Though the workplace comedy as we generally understand it is a genre often filled with stories of banality and compromise, at the end of the day its characters are usually driven by their attachment to a surrogate family formed under less than ideal circumstances. On the surface, Corporate—the new Comedy Central sitcom from Matt Ingebretson, Jake Weisman and Pat Bishop about two junior executives-in-training at the brutal corporation Hampton DeVille—is a striking departure from that tradition, though its creators may not agree. “I think it’s more like a family than other office comedies,” says Weisman, “because everyone’s pretty open about how much they hate each other.”
That’s a pretty apt introduction to the world painted in Corporate, an unforgiving landscape of excess, regret and fear. Where, as Ingebretson says, “you are pitted against people you also have to be friendly with, and it slowly sucks your life force out.” And the guys have found compelling ways to use Hampton DeVille’s massive status to raise the stakes and justify Corporate’s heightened tone. The pilot focuses on Matt and Jake reluctantly trying to find the office drone whose controversial tweet from Hampton DeVille’s account may destroy the chances the company’s new tablet has on the market, while episode two jumps straight to Hampton DeVille’s war profiteering, a move that makes every character twice as out of touch and lacking perspective when it comes to their own petty concerns. (In each of these scenarios, the boys are met halfway by their only friend and primary foil, an HR representative played by the wonderful Aparna Nancherla.)
Each misadventure also serves to underline what the trio sees as a fact of modern life. “Humans are doing incredible things and technology is amazing,” says Bishop, “but we’re still in these cubicles…” Corporations have won, essentially. “The laws are set up to help them,” adds Ingebretson. “They’re always going to win. They’re ‘the house’ in Vegas…. They’ve defeated us.” And while Corporate is almost post-apocalyptic in its depiction of a world where this is a truth you cannot fight, and the only question is how much comfort you can get out of submitting to that, this principle also provides a Chuck Jones-esque series of rules that guide the main characters to an entertaining net loss every time. “In every episode, the corporation should win,” says Ingebretson. Any victory for Matt and Jake is ultimately pyrrhic.
It’s an attitude borne of the creators’ own experiences during that fallow period between graduating college with big dreams and finding comedy. TV Matt and TV Jake haven’t found comedy, or anything, really, and seem to have compromised their dreams beyond the point of no return. They’re no longer the English major or punk singer they once were. “The characters are us if we never turned the corner,” says Ingebretson, and the series does have a Days of Future Past element to it—a relatable but terrifying hypothetical. “We also talked about my character as if he’s Edward Norton in Fight Club if he had never started a fight club,” adds Ingebretson. “Even people who do what they, quote-unquote, ‘love to do:’ there is this constant compromise you’re making with yourself… [we’re taught that] if you work hard enough you will reach a plateau of unending satisfaction…. That’s not the case. I think we’re sympathetic to that reality.”
If that sounds bleak, know that it comes across as more cathartic than you’d expect. And as overwhelming as Hampton DeVille is for the characters, it’s not faceless. There is an architect of all evil in the Corporate sector, and his name is Lance Reddick. A mix of Christian Grey, Bruce Wayne and the actual devil, Reddick is perfectly cast as Hampton DeVille’s merciless CEO. Though he’s not primarily known as a comedic actor, his introduction on the show, which includes—amongst other things—a samurai sword, is a perfect statement of what the show is going to be. If the goal of the show is, as Weisman says, to “play it straight, and totally commit” in the middle of the chaos, Reddick’s steely self-seriousness bolts the whole thing to the ground. He is, in Ingebretson’s words, “a perfect actor.”
The comic pedigree of the show instead comes from Ingebretson (a stand-up who has written for McSweeney’s and The Onion) and Bishop/Weisman (both members of the sketch group WOMEN), all leading their own sitcom for the first time. The increased scale of the production, however, hasn’t changed the trio’s fundamental approach, and the lessons from their indie comedy days still hold true. “I think we tried to hone a point of view by making stuff on our own for a long time,” Bishop says. “We try to have that as this firm basis to build everything else around.” And as for the primary takeaway from producing comedy on your own, that would have to be, Weisman says—on theme—“constant dissatisfaction with yourself.”
Corporate premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 10 PM ET / 9 PM CT.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.