Workaholics is a Comedy Central sitcom beginning its fifth season this month that features three mid-twenties, pothead dudes who work for a telemarketing company and share a house in Rancho Cucamonga, California. On paper, the premise falls somewhere between The Office and a Judd Apatow bromance movie. On screen, the sitcom stands out from all other recent comedies I’ve seen.
Workaholics is funny, unique, multi-layered, and smart, but the reviews of it I’ve seen have largely missed the point. The words “frat humor” get thrown around a lot. Even favorable critics have mistakenly assumed dumb characters indicate a show without depth and an immature audience indicates purely juvenile comedy. They haven’t bothered digging below the show’s bong- and boner-laden surface because they’ve wrongly assumed there isn’t anything to find. That’s why I’m writing my first TV show review–to work through why this show is more than just another sitcom. I hope to answer this question: What does Workaholics have that makes it so special?
Workaholics is disgusting. While I don’t think grossness is the most salient characteristic of the show, it is the factor most commonly written about so I will address it first. In nearly every episode, some form of urine, feces, vomit, snot, or blood is splashed on a character or finds its way into someone’s mouth. The episodes that do not involve bodily fluids are sure to have a slightly uncomfortable-to-watch injury or masturbation scene. I’m not grossed out very easily, but I still recognize that this show is grosser than most other shows on television.
Workaholics is gross for grossness’s sake and, at times, delightfully, unpredictably, creatively sickening. Lazy critics might write off the repulsive physical humor as a cheap laugh, but clearly it takes ingenuity to think of something as disgusting as rats being splattered around a house and yard with baseball bats. I could write an entire post on the grossest scenes of Workaholics (actually, would anyone like that? maybe a top ten thing?), but I’ll leave it at this: when I saw Blake give CPR to an elderly man’s tracheostomy hole and pull away with mucus in his mouth in S3E17 I squirmed in my seat. It was the first time since childhood something on tv made me gag. That is a whole new level of grossness light years beyond farts and boogers, and it’s worthy of admiration.
Now that grossness is out of the way, let’s dig into Workaholics’ overabundance of references. These are part of the wink at the camera that lets the audience know Workaholics isn’t simply an immature sitcom geared toward high school and college students who geek out over weed and dick jokes. The references give the show dimension and layers of humor. I know I don’t catch all of them; I don’t play video games, read comic books, understand role playing games, or watch many action movies. Still, I was a teenager in the 90s and am a big fan of both comedy and hip-hop and that is enough to feel like I’m firmly inside of the inside jokes.
The constant 90s references are hilarious evidence that the writers are writing what they think is funny, not simply catering to their audience. Twenty-one-year-olds might laugh at Adam in JNCOs, a Blink 182 tshirt, and a visor when the guys pretend to be high school students (S2E1) because it looks goofy, but they’re not laughing for the same reason I, someone born in 1981, am laughing. I can still remember when all of my crushes wore JNCOs, and when I sat at home having serious discussions with my friends about whether or not we should start dressing like skaters (while Blink 182 likely played in the background).
A favorite 90s reference of mine is in S3E15 when the guys sing Stay by Lisa Loeb to a web cam girl (who, not accidentally, I’m sure, is wearing Lisa Loeb-style glasses). Later in the episode Loeb herself makes a cameo and says “Stay” as part of her lines. The show’s younger fans won’t place Loeb’s line or her face. She is clearly there as a treat for those of us in the same age group as the show’s creators, all born between 1981 and 1984. The same goes for the myriad other 90s references, such as those to BJ Armstrong, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, and Seven Mary Three.
These 90s references are more than just fun nods to a shared past culture, however. They support a larger underlying theme I’ll discuss later, that of an extended adolescence. In American society, one’s 20s has, for many people, become a decade of confusing limbo between the teenage and adult years. The 90s references evoke emotions by reminding us viewers of our own teenage years. This allows us to feel more accepting of the guys’ narcissism and lack of empathy, as well as to share in their nostalgia for perhaps silly, yet simpler and more comfortable times of carefree youth prior to adult responsibility.
Workaholics’ comedy and hip-hop references are as plentiful and on-point as the 90s references. The guest actors alone show this is a true comedy fan’s sitcom and the creators are writing (and casting) to the back of the room. Alex Borstein, Chris D’Elia, Tom Green, Tim Heidecker, Leslie Jones, Bruce McCulloch, Chris Parnell, Jordan Peele, and many more comedy favorites have graced the show as guest actors. Sometimes I wonder if the writers are just trying to meet as many of their comedy heroes as possible, which is exactly what I would do if I were in their positions.
In addition to blatant comedy references such as those to John Candy, Tina Fey, and The Office, there are the more subtle gifts that make watching the show feel like a treasure hunt. I nearly missed stand-up Kyle Kinane (S2E8), and had to replay that glimpse of a generic-looking bearded extra in overalls in order to confirm it was him. I also had to replay Ders’s line “You are a medium talent at best” (S4E13) to make sure I heard it correctly, a line that would only be appreciated by comedy fans up on their history of the genre.
