Rewatching “The Convict” episode of The Office in 2020 is especially poignant, even for the stars of the show.
As fans may recall, in the ninth episode of Season 3, Michael learns that Martin Nash, a Black employee who recently transferred to the Scranton branch from Stamford, is a reformed convict. After Nash (played by actor and comedian Wayne Wilderson) reveals he did time for involvement in insider trading, he talks about his experience in prison, which sounds a little better than working at Dunder Mifflin. Heartbroken over the idea that his employees might prefer prison to working with him, Michael turns into Prison Mike to teach everyone that prison is bad.
While jokes and stereotypes about race are present throughout several episodes of The Office, “The Convict” is full them, and they’re impossible to ignore when you’re re-watching in the midst of a national fight for racial equality.
“We exchanged a lot of emails with Wayne about this episode, and we were talking about what it was like to rewatch this episode in light of everything that’s happening in our country with the Black Lives Matter movement,” Kinsey explained.
Wilderson, who sent some thoughts over via Voice Memo, said he just watched the episode again and it really struck him.
“Wow. I just watched it again. I watch it maybe every year or so. It’s such a good episode with everything that’s going on in the world now, you know?” he said. “It feels a little even edgier at some points, but it’s super poignant for all the issues that we’re dealing with now — with race and how we deal with it, and what’s funny, and what’s not funny, and who can say what, when.”
“The Convict,” which was written by British Office creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, aired in 2006. But nearly 15 years later, Wilderson feels the jokes and commentary still hold up.
“This sort of puts a magnifying glass on where we’ve been and how far we’ve come along… what comedy we can do,” Wilderson said. “I probably hadn’t watched it in a year or so, and to watch it during these times was very interesting.”
“With that, the comedy and its commentary, I think it holds up very well,” he continued. “I’m going to say it’s a classic Office episode.”
Fischer, who hadn’t watched “The Convict” since it aired, also said she “found a new poignancy” during her re-watch. “There are definitely lines and moments that stood out to me, and I’ll bring it up as we go through the episode,” she told Kinsey.
One of those lines takes place after the conference room scene in which Michael, Pam, Angela, and Kevin learn that the company receives a Work Opportunity Tax Credit for employing Nash, an ex-convict.
“We are coming up to this line that Michael has… you and I talked about it,” Kinsey said. “It really stood out to us in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
“Yes, this is when Michael says to us, ‘A Black man can be arrested for just about anything in this country.'” Fischer said.
“I mean, we were re-watching this episode in the middle of a civil rights movement in our country. People are literally in the streets protesting this very fact of Black people being arrested for just about anything, but not just that, being killed. So yeah, this line hit me hard,” Fischer continued. “And I have to say, I was expecting Michael to make a joke here but he doesn’t. And I feel glad that he doesn’t.”
“I know, me too,” Kinsey agreed. “I think, Jenna, as the viewer we’re always expecting Michael to play it up for the cameras, right? He thinks he’s like an entertainer… and anyways he doesn’t.”
In the previous episode, “The Merger,” Michael welcomes Martin to the office by saying, “Follow me, I will show you where all the slaves work.” He makes so many inappropriate and cringeworthy jokes during the course of the series, so to see him bluntly state that Black men are arrested for anything in America definitely prompted a moment of reflection.
“He’s just truthful and sincere, and I think it made the line that much more powerful,” Kinsey said of the scene.
In a 2018 interview with Esquire, Steve Carell, spoke out against a reboot and expressed fears that the inappropriate behavior and jokes that so much of the show’s comedy was based on would no longer be accepted in today’s society. “The Convict” is a perfect example of a controversial TV episode in 2020, yet it so clearly illustrates the harmful biases and thinking that some people still uphold today.
As mentioned earlier, “The Convict” is also the episode where fans meet Prison Mike, Michael’s alter ego who attempts to “scare his employees straight.” While the character is undoubtedly cringey to watch on TV, the actors could barely keep it together during filming.
“We all lost it, even Steve, which never happens,” Kinsey said. “All of us are near breaking throughout this scene.”
Though Wilderson has a ton of great memories on set, he said that shooting the Prison Mike scenes are what he remembers most.
“[It] was hilarious, and obviously take after take it was so very hard to not break while Steve was doing Prison Mike. And we broke a lot,” he recalled. “But there’s one moment towards the end of his Prison Mike routine — and they use this particular take in the episode I think — where he goes, ‘Thanks for letting me be a part of your life, cause you’ve got a good life… you got a good life.’ That was the first time he’d done the second ‘you got a good life,’ and the camera’s behind me and you can see my cheeks bulge, because I’m about to explode with laughter and don’t want to ruin the take.”
“That whole day in the conference room with Prison Mike was pretty special, I have to say,” Wilderson said.
Be sure to listen to the full podcast episode to learn more behind-the-scenes stories from filming “The Convict.”