‘staring into the camera like you’re on the office’ is such an interesting cultural phenomenon because it points to one of my very favorite things in pop culture, which is the use of commonly known fictional situations to indicate an emotion or context that is extremely specific and can’t necessarily be communicated with language alone.
why do characters on the office look into the camera? on the office, the characters are being filmed as part of a documentary; they understand they are being filmed and can acknowledge that fourth wall and those theoretical future viewers. but because the office is a comedy, that fourth wall acknowledgement is not about explaining motivations or gaining approval for an action, but about sharing an agreement with a group of people who are not actually there.
characters on the office look into the camera when something ridiculous is happening that no one in the room thinks is ridiculous but the person looking at the camera, were they to say ‘this is so ridiculous’ to the people in the room, their comrades in fiction, they would get serious pushback or anger; to those characters the situation is serious. the character looking into the camera is a more objective viewer, like the audience, and by looking at us they’re putting themselves on our objective team. and in the future when this ‘documentary’ would air, they would be vindicated as the person who understood that the situation was ridiculous.
so in real life, when we talk about ‘looking into the camera like we’re on the office’, this very specific emotion is what we’re referring to: that we’re in a situation that any objective viewer would find inherently ridiculous, and are seeking acknowledgement from an invisible but much larger group that would agree with us, even though nobody in the situation would do so. we’re putting ourselves in an outsider position, a less emotional position, and inherently a more powerful position, because we’re not vulnerable to being laughed at like all the ridiculous people we’re among. we’re among them, but we’re not with them, and the millions of people watching us on theoretical tv would be on our team, not theirs. that’s such a specific idea and concept, and one that’s really hard to communicate in pure language. but we can say ‘looking into the camera like we’re on the office’ and it’s much easier to communicate what we mean.
for me that’s what pop culture is for, and why it’s so important that it’s pop culture. maybe it feels more special if it’s only you and a grape who know that something exists, but the more people consume something, the more its situations and reactions become common knowledge, a sort of communal well from which we can draw to articulate real life problems. and ultimately, the easier it is for us to communicate and understand each other.