“Has it really been ten years?”
It’s the question that character Stanley Hudson asks at the beginning of the “Scott’s Tots” episode of The Office, before erupting into an iconic cackle, but it’s also a question that we’re asking ourselves today.
The answer is: Yes. Somehow, it’s been exactly a decade since The Office‘s arguably most cringeworthy episode aired.
While fans of the show adore its intentionally awkward humor, this episode has frequently been cited as the one that has even some die-hard Office fans scrambling to hit “next episode” on their Netflix queue, rivaled only in discomfort by the “Dinner Party” episode in season four. Although, for many of us, it’s the same reason we love the episode.
If you have a nearly Pavlovian response to turning off your TV though when you hear the character Phyllis ponder out loud, “What’s Scott’s Tots?”, you’re not alone. Over 16,000 people subscribe to the sub-reddit r/CannotWatchScottsTots, dedicated solely to the inability to make it through the episode’s 22 minutes.
With a series full of mortifying moments like Michael trying to evade a blind date he finds unattractive or Toby resting his hand on Pam’s knee, what is it about this episode that makes it so hard to watch for so many?
To figure it out, we re-watched the episode and, for those of you who have never ventured past the opening credits, we’ll recap.
At exactly four minutes and seven seconds into the episode (the amount of time you have to get out before it’s too late!), Pam (Jenna Fischer) realizes that an organization called the Michael Scott Foundation is still in existence. Stanley overhears and laughs in a way that we know something is deeply wrong.
As it turns out, Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) has promised a group of kids a decade ago that he will pay for their college tuition. Except, he can’t…and hasn’t told them yet. The school has invited him to meet with his “Tots” and, after Pam says that “this is a terrible, terrible thing you’ve done,” Michael knows he has to face the music.
He goes to the school (which has named a “Michael Gary Scott Reading Room” after him) and is enthusiastically greeted by high schoolers wearing matching shirts who cheer, chant and sing for him, including a custom song going, “Hey Mr. Scott / What you gonna do? / What you gonna do, make our dreams come true.”
Some tap out here, but for those of you that love this level of awkward humor (AKA, us), it keeps getting better.
Instead of having Michael cut off the kids, director BJ Novak draws it out where Michael just sits there in a piercing silence. The longer he waits, the more tense it gets.
Eventually, he is invited to address the kids and, right before his admission, the PA system bell goes off. You think that means the kids have to go, saving us all of the second-hand embarrassment, but the students hang back to hear Michael’s speech. Well played, writers.
Michael finally admits he can’t pay for the kids’ tuition, which understandably leads to an outburst, but then says the least he can do is help them with laptops.
Just when you think it’s safe to relax, you realize Michael is not pulling laptops out of his bag to give to the kids, but laptop batteries. At least they’re lithium?
It’s a rough episode and if you can get through it without cringing at least once, honestly, maybe you’re a sociopath? Last year, Bustle even interviewed a psychiatrist to figure out the scientific reason it’s so hard to watch.
Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, explained to Bustle that, “Cringe is associated with the stress hormone response being activated so there is increased cortisol, increased muscular tension, and sometimes increased hydrochloric acid in the stomach—all unpleasant sensations.”
Increased muscular tension, indeed. While rewatching, we were wincing so hard, we got our summer abs back.
While it may be a tough watch, “Scott’s Tots” is ultimately a great episode that reminds us how much we love—and miss—The Office.
The show’s willingness to push their massive audience’s comfort to the edge ushered in an era of mainstream cringe comedy and without it we may never have gotten other gems like Parks & Recreation.
When we can get ourselves through the episode, we wind up appreciating Michael’s empty promise. After all, it’s hands down his most generous.
(NBC and E! are both a part of the NBCUniversal family.)