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Office Humor Is Always at Work

Those honored on Administrative Professionals Day slyly keep stress at bay.

April 23, 2002|ADAM TSCHORN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fifty years ago, National Secretaries Day was created as a thank-you for the folks who keep the offices of America on track. It has expanded in name and scope, and tomorrow, as the nation celebrates Administrative Professionals Day, we honor one of the profession's most critical workplace contributions: a subversive sense of humor.

Examples of it are everywhere. On television, we've gotten heavy doses of support staff attitude from David Spade as personal assistant Finch in "Just Shoot Me" and from Hattie Winston as nurse/office manager Margaret and Shawnee Smith as her aide, Linda, in "Becker." In earlier days, we got an earful from Marcia Wallace as receptionist Carol on "The Bob Newhart Show" and from Lily Tomlin as operator Ernestine on "Laugh-In."

In real-life offices, where acting like Finch or Ernestine is a ticket out the door, it takes a different form, like the third-generation photocopied sentiment taped to a computer terminal that reads, "Failure to plan on your part does NOT constitute an emergency on my part," or the sign posted near the fax machine, "Stress button--bang head here."

Welcome to the snarky world of in-your-face office humor fueled by the stresses of the workplace and spread by the Internet, photocopier and fax. And, like the holiday, this vein of humor is no longer the sole domain of secretaries; it can be found stapled, taped and pinned to the cubicles of proofreaders, records clerks and other unseen heavy-lifters of corporate America.

Sherry Grossman, a legal secretary at the downtown law firm of O'Melveny & Myers, sits at her 17th-floor cubicle facing three neatly mounted signs. On one, a blue flower print frame displays the words "Computers do more work than people because they never have to answer the phone." Next to it, shellacked to a wooden board is the saying, "If you want a quick answer, ask the boss, if you want the correct answer, ask the secretary."

The final one, a professionally printed poster, advises, "Please be patient. I only have two speeds, and if this one isn't fast enough, then I'm sure you won't like my other."

"I got them at gift shops," said Grossman. "Just for the fun of it. It helps you let off steam a little bit, but it's not serious. If I was annoyed enough with my job, the sign wouldn't do it, and if I felt uncomfortable in my job, I wouldn't put the sign up."

But Grossman's neatly mounted musings on the stressed-out lives of the admin set are the exception. Most of the jokes appear as e-mail printouts, poor-quality copies and crudely drawn cartoons. Just one floor above Grossman, in the same law firm, Iris Aparicio's desk is a virtual shrine to this brand of cubicle comedy.

The lead records clerk has posted the sign: "I've been beaten, choked, kicked, lied to, swindled, taken advantage of and laughed at.... The only reason I hang around is to see what happens next!" Next to it a Snoopy-like dog dances, grimaces and snarls his way through a seven-panel cartoon entitled "Typical Work Week."

"It's for morale, for giggles," Aparicio says as she holds up a recent arrival. It is a photo of a skeleton slumped over a desk with the caption "Waiting for a raise."

"It would be depressing if I didn't have something to laugh at. There's so much going on, every so often you just have to turn around and smile. My desk is a pick-me-up."

Other "pick-me-ups" cataloged in a recent survey of workplace postings include a cheery yellow "button" (roughly the size of a saucepan lid) that says, "Tell me again how lucky I am to work here

Sometimes the messages express diet and health concerns such as: "Exercise, eat right, die anyway" and "Notice: This department requires no physical fitness program. Everyone gets enough exercise jumping to conclusions, flying off of the handle, running down the boss, knifing friends in the back, dodging responsibility and pushing their luck." One poster features the plea "Please God, if you can't make me thin, please make my friends fat" inexplicably placed beneath a photo of a kitten (which doesn't appear particularly fat or thin).

Kittens, in fact, seem to have become the totem animal of secretary humor, frequently appearing in cartoons and on posters with no apparent link. Perhaps it's homage to the granddaddy of all secretary humor, that now-familiar poster of a kitten hanging by its forepaws from a branch. The caption reads, "Hang in there baby, Friday's comin'."

Warner Bros.' Tweety Bird makes an occasional appearance--one poster pictures Tweety wearing a halo and the prayer: "I want to thank you, Lord, for being close to me so far this day. With your help, I haven't been impatient, lost my temper, grumpy, judgmental, or envious of anyone. But, I will be getting out of bed in a minute, and I think I'll really need your help then. Amen." In another, a duck stands holding a large mallet over a computer terminal. The caption reads, "Hit any key to continue."

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