A fan theory for The Office suggests that Michael Scott is a secret genius. Beginning in 2005, the series started as a US version of Ricky Gervais’ The Office, a critically acclaimed cringe comedy set in a workplace, but the series soon escaped the shadow of its predecessor.
Warmer-hearted than the British original, The Office utilized an ensemble cast including Rainn Wilson and Mindy Kaling to form an identity and tone of its own. It soon became as critically acclaimed as the original series and went on for nine seasons. The series centered around Dunder Mifflin, an unspectacular paper company, and the quirky denizens of its Scranton branch.
Central to the appeal of The Office was Steve Carell’s career-best work as Michael Scott, the bumbling buffoon who somehow became manager of the branch despite his social awkwardness and incredible ability to say the worst things at the worst moment. However, one scene from the series implies that this could be an intentional decision on Michael’s part, and it’s a moment that re-contextualizes the entire series. At the end of The Office season 4, episode 11, “Survivor Man,” the lovable antihero returns from a brief attempt at surviving the wilderness to find that his temporary replacement, the comparatively cool and level-headed Jim, has caused an office-wide mutiny. Jim notes that managing the office is harder than expected, at which point Michael reveals that his constant cringe-worthy jokes and inappropriate comments are intended to inject some levity into the workplace and ensure the job never becomes unbearable.
In the context of the scene, the quote can be read as the set-up for a classic “that’s what she said” joke. Michael asks what he missed during his absence, calls Jim’s decision to throw all of the office’s birthdays into one celebration a “rookie mistake,” and after a quick “that’s what she said,” admits “I say stuff like that, you know, to lighten the tension when things sort of get hard.” This inevitably leads Jim to respond in kind with a classic The Office punchline, “that’s what she said,” sharing a laugh with Michael and in the process relieving his frustration about his inability to manage the titular workspace.
The two ignore Michael’s insight, but Jim’s subsequent lighter mood proves Michael’s point to be true and suggests that the character might be fully self-aware of his influence on The Office. Michael may intentionally be playing the buffoon to catalyze and motivate the various personalities of the eponymous setting, and far from the fool he appears, he might be the lone character holding the place together. It’s an idea further fleshed out in the season 6 episode “Murder,” wherein Michael insists on playing a murder mystery role-playing game instead of focusing on the threat of imminent unemployment and is proven right in his approach by the end of the episode, as The Office’s atmosphere is lightened even before the threat is called off, thanks to his intervention while the more self-serious Jim flounders.