The workplace is stranger than fiction
Dot-com memoir relives surreal days at an online original
Mike Daisey's tale of dot-com craziness, customer service doublespeak and corporate cultishness adds heroically to the genre of office comedy.
Presented by Portland Center Stage, Daisey's one-man play, '21 Dog Years É or Doing Time @ Amazon.com,' has the advantage of being about an era that is near and yet so far away. They used to say one year at a dot-com was like seven in a regular job, such was the pace of change. It might be 2005, but you can still almost smell the $800 Aeron chairs and the $50 plywood desks.
The trick is in making office life funny. The BBC's 'The Office' does it. The cult movie 'Office Space' is the champion of the genre. Dilbert used to do it. But considering how many of us spend our time under the strip lights of Cubeville, there's not a lot else out there to reflect our lifestyle.
A classic slacker temping in Seattle in 1998, Daisey fell into a job answering phones at 'Earth's Biggest Bookstore,' as it was called back then. As the true story goes, he climbs the corporate ladder and revels in the eccentricities of the place: Desks made of doors are ritually constructed by the boss, Jeff Bezos; packs of pet dogs roam the halls of Amazon headquarters; the working hours are so long that purchasing everything online seems rational.
'Even if everyone did buy everything online, what would be the point?' he asks over coffee. He's been in Portland two weeks already, rehearsing the show, and he likes it here. 'I like going to the bookstore! I like going to coffee shops!'
'It's a blip!'
Much of Daisey's show revolves around skewering the jargon and self-delusion of the Dockers-clad revolutionaries of the 1990s. But even today he believes that Amazon announcing its 'best day ever' and its 'profits' is pure spin and overlooks the fact that the company is deep in debt.
He first staged the play in Seattle in 2001 at the Speakeasy Backroom, a 'divey bar and coffee place' in Seattle's Belltown. True believers didn't like it.
'People would stay after the show, and some people would very urgently try and convince me that things were not going into the toilet, like 'No, everything's coming back. It's a blip! It's a blip!' '
Daisey says it's because he loved working at Amazon that his delivery is convincing. Daisey, who has written and performed several monologues since he left the retail giant, works without a script, refining his delivery with the help of his wife and director, Jean-Michele Gregory.
The stage is fairly bare, and he only plays himself. Hyperbole and compression are allowed, but he tries to stick to the facts.
The show has held up over time.
'First it was ahead of its time,' he says. 'Then it was of its time, and then it was clichŽd for a while, which didn't last long. Now it feels so long ago Ñ possibly owing a lot to Sept. 11Ñ it's almost historical, something we all remember but is unimaginable.
'The themes that resonate are the ones about a person trying to decide what to do with their life, where to spend their time, corporations not compensating you fairly for your time, and the theme of working in an office, customer service, call centers É all those things intensified after the wave of dot-com nostalgia dispersed.'
Four black women congratulated the white writer after a New York show, saying they knew exactly what he was talking about.
'It turns out they worked in the court system in Brooklyn,' he says.
Daisey later found out that at his temp agency, applications to work at Amazon went in a special tray marked 'F.P.,' for 'Freak Parade.' Before he left in 2001, the layoffs began and the freaks were replaced with boring MBA types.
The original stage version of '21 Dog Years É or Doing Time @ Amazon.com' premiered Feb. 11, 2001. It was about 11,000 words. The book version Ñ which has the same title, and which Daisey wrote later in order to commit more detail to paper Ñ is 65,000 words.
'Stories that work best on stage are the ones that revolve around an emotional core,' Daisey says. 'It's easier to communicate the weird mixture of naivetŽ and knowingness that went on with me at Amazon, because you can see the person and feel the subtext. The book form is much better for minutiae and explanation, like' Ñ putting on his public service announcement voice Ñ ''Perhaps you'd like to know what happens around holiday season.''
The road to New York
After the original show closed, Speakeasy burned down. This made Daisey and Gregory commit to going to New York. Since then, he's been honing his craft there and sometimes hangs out with the Moth, an experimental storytelling group. He's also working on a series for HBO 'about a technology company that has lost its way,' and another monologue, 'The Ugly American,' about the year he spent in London studying acting with a dysfunctional left-wing theater company. Monologues, in the vein of shows by Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, will always be his metier.
And Daisey can talk. He has a rich baritone that suits his overweight body. In fact, for all that the story is about youth finding its way, he looks like he'll make a grand middle-aged person, a rollicking, Orson Welles-W.C. Fields character.
After talking about the difference between stage and printed word for a few minutes, he concludes, perfectly: 'When you see stories live, you want to see human transformation; you don't want to hear a lecture.'
In fact, he says, he often works out his ideas through talking. While talking about yet another of his upcoming monologues, 'Monopoly!' he discusses the Microsoft antitrust case. Microsoft lost, but the punishment was already obsolete. This leads Daisey to the realization that the subject feels familiar.
'It's just like upgrading Windows Ñ a huge letdown,' he says with a smile.