Why “Stress Relief” is the quintessential episode of The Office

The Office premiered on March 24th, 2005.

The receptionist spots the smoke first. She splutters and points at the tendrils unfurling under the door as the panic-gripped staff scramble to escape their second story tinder box. They use a photocopier as a makeshift battering ram, smash windows to cry into an empty parking lot for help, and hoist bodies into the ceiling.

But they also loot vending machines and beg for their cats to be spared—it’s one of the most chaotic, beloved moments of television comedy.

Welcome to “Stress Relief,” arguably the greatest episode in The Office’s nine-season run. You know the one: overzealous safety officer Dwight K. Schrute holds a frenzied fire drill that gives Stanley a heart attack. When Michael realizes he’s stressing Stanley out big time and could further jeopardize his health, he decides a Comedy Central-style roast is the only way to relieve tension. Cue disaster (again).

But it’s not just the wacky plot that makes this super-sized episode a re-run darling; it’s the way it epitomizes everything we love about The Office.

For newbies, “Stress Relief” is the ideal introduction to Michael and co.’s specific brand of ridiculous, awkward humor.

“Kevin is breaking into the vending machine, Oscar falls through the ceiling and it’s so hysterical to watch,” 28-year-old Nina from California says of the episode’s cold open. And Nina’s an expert authority; she’s the genius behind @dundermifflinpaperco, an Office Instagram account boasting more than 220,000 followers. “Creed’s facial expressions and Michael screaming out the window…it’s almost hard to put into words how funny it is.”

Caroline, 19, from Tennessee, who runs Instagram’s @michaelsmanymoods, agrees. “I think it’s one of the best episodes because it’s constantly spitting off humor to the audience. Most episodes don’t do that but ‘Stress Relief’ repeatedly does.”

She’s right. It isn’t just the classic cold open that makes this episode so hilarious. We’re also treated to a highly-memed CPR class involving a Bee Gees singalong and Dwight wearing a dummy’s sliced-off face a la Hannibal Lecter. And who could forget The Roast of Michael Scott? Not only do we get a giggle when an iPod Shuffle is used as a point of anatomical reference, but we also snag a peek inside the mind of one Michael Gary Scott.

“Michael is always one step away from total disaster and yet is one of the most upbeat characters on the show,” explains Eden, a 21-year-old student in Rhode Island. “And he maintains his hope even though he’s constantly proven wrong.”

Casey, 22, from New Hampshire puts it more simply. “He’s a 12-year-old boy with authority.”

He’s selfish. He’s childish. He’s the source of countless offensive jokes (see: every single roast he delivers when he finally gets his turn)—but his deepest desire is to make the employees of a mid-range paper supply firm fear how much they love him. And you know what? When he takes a day off work to emotionally recover from his roast (by cinematically flinging slices of white bread at pigeons), he manages to weasel his way into not only their hearts, but ours too.

We can’t talk about matters of the heart without talking about PB and J. After years of watching Pam and Jim exchange giddy glances across the office and sway to a Travis song in a moonlit Pennsylvania parking lot, “Stress Relief” shows them navigating the confusing current of Pam’s parents’ separation. Jim and Pam worry, they disagree, and they miscommunicate—but they also deliver one of the episode’s sweetest moments. Pam, a shy smile tugging at her lips, tells the camera, “When you’re a kid you assume your parents are soulmates. My kids are gonna be right about that”.

It’s the episode’s way of reminding us that ultimately, The Office is a cultural phenomenon exploring human connection.

“My family used to watch The Office every night after dinner; it was kinda like ‘our’ show,” says Eden. “Whenever I feel homesick or anything, I can rely on The Office to cheer me up because of that nostalgia… and because it’s hilarious.”

The Office was one of the ways that I stayed connected with my best friend from high school when we went to different states for college,” says Laura, 23, from Florida. “She had already seen the series, but I would keep her updated on my progress and send her my reactions as I watched along. It just made the long distance a little bit easier to bear and made our friendship that much stronger. It’s the power of Michael Scott!”

If there was ever a quintessential episode of The Office, “Stress Relief” would be it. Its secret recipe? Equal parts physical comedy and cringe-inducing jokes, a healthy dose of Michael being Michael, a peppering of Jim and Pam moments for the true romantics, and a dash of fuzzy feelings. Best served ROASTED.

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