangerous episode.” They landed the assignment after writing two other hilariously painful—and classic—episodes of the series, “Dinner Party” and “The Lover.” Still, neither is as tough to watch as the one about a middle-aged white guy reneging on an inspirational offer to the kids, most of whom are Black, counting on him.

“Scott’s Tots,” which aired on December 3, 2009, is so cringeworthy that it’s hard to sit through. There’s even a 17,000-member Reddit thread just for those who can’t bring themselves to watch it. “‘Scott’s Tots’ came on and I couldn’t find my remote or get to the power plug,” one user wrote, “so ran to the basement and switched power off to the whole house and blew a fuse when I switched it back on.”

“It’s so painful,” wrote another. “It hurts so much. I can’t. I just can’t.”

But the truth is, the extreme queasiness that “Scott’s Tots” induces is what makes the episode memorable. By the sitcom’s sixth season, Steve Carell had long since turned Michael Scott into one of the most beloved characters in TV history. But occasionally, fans needed to be reminded that the clueless boss’s almost pathological need to be liked could lead to disastrous situations.

“That is sort of this incredible distillation of why we love Michael so much and why he’s made everyone’s life so impossibly difficult,” B.J. Novak, who directed “Scott’s Tots,” said on Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey’s Office Ladies podcast. “Which is sort of the heart and the comedy of the series. But it’s not usually that intense, you know?”

Sometimes, holding down the uneasiness button is worth it. Even if the results are stomach churning. “I think that cringe comedy is not dissimilar from jump-scares and horror—it surprises you,” Eisenberg says. “You know what’s happening. You give the audience a premise that they understand and then you see it to its full potential. And the longer you sit in it, the cringier it gets. It’s almost like when you try a gross food and you want your friend to try it.”

In this case, Eisenberg and Stupnitsky set out to make Michael Scott squirm along with viewers for once. “Just pitching the moves of that story was so fun in its brutality,” Eisenberg says. And Michael’s good intentions, he adds, make his broken promise feel even more hurtful.

“If there’s any malice in Michael Scott, I think that story doesn’t work,” says Eisenberg, who also cowrote the hit 2019 comedy Good Boys with Stupnitsky. “It’s such a generous thing that he offered. And it really shows where that character thought he would be in the future. He thought he was gonna be a millionaire who’d be married to a supermodel and that he’d be famous and that he’d be benevolent and that he’d be a real philanthropist among his many other successes. Maybe he’d be a screenwriter for Threat Level Midnight at that point. But he’d also still be running Dunder Mifflin and be branch manager in Scranton. I think it’s really about dashed hopes and dashed dreams.”

At the start of the episode, Michael seems to understand that he’s done something unforgivable. “What if I told you I had done the worst thing ever?” he asks Jim. “Would you still want to be my friend?” When Jim asks whether he’s murdered someone, he says, “Worse than murder.” Soon, when receptionist Erin asks Pam to check over Michael’s schedule for the day in the breakroom, his misdeed is revealed. After Phyllis, who’s reading over Pam’s shoulder, asks “What’s ‘Scott’s Tots’?” Stanley starts laughing uncontrollably. “Has it really been 10 years?” he says, before the scene cuts to him reading an old newspaper headline: “Local Businessman Pledges College Tuition to Third Graders.” This makes Stanley laugh even harder.

“It’s so damning,” Eisenberg says. “Because Stanley could’ve told you the moment that that newspaper article came out that there was no chance that it was going to work out.”

It’s clear from the outset that no one is going to let this slide. “Michael, this is a terrible, terrible thing you’ve done,” Pam says. When Erin mentions that they’ve rescheduled the trip to the Scott’s Tots’ high school seven times, he grimaces. Hard. “I’ve made some empty promises in my life,” he says after showing off the cards and art projects that the kids made for him over the years, “but hands down that was the most generous.”

More timid writers may not have subjected the audience to Michael answering for his idiocy. But Eisenberg and Stupnitsky wanted to show him coming clean—and getting pummeled. “If ‘Scott’s Tots’ were the B-story, it wouldn’t have the same effect,” Eisenberg says. “As the A-story, you’re giving it so much time in that classroom. With a story like this, he really is affecting lives.”

