This week we’re celebrating the 15th anniversary of The Office. Also check out our ranking of the show’s 20 best episodes, a virtual Dundie Awards honoring its best moments overall, as well as essays on the show’s enduring legacy and why it still holds up in the #MeToo Era.
We’re at a strange point in American history: The coronavirus is raging across the country, and for everyone’s safety, most of us are self-isolating. We’re holed up in our apartments and homes, either working remotely or furloughed or otherwise jobless. For those of us who are new to the work from home life, though, we might actually miss the comforting drudgery of our offices: the hum of the copy machine, the awkward repartee between desk mates, the overbearing boss who wants to be your best friend and complete master all at the same time.
It’s a small blessing, then, that this month also marks the 15th anniversary of the premiere of the American version of The Office, one of the most seminal (and, judging by the $500 million Universal paid to get it off Netflix starting in 2021, most rewatched) sitcoms of the 21st century. In its first season, Greg Daniels’ adaptation tried a little too hard to ape the caustic, grim office nihilism of the Ricky Gervais original, but by Season 2, it settled into the sunnier, quirkier, longer-lasting incarnation we all know and love.
A key part of that, of course, was the show’s utter mastery of the cold open, little vignettes of life around Dunder-Mifflin Scranton that occasionally allowed us a sneak peek at the plot of the week, but more often than not just gave us a chance to live inside the quirks of its colorful characters. Whether it was one of Jim’s insidious pranks against Dwight, Stanley’s endearing grumpiness, or Michael Scott’s unceasing demands to be loved and admired, The Office‘s cold opens contained some of the show’s finest and most meme-able moments.
Now that many of us are considering an umpteenth rewatch of the show given the anniversary (and, frankly, America being glued to its couches at the moment), we thought we’d break down some of our favorite cold opens from the nine whopping seasons of the show’s history. (Season 1 didn’t have any cold opens, so it’s missing from this list.) Cook up a pot of Kevin’s famous chili, parkour hardcore your way over to a nice comfy chair, and let’s get this party started!
25. Phyllis Enjoys 50 Shades
Season 9, “Promos”
Season 9 came right smack dab in the middle of 50 Shades fever, and it was natural that oversexed romantic Phyllis would gravitate toward it in the show’s final season. In keeping with late-period Office‘s move towards the cartoonish, though, Phyllis does a little bit more than listen to the 50 Shades of Grey audiobook; she’s blissed out in her office chair. The only solution? A bucket of water to the face. (And in fitting smash-cut fashion, it’s what a deeply horny Andy needs too.)
24. Meredith Gets Hit By a Car
Season 4, “Fun Run”
The plot-based cold opens tend to be less interesting than the hijinks, but I’ll make an exception for Season 4’s opener. It does the heavy lifting of establishing the new status quo for the show (e.g. Michael’s return to work as manager, his domestic bliss with Jan, Jim’s return to the office), while putting a gut-busting button on the proceedings with an inattentive Michael slamming into Meredith with his car. The abruptness of the hit, Kate Flannery’s hilarious pratfall over Michael’s hood … just beautiful.
23. Lip Dub
Season 7, “Nepotism”
Mid-series Office liked to kick off its seasons with the Dunder-Mifflin employees replicating one Internet fad or another. Some were more successful than others (more on that later), but Season 7’s lip dub around the office to The Human Beinz’ “Nobody But Me” is an infectious way to reintroduce the characters. By this point, the coworkers had fully settled into their roles as an unlikely family, even with their more caustic quirks, so watching them work together for a fun maybe-viral video is a treat. That is, of course, until Dwight spends most of his time showing off his terrifying combat knife and holding it to people’s throats. Still, Magic Mike Scott saves it with a fireball flourish.
22. Cheese Ball Masters
Season 5, “Heavy Competition”
Season 5’s Michael Scott Paper Company arc was one of the coolest shakeups to The Office‘s status quo, and it’s honestly a shame it didn’t last longer than it did. Still, this cold open gave us a glimpse of the claustrophobic utopia that MSPC promised in its few scant weeks of operation, as Michael, Pam and Ryan killed time by perfecting the art of catching a cheese ball in your mouth. It’s dorky and impressive in equal measure, and one of the few times these three characters would have so much genuine fun together. (Plus, as the video above can attest, watching it in reverse is some real Lynchian stuff.)