The hip-hop references operate similarly (and overlap with the 90s references quite a bit), with overt mentions of Andre 3000, Chamillionaire (my personal favorite), Chief Keef, Jay-Z, Nate Dogg, “Robert Kelly,” Rockafella records, Snoop Dogg, the St. Lunatics, Usher, and more. (Seriously, try and find me another show that references Chamillionaire.) Again, the sweetest references are subtle, special treats, like when Blake thanks Based God (S3E18), or when Anders says in conversation “Ain’t a damn thing changed” (S4E6). The copious use of references itself, especially the practice of using exact lines from other media, could be viewed as a meta-reference to hip-hop, a genre that regularly takes full beats and lines of lyrics then repurposes them to new meaning.
Digging deeper beyond the layers of gross-out humor and cultural references shows that Workaholics interrogates two major shifts happening in our society–the movement toward one’s 20s being an extended adolescence rather than the onset of adulthood and the changing definition of masculinity. These themes are where the real depth and pull of the series lie, and why knock-off shows featuring nerds and/or bros nerding and/or broing out cannot experience the same level of success. Part of the reason the show speaks to viewers, whether or not we consciously realize it, is because it identifies these insecurity-causing cultural shifts and allows us to laugh at our own uncertainties about our place within society in light of them.
Workaholics isn’t a show about slackers, as many tv critics claim. It is largely about one’s 20s (and early 30s, for some), the recently-created and yet-to-be-named cultural space that now exists between adolescence and adulthood. Adam, Blake, and Ders live independently and hold down full-time jobs as adults do, but play videogames and smoke pot constantly like teens. They strive to get promotions and want to be respected at the office, but view their job as boring and devoid of meaning, and continually engage in fireable shenanigans. They are out of college and in “the real world,” yet still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. Most of the time, they postpone the question by smoking a bowl or going on an adventure.
The guys’ in-between state is perhaps most clearly reflected in their relationship to women. They often mistake sexual attraction for true feelings, and don’t understand how to properly act on either. Their regular mentions of love and marriage show a desire for intimacy and maturity that their fear of and inaptitude with women keep them from. This is most obviously displayed in S3E15 when the guys decide they need to stop watching porn and instead pursue real women, then chase a camgirl. Even when they become consciously aware of their problem, they lack either opportunity or skill to overcome it.
Career success and romantic intimacy elude the dudes both abstractly and concretely. They want more than their current lives offer and often verbalize desires that represent a longing for maturity, depth, and purpose, but are seemingly helpless when it comes to identifying or obtaining those things. In the meantime, partying and friendship is what imbues their lives with meaning, and they oscillate between pursuing these with reckless abandon and facing (or, often, avoiding) the consequences.
In addition to facing the existential trials and tribulations of being a 20-something in America, the Workaholics characters are also dealing with the more specific issue of being male in America. Cliché as it sounds, they are no longer boys, but not yet men, and well aware of that. The guys are hyper-obsessed with masculinity and want nothing more than to be real men, as can be seen in their constant dick discourse (dick-course?). They praise the size of dad dicks and regularly brag about or insult their own and each other’s penis sizes, obvious measures of manliness. Women and sex are viewed not just as outlets for pleasure, but as sources of identity, self-worth, social status, and affirmation that the dudes possess the masculinity they seek.
Unfortunately, the guys are searching for an elusive masculinity that is impossible to pin down because right now the definition of “man” is rapidly changing in American culture. Whenever the dudes come close to identifying or achieving manliness, what they think they’ve found is quickly turned on its head. The strong men of The Lord’s Force (S3E7) are the manliest guys Adam, Blake, and Ders have ever met, but they turn out to be gay, which is confusing because not wanting to bang chicks isn’t manly at all. Blake blows his chance with Jillian by mentioning that he can’t wait to tell the guys they hooked up, before they hook up–his eagerness to display his manliness makes him lose his chance to obtain it (S3E18). Ders gets to bang Alice, the female boss who emasculates them day in and day out, but still has his manhood undercut when she insinuates his dick is too small and he finishes too soon to please her (S4E2).
A few months ago, the New York Times published a relevant article called The Death of Adulthood in American Culture. The author, A.O. Scott writes, “TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations.” Scott focuses on Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, citing the demise of their protagonists as a reflection of the upcoming end of patriarchal society. If Don Draper, Walter White, and Tony Soprano symbolize the end of manhood as we know it, Adam, Blake, and Ders symbolize the incoming generation of men looking at the mess they left and asking, “What next?” The existing structures are breaking down, but new ones haven’t been built. In the same article, Scott asks, “Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable…Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?” Clearly, the Workaholics guys have, at least temporarily, chosen to dance.
Although Workaholics is gaining in popularity and has made its creators celebrities, from what I’ve seen, it is still being slept on by a lot of people who would enjoy it if they gave it a deeper look. Hopefully with season five, that changes. Because Workaholics is hilarious, rife with cultural references and cool cameos, and providing a poignant commentary on today’s society and the 20-something’s changing place within it, I believe it will be considered a comedy classic one day. If you are a Workaholics fan and you’ve read this far, I encourage you to comment with which scene you think is the grossest, which reference the coolest, or whatever else is on your mind right now. As the dudes say, that would be totally tight butthole.