Some creative projects have no particular reason to exist. Their makers might even justify their being by doubling down on scope, like SeinQuest 3000—which is a thing that would take way too long to explain. The only natural reaction to such entirely pointless but undeniably compelling diversions is "Why? Why would anyone do this?" Although The Office Time Machine seems at first glance to be the new standard in fascinating inessentiality, it ultimately is about something: copyright reform.
The Office Time Machine is a comprehensive generator of cultural references from the late TV show, The Office. Plug in any year and hit the little red ‘go’ button, and it will pull up a supercut of references from the show pertaining in some way to that year, with a brief explanation of why. The project transcends mere pop culture, though, drawing from the sphere of just plain old culture. Every instance in which a character refers to President Jimmy Carter or the Nazi invasion of the Ardennes is bagged and tagged along with more standard fare like the Muppets and "Who Let The Dogs Out?" The site isn’t merely there for fans of The Office to enjoy, it’s also meant to demonstrate to them, and potentially lawmakers, why they should have the right to enjoy it.
"It's one thing to write a white paper about awareness of copyright reform and the idea of fair use," creator Joe Sabia says. "But it's another to overwhelm people with an interactive experience, where they can get their hands dirty, to understand deep, complicated issues like copyright policy."
As a founding member of the comedy music group CDZA, Sabia knows plenty about making content go viral. Based on his experience putting together the successful supercut "Every Cigarette Smoked in Mad Men," he had an idea of what format his copyright lesson would take, and he knew it would have to be big. Monstrously big.
"Supercuts have been popular for a while now. We've almost exhausted every category of everything," Sabia says. But what if something bigger could happen? What if I could create the Burj Khalifa of supercuts?"
Sabia decided on the The Office as the peanut butter to surround the medicine of his oversize lesson in copyright reform. He would show how this television program had benefited from being able to freely reference a vast array of cultural touchstones—while becoming a pop cultural force in its own right. He began renting six Office discs at a time from Netflix, and ripping the episodes into files on his computer, until he had them all. He watched every episode, mining for audio or visual cues to real-world references. After cataloging these, he looked on Wikipedia for information about each reference, randomly choosing a year based on societal impact. Then he logged each reference with a short blurb about it, and arranged them all in chronological order. All told, there were 1,300 references. Burj Khalifa, indeed.
"The initial idea was to build one long, insane video," Sabia says, "but a time machine is so much deeper. So much more intriguing."
The breadth of the references is astounding. Pick just about any year and you will find something from that year. While whole decades and centuries are grouped together the closer you get to the B.C./A.D. divide, there are entries for 1892, 1893, and 1894. Contingencies are built in for reference-free pockets, as well as the future. The magnitude of the project, though, is matched by the length of time spent creating it. Sabia spent over a year and a half watching and cataloging Office episodes. While he was working on other projects during this period, including CDZA videos, building the Time Machine took up an enormous amount of time.
"I cannot express just how difficult and painstaking this was," he says. "It turned into this ambitious scavenger hunt—I had to catch 'em all," Which is, of course, a Pokemon reference.
Have a look through some of the sub-supercuts in the slides above.