Arts and Culture

The Culturally Rich History of Office Temping

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One of the most common rites of passage a young person must endure is temping at an office. You always promise yourself you’ll never do it, but the bills add up and the hourly rates can be quite tempting. Temping can expose you to the wide world of corporate culture. With such enticing positions such as filing duties at a medical malpractice firm or fulfillment duties at a stationery company. It’s enough to make your twenty-something self feel like you’re 45 and supporting your imaginary kids. Basically it’s the pits.  Much like the depictions of babysitters, the role of the temp has been sexed up in cinema and usually involves some sort of scandalous office romance or a murder mystery (see example), despite its mundane realities. It’s even a been given a spot in slutty Halloween costume history, should you ever decide to mix business with pleasure come this October.  But there have been a few more realistic depictions in film and TV of this often embarrassing and demoralizing work.  Here’s my shortlist of some lovely ladies who worked it 9-5.

Lauren Ambrose in Six Feet Under

As a confused and struggling artist, Claire Fisher aka Lauren Ambrose in Six Feet Under,  turns to temping til she figures her shit out (sound familiar?) There she deals with annoying coworkers, the minutia of busywork and of course comes face to face with the uncomfortable realities of pantyhose. I’ll never forget when she belted out “You ride up my thighs” and other quote-worthy lyrics.  This was just a  taste of Ambrose’s singing skills apparently. At this time, I was working at a bank and also had to deal with the torture devices otherwise known as hosiery. This was pre-Spanx days thank god.  American culture loves its T&A but god forbid you flash a little bare calf at the office and you won’t be getting a call back from that agency.  Anyways, Claire goes on to date her hot boss and the rest is history. See our previous musings on office-affairs.

Ellen Munth in Dead Like Me

The only thing worst than being stuck at a dead end temp job, is having to return to the same job after you’ve died.  In Dead Like Me,  Ellen Munth who plays George, worked for Happy Time Temporary Services before being struck by a rogue toilet seat from a crashing airplane on her lunch break. She then works as a Grim Reaper after her untimely demise but since being a Grim Reaper doesn’t pay the bills, she returns to Happy Time  in a different body. Yes yes, the plot was ridiculous but the office politics were spot on. George has to deal with her former cat-crazy boss Delores, who loves to over-share and talk about her former restraining orders and her personal website, “Getting Things Done with Delores”.  Haven’t we all had one of those? I guess now there’s three things in that are certain in life: death, taxes, and temping.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary

Sure your typing skills must be up to snuff if you’re going to be employed as a temp, but what about your threshold for pain and humiliation?  Talk about being a go-getter. Then again, I’ve never had James Spader as a boss, so who knows what kind of decisions I’d be making.  Maggie Gyllenhaal’s turn as the masochistic and shy Lee Holloway in Secretary changed the way the world thought about “office appropriate behavior” forever. Red pens now hold a special meaning and typos were somehow rendered erotic. Turns out Gyllenhaal was just one in a series of trial office temps, but after winning Spader’s heart by sitting at his desk for days at a time and urinating herself, she proved she could stand by her man. I can just imagine people who work in HR totally having a fetish for this movie.

The Ladies of Clockwatchers

Before there was Office Space or The Office, there was Clockwatchers. Both a cultural study of office drones and a 90’s fashion capsule all in one,  this movie was all about the art of looking busy while doing nothing. Starring Toni Colette, Lisa Kudrow,  Alanna Ubach and Parker Posy, these ladies proved, it’s not easy being a temp. There’s plenty of fucking with the establishment a la sabotaging copy machines, redirecting phone calls, and stealing office supplies. Each one represents a temp type. Kudrow is the shameless office flirt, Posey is the disenchanted rebel, and Colette is the obedient, unquestioning, wallflower. Eventually some shit goes down and the temps get a little Lord of the Flies on each other except without all the cannibalism.  It’s not Lawrence of Arabia but it’s definitely entertaining for anyone who’s ever had to work at a shitty job and be forced to wear “sensible heels”.

If you have any horror temp stores, please feel free to share.

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Laura S - Spendthrift Scribe

Laura S - Spendthrift Scribe

Laura S, left the "sixth borough" three years ago to settle in Brooklyn. After working at some daily rags, she now does writing on the side but still eats more Ramen then necessary. When she's not moving residences every 6 months, eating her way through every neighborhood, and trying every microbrew known to man, she is unsuccessfully rediscovering home economics. With her binging days behind her, she's now exploring new projects and rediscovering the city that she loves (although is still prone to sliding on her knees during a Prince karaoke set).


  1. Tony T
    August 31, 2010 at 6:10 am

    I was a temp at a meat packing plant in rural PA.
    I was only supposed to assemble boxes but they put me on the line where I had to tear open five pound plastic bags of bloody steaks with a crude knife and place them on a conveyor belt so they could magically be converted into Wendy’s hamburgers.
    The highlight was the guy who seemed to have just gotten out of prison, detox or both.
    He sang “Wake Up Little Suzy” over and over in honor of the new Burger King commercial he loved. He didn’t even know the verses just “Wake Up little Suzy, Wake up! Ha oh man I love that ad! Wake up little Suuuuuzeeee.”
    In my blood soaked apron, I’d jab the knife into the bag holding onto the knowledge that there was a freshly packed bowl waiting for me under the car seat.
    I lasted one day.

  2. BeJohnce
    September 10, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    my heart LEAPS when clockwatchers is recognized. thank you.