21. Let’s Put a Smile on That Face
Season 5, “Employee Transfer”
The Office‘s yearly Halloween episodes were okay-to-great, with the Dunder Mifflinites dressing up in cheeky new costumes that befit the year’s trends (except for you, Jim, you cynical poser, no one’s impressed by how little you care). But Season 5 was the year The Dark Knight came out, so naturally not one, but three office weirdos dressed up as Heath Ledger’s clown prince of crime. Dwight’s is adorably tryhard, Kevin just looks like a normal party clown, but it’s Creed’s super-realistic, menacing take on Mr. J that crosses over into genuine disquiet.
20. Explain This to Me Like I’m 5
Season 5, “Surplus”
The Michael-Oscar dynamic may well be one of the show’s most underrated — what do you do when you give the dumbest man in the office total authority over the smartest man in the office? The cold open of “Surplus” is a great showcase for that, Oscar having to find new ways to explain to Michael the very concept of a surplus so they can spend it before the year’s budget runs out. Even the context of a lemonade stand seems to elude Michael: “Why don’t you explain this to me like I’m five?”
19. Andy’s Baby Talk
Season 6, “Scott’s Tots”
“Scott’s Tots” is one of the most oft-skipped over episodes in my Office rewatches — even as a fan of this show, the episode’s premise is much too cringe-inducing to handle — but at least the cold open is a dopey-fun interaction between Michael and Andy, as the former chastises the latter for “talking baby talk” around the office. Among the phrases Andy’s been accused of saying: “widdle-iddle”, “footy-wooty”, and “Wode Iwand,” among others. But given Michael’s own penchant for voices, he finds it hard to begrudge Andy too much; after all, he thinks Michael’s Elvis impression is great. “Thank ya,” Michael rumbles in a Presleyan snarl. “Thank ya a lot.”
18. Knock Knock
Season 5, “Golden Ticket”
The cold open that launched a thousand gif reactions, “Golden Ticket” sees Michael and Dwight on a charm offensive with knock-knock jokes. In keeping with their characters, Michael’s is goofy but simply obtrusive (slapping butter on Pam’s desk), whereas Dwight’s has an air of the authoritarian. Luckily, Jim has the final answer in the form of a slap to the face as part of his own take on Dwight’s KGB joke. “The KGB will wait for no one!” To the camera — and us — Dwight warns as he nurses a stinging face: “It’s true.”
17. Asian Jim
Season 9, “Andy’s Ancestry”
Jim’s long-form gaslighting of the gullible Dwight will never get old, but it reaches a strange zenith in The Office‘s final season when Jim and Pam hire an actor friend of theirs (played by Randall Park) to play Jim. They plan ahead, too, briefing him on Jim’s paper sales, crafting couple photos for the desk, and even stealing a kiss from Pam. “Jim’s not Asian,” Dwight protests. “Oh, you never noticed?” Not-Jim responds: “Hats off to you for not seeing race.” The series of confused half-grunts that emanate from Dwight after the scheme fully breaks his brain are just beautiful.
16. The DVD Square
Season 4, “Launch Party”
’90s kids will remember this precious game — staring at the floating screensaver logo on a paused DVD as it bounces from one edge of your bulky CRT TV to the other, never giving you that pattern-recognizing catharsis of finally hitting the corner dead on. In a cold open undoubtedly borne of a writers’ room that underwent the same predicament, “Launch Party” shows the Dunder-Mifflin staff more engaged in a Michael meeting than ever — not because of anything he’s saying, but because they’re still waiting for that logo to hit the perfect corner. In one of the greatest indicators that this show is fiction, the DVD corner finally does, giving Michael the cheers he always wanted in an office conference room meeting, but not for the reasons he thinks.
15. The Quiet Game
Season 8, “Trivia”
Some of the show’s best cold opens are the ‘group goof-offs’, the moments where the entire office is united in a shared goal. This time, it’s to maintain the longest silent streak in the office’s history. It’s a masterclass in comedic tension, from whether to answer an incoming call to Andy’s pantomiming of a raccoon eating a sandwich outside. But the thing that breaks the dam — Kevin’s uncontrollable need to grunt “oh yeah” when he eats a candy bar — is the icing on the cake. Play the silent game with any group of friends, and the thrill of victory and agony of defeat becomes all too relatable here.
14. Turn the Clock Forward
Season 5, “Company Picnic”
Another great example of the group goof-off is the office’s mutual scheme to leave early by taking advantage of Michael’s mid-day nap (brought on by the consumption of a chicken pot pie — scratch that, an entire family-sized chicken pot pie). They manually turn clocks forward, crack into Michael’s watch and car to turn the clocks ahead, and even wake him up with a well-timed fake laugh. What’s more, Michael’s innate desire to be included — right down to laughing right alongside them — helps them actually pull it off. The resulting cheers of victory are one of Dunder-MIfflin’s most adorable moments of unity.