When Erin and Michael visit the school, things start to become truly excruciating. First they pass “The Michael Gary Scott Reading Room.” Then they’re greeted by all of Michael’s now-teenage protégés, who promptly break into a song and dance routine:

Hey, Mr. Scott. Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do? Make our dreams come true.

The rap was one of the first things that Eisenberg and Stupnitsky pitched. For them, seeing it come together in rehearsals was a treat. “The show’s very contained,” Eisenberg says. “So to have a choreographer and to have these incredible dancers practicing in the warehouse for days, a guy doing a flip, is like, ‘Oh my God.’”

Before filming the scene, Eisenberg and Stupnitsky noted to Carell that Michael should be delighted by the performance and look like he’s on the verge of an emotional breakdown. He may be about to deliver life-altering bad news to the students, but he’s still Michael Scott. “The idea that someone would write a song and a dance for him would mean a lot to him,” Eisenberg says.

As he’s being feted by school administrators and a student named Derrick—who thanks him for giving him the opportunity to “become the next President Obama”—Michael starts to cry. Then he’s invited to the dais to speak. Knowing what’s going to come next makes Carell’s already-brilliant performance even cringier.

“Who here’s done something stupid in their lives?” he asks. Before Michael can confess, the school bell rings. For a split second, you think that in typical sitcom fashion, he’ll be saved by it. Nope. It’s only midway through a double period. After stalling, he finally admits that he won’t be able to pay for the class’s college tuition—prompting both the kids and the adults in the room to go through the five stages of grief in real time. Michael’s apology, quite reasonably, does nothing to calm them. “Ending an act with people screaming and then coming back from the act [break] and having people screaming is a very fun thing,” Eisenberg says.

This sets the stage for Michael’s half-assed, ridiculous gesture of goodwill. In lieu of tuition money, he offers the teens something that he retrieves from a giant suitcase that Erin had rolled in: laptop batteries. When that does nothing to curb their anger, Michael tries to tout his gifts’ high quality. That was all Carell. “Steve, I believe improvised, ‘They’re lithium!’” Eisenberg says. “It’s such a funny line.”

Moments later, Erin and Michael scurry out the school’s front door. But not before Derrick, played by Kwame Boateng, stops Michael and tells him what he did was messed up. “We didn’t want him to leave the school and everyone cheers and it’s tied up in a neat bow,” Eisenberg says. After some prodding, Michael reluctantly agrees to pay for Derrick’s college textbooks. He also makes sure to tell the disappointed student to call him before cashing the yearly $1,000 check. “Michael’s money situation,” Eisenberg adds, “it’s a moving target from day to day.”

As they drive back to the office in their last scene in “Scott’s Tots,” Erin soothes a distraught Michael. Until then, he’d still resented her for replacing Pam as his assistant. But their shared misery brings them closer. In the end, they sing, “Hey, Mr. Scott. Whatcha gonna do?” together. It’s a silver lining for Michael—but not the kids he screwed over. “It’s completely psychotic and also it’s a bonding moment,” Eisenberg says. “Like, ‘These two are gonna be OK together.’ They’ve also completely forgotten what that song means and who they’ve hurt during that episode.”

For Michael, it’s a pathetic end to a pathetic day. But as difficult as it is to watch the events unfold, it felt right. “That’s exactly what Michael would do. That’s exactly what Michael would feel,” Novak said on Office Ladies. “It seems like no one’s responding to it saying it’s a bad episode or, ‘Michael wouldn’t do that.’ It’s more just like, ‘It’s so hard to watch.’ So it is consistent, I think, with the show.”

Unlike many of the heartwarming late-season American Office story lines, “Scott’s Tots” seemed like it could’ve been a part of the bleaker, more grounded British version of the show. In the writers’ eyes, neither Michael nor the viewers should be let off the hook. “I think a lot of our episodes leaned into that British sensibility,” Eisenberg says. “That cringiness … the exciting thing about cringiness is, how much can the audience withstand?”

The answer to that question? It depends on who you ask. Stupnitsky recently told Eisenberg about the Reddit thread for people who avoid “Scott’s Tots.” But Eisenberg doesn’t mind. To him, the fact that so many Office fans can’t sit through it is a gift.

“As a comedy writer, that delights me,” Eisenberg says. “Because it means that it’s not a casual episode of The Office. It’s not one that you forget.”


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