13. Jim is Michael
Season 5, “Blood Drive”
Okay, this one’s more of a personal favorite, but the cold open in which Jim pretends to be Michael to shoo off a door-to-door salesman selling an automated calling technology that would render Pam jobless is just pure Office. Jim’s aping of Michael’s mannerisms is one thing, but Jim, Pam and Dwight stopping the real Michael cold by bombarding him with Fonzie “Ayyyyyyy”s is one of the most bizarrely funny moments in the show’s history. Just look at that zoom on Michael’s confused, manic, bug-eyed face! He’s an easy guy to short-circuit, but it never ceases to entertain.
12. You Said You Didn’t Have Any Plans!
Season 4, “Dinner Party”
“Dinner Party” is rightly lauded as one of The Office‘s best episodes, and the cold open is a beautifully caustic amuse-bouche for the high-wire tension that will follow. The setup is classic Michael Scott, in all his needy manipulativeness: transparently faking a menial task so no one will make plans for the night, only to call it off with an impassioned call to corporate. “These people are my friends and I care about them!” he shrieks into a phone with no one on the other line. And of course, as soon as he defuses the situation of his own making, he pounces on Jim and Pam: “You said you didn’t make plans!” He fools no one, and yet, it arms us for the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shenanigans we’ll be privy to for the next 20 minutes.
11. Future Dwight
Season 3, “Branch Closing”
We haven’t had all that many Jim/Dwight pranks on here, and that’s because they all tend to blur together. Some, however, stand out over others, including this Season 3 prank in which a Stamford-based Jim infrequently faxes Dwight messages from “Future Dwight” on his own stationery. Dwight’s gullibility and love of the fantastical always gets him, leading to a mad dash to slap Stanley’s coffee out of his hand because he thinks it’s been poisoned. “You’ll thank me later,” he assures Stanley.
10. Kevin Say Few Word, Save Time
Season 8, “The Incentive”
Kevin’s the ultimate case study of a sitcom character whose characteristics become so exaggerated over a show’s lifetime that they become cartoonish. But once you embrace the madness, you get to enjoy incredible cold opens like this one, where Kevin gets it in his head that saying fewer words make your communication more efficient. Of course, by making such a show of it, he ends up wasting more time, as Jim and Pam try to explain. Still, Oscar maybe nails it on the head when he guesses that Kevin’s pigeon-speak is “an ironic comment on our expectations of him… a funhouse model of ‘Kevin'”. Whatever it may be, I’m a believer in Kevin’s hope for a world where we no say many word when few word do trick. “When I president, they see…. they see.” That we will, Kevin.
09. Regional Manager Creed Bratton
Season 7, “Search Committee”
As goofy as Kevin may have gotten over the years, it pales in comparison to identity-stealing psychopath Creed Bratton, whose innate absurdism reached its peak in one glorious cold open where he’s put in charge. Behaving like an alien trying to impersonate a middle-management office drone based on old VHS tapes he’d seen, Creed spends his time tossing his keys to an invisible valet, holding meetings that were never called, and making acronyms (“BOBODDY! BO-BODDY!”). Andy may not have been the best, but at least he knows where/what/who he is.
08. No Limit To What Stanley Will Not Notice
Season 7, “Costume Contest”
Oh, Stanley Hudson, with your crossword puzzles, razor-thin patience, and love of erotic Japanese comics (“it’s called hentai, and it’s art“). The moments where we get to engage with the office’s least engaged worker are always gold, as evidenced in this cold open where his coworkers put his inattentiveness to the test. Andy’s shirtless, his apple is a potato, Pam wears a mustache — all of it flies under Stanley’s radar. But at least he pays attention to the things that matter — like when it’s time to go home.
07. Parkour Hardcore!
Season 6, “Gossip”
Here’s the apex of the Internet-fad-as-season-opener series — Season 6’s exploration of the French free-running trend known as parkour (or, after this episode aired, always and forever “PARKOUR HARDCORE!”). Michael, Dwight and Andy are naturally swept up in parkour fever, leading the three middle-aged, out of shape guys to hobble around the office and roll on couches with all the athleticism of a drunken elephant. Whether parkour was truly a flash in the pan, or whether The Office killed it, remains to be seen.
06. The Regional Manager Wears Prada
Season 4, “Money”
Get me Armani. Michael’s love of pop culture (and specifically, Meryl Streep) is well-documented, as well as his needy clinging to the last bit of pop culture that impressed him. Pam, of course, is the unwitting Anne Hathaway to Michael’s Meryl when he verbally abuses her while impersonating Streep’s character from The Devil Wears Prada — all the while not realizing that Streep is “the bad guy” until the very end. This earns Pam a brief reprieve, before she clues in that the next movie on his watchlist is Million Dollar Baby. “He’s gonna try to kill me.”
(Note: One wonders if he put two and two together and realized that Pam’s grief story from Season 3’s “Grief Counseling” was her just recounting the plot of Million Dollar Baby. I wouldn’t hold my breath.)
05. Burned My Foot on a Foreman Grill
Season 2, “The Injury”
The earliest cold open on this list, “The Injury” is maybe The Office‘s first great episode, and a perfect showcase for the more bitter era of Michael Scott. In the first stretch, we get some classic Michael Scott overreaction, borne of the inevitable result of his boneheaded decision to sleep with a hot George Foreman grill by his feet (“I love waking up to the smell of bacon, sue me”). As he screams and gurns over the speakerphone to Jim and Pam about his grievous injury, it’s hilarious to see how nonplussed everyone is about Michael’s desperate cries for attention — compounded by Dwight’s zeal to give him just that. Of course, an ill-placed pole gets in the way, which Dwight crashes his Firebird into, giving him the concussion that will take up much of the episode’s latter half. Early Office delighted in showing us just how pathetic a creature Michael Scott could be, and “The Injury” is a killer example of that bottomless well of emotional need.
04. Today, Smoking Is Gonna Save Lives
Season 5, “Stress Relief”
There was The Office before the fire drill, then there was The Office after the fire drill. Season 5’s “Stress Relief” was clearly planned as a re-introduction to the show (it aired immediately after the Super Bowl in a bid to bring in new viewers), and opened things up with an ambitious, self-administered fire safety exercise cooked up by Dwight, who naturally made it way more dangerous and realistic than it needed to be. Starting an actual trash can fire, heating the handles so they’d feel warm, breaking the locks on the doors so no one could escape, Dwight’s drill was (as with most things he does) more of a desperate flex on his fellow employees’ lack of survival preparedness.
Watching the office react to such an unfathomably hopeless situation, from Oscar crawling through the drop ceiling to Kevin’s looting of the vending machine, is chock-full of gloriously over the top moments. But the cherry on top of it all is Stanley’s stress-induced heart attack, which the over-enthusiastic Michael jumps into action to address. “Stanley, Barack is president!” he shouts while shoving his wallet into Stanley’s mouth. “You are black, Stanley!”
03. Toby’s Back
Season 5, “Frame Toby”
“It’s true” ain’t the only Office gif you’ll see plastered all over Twitter; the climax of “Frame Toby”‘s cold open remains one of the show’s single greatest laughs. Michael’s irrational hatred of Toby has long been one of the show’s greatest gags (an overgrown manchild resentful of the adult in the room, the one person in the office over whom he has no power), so bringing him back after a season of absence was an absolute genius move. What’s more, Michael didn’t even realize he was back for weeks, only finding out after turning around to see his self-imposed nemesis standing right in front of him. The melodramatic series of “NO!”s that follow aren’t just a genius way to twist the knife in Michael’s own irrational peeves: it’s become a meme-able expression of our collective frustration and disappointment at, well, *gestures at everything*.
02. Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica.
Season 3, “Product Recall”
Containing some of the most memorable alliteration in sitcom history, “Product Recall” is probably the apex of the Jim/Dwight prank relationship. Honing in on Dwight’s particular quirks — the mustard shirt, his peculiar haircut, the clipped, precise pedantry of his cadence — Jim’s impersonation is devilishly annoying to Dwight in ways other pranks haven’t been. “Identity theft is not a joke, Jim! Millions of families suffer every year!” And of course, “Bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica” might as well be a part of our modern lexicon.
01. Kevin’s Famous Chili
Season 5, “Casual Friday”
For my money, nothing locks down the high-concept mayhem of an Office cold open quite like the tragic fate of Kevin’s meticulously-crafted chili. Brian Baumgartner was always one of the show’s most gifted physical performers, but watching him lug up a huge steel stock pot of chili up flights of stairs, only to trip and spill chili all over the office’s carpet … his growing panic to contain the mess, while talking head narration details the painstaking work he goes through to make his meaty masterpiece … it’s like watching Beethoven craft his 9th Symphony. Except, you know, with a big bald dude feebly scraping stew back into a pot with clipboards and mesh inboxes. When I think of some of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, the following comes to mind: 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Statue of David, and Kevin slipping on his own overturned chili and falling to the ground. It’s why cavemen painted on walls.