You Better Work, Ben: On Labor and Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Fans of Apple TV+’s workplace thriller Severance (2022–) rejoiced when, in January 2024, almost two years after its first season premiered, executive producer Ben Stiller retweeted a still from the set of season two. He captioned it: “Back to work.”1

Severance’s long absence had sparked a concern about whether there would ever be a season two while also elevating excitement about its possibility. Even in the drawn-out timeframes of the streaming TV landscape, two years is a long time for a buzzy, widely beloved, and critically acclaimed program to get “back to work.” But Severance’s production has been protracted from the beginning. In fact, Stiller declared in an interview that Severance’s production was the longest he had ever worked on a project.2 Stiller first read creator Dan Erickson’s script in 2017, but it took three years to get Severance to the production stage—only for production to be halted by the start of pandemic lockdown, and then to be disrupted by a potential IATSE strike once it resumed.3 After it finally debuted in 2022 (to a bevy of think pieces and industry award nominations, as well as an almost-immediate second season order from Apple), production on the second season was interrupted by the joint WGA/SAG strikes, with filming only resuming earlier this year following the ratification of new WGA and SAG contracts.

Back to work, indeed.

In the posted still, actor Adam Scott, who plays Severance’s main character Mark Scout, is captured mid-sprint, hand and foot blurry with energy and motion. A camera apparatus takes up the right edge of the frame, poised to catch the perfect shot of Scott—and, however inadvertently, animating the still with the reciprocal tension between the work in front of the camera (actors) and the work behind it (below-the-line laborers and director-producers like Stiller).

The workplace constitutes Severance’s aesthetic and thematic terrain. Through its sci-fi genre trappings, Severance explores a fantastical answer to an all-too-familiar question of neoliberal life: is “work-life balance” possible under the current order of capitalism? For the workers in Severance, the solution to the seemingly irresolvable tension between “work” and “life” is simple—a medical procedure called “severance” that separates their work memories and work selves from their non-work life. At work, they have no knowledge or memory of what they do at home or on weekends; at home, they have no idea what they have done at work. 

For viewers watching Severance in early 2022, with pandemic lockdown and the resulting normalization of “distance” working, the show’s resonances with the degraded boundary and balance between work and life—and the desire for a mechanism to disentangle them—felt obvious. Yet Stiller declared: “Honestly, [Severance] wasn’t intentionally commenting in any way on what’s going on… But as we were existing in it and making the show, we started to feel what everybody was feeling in terms of the lack of separation of work and home life.”4 Though the commentary on the post-2020 moment may have been initially unintentional in Stiller’s account, questions of how to balance work and life nonetheless pervade both Severance and the cultural conversation about it. As an executive producer and director of most of Severance’s first season, Stiller even admitted that “it seems like [work-life balance] is a lot less delineated [in real life] than it is in the show. I did probably 80 percent of the editing of the show in my office in my house.”5

While Severance indexes the anxieties and coping strategies of neoliberal capitalist subjects, for me as a viewer, the show also surfaces an undercurrent that has persisted across Stiller’s oeuvre as an actor, writer, and director: a recurring interest in labor, industry, and commodities, particularly in the register of the cultural. From Zoolander’s (2001) exuberantly parodic depiction of the fashion world to Reality Bitess (1994) disillusioned videographer to Tropic Thunder’s (2008) satire of the film industry to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s (2013) sentimental portrayal of photography and journalism, Stiller’s projects consistently explore the intersections of labor and life in the context of culture work. 

In its depiction of what labor does to workers, Severance offers a rubric by which to read Stiller’s career as an ongoing investigation of labor and industry, making it possible to understand his career in a new way. While Stiller may be most known for his “Frat Pack” comedic energy, his work nonetheless catalogs what it means to live and labor in the culture industry—how we understand success (and what we might do to get it), what makes work fulfilling, and how workers shape culture and culture shapes workers. Stiller’s work as a director (beginning in 1989 with his short Elvis Stories) runs coeval with the solidification of neoliberal policy and ideology. His works are an ongoing document of the development of work in the culture industry over the past four decades. 

Though Stiller’s work as a film and TV actor is prolific and varied, his work as a film director appears somewhat scattershot, a bevy of mixed-review, varyingly comic films, some of which have achieved cult status, while others have diminished in the cultural memory: Reality Bites, The Cable Guy (1996), ZoolanderTropic ThunderThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Zoolander 2 (2016). Stiller also wrote or contributed writing to all his films except Reality Bites and Walter Mitty. He directed the sketch comedy show The Ben Stiller Show, which aired inconsistently between 1990 – 95, but would not return to television directing until the 2018 Showtime crime drama Escape at Dannemora.6 Severance complicates things further. To put it as I might to my students: name a crazier directing lineup, I’ll wait. 

But what unites these disparate films and series is their concern with contemporary culture work. However slant a perspective these films may take on their subjects, however many “freak gasoline fight accidents” or Medieval Times lance duels or “Space Oddity” musical montages they contain, they nonetheless point to the anxious energy and precarity that animates labor in the present. Indeed, Stiller repeatedly casts himself as an anxious laborer. In Reality Bites, Stiller’s TV executive is all too willing to “sell out” his girlfriend Lelaina’s (Winona Ryder) vision for her documentary to his network, which re-edits her earnest documentary into an MTV-style montage. In Tropic Thunder, Stiller’s Tugg Speedman is a former action star attempting to revive his career, anxious about his inability to headline profitable films or be seen by the industry as a “serious actor.”7 In Walter Mitty, Stiller plays a lonely daydream-prone “negative assets manager” for the final print issue of Life magazine before it goes solely digital.8 Across these films, there is a sense of declining careers, declining industries, and a fear of replacement—of sincerity with selling out, of box office hits with box office bombs, of print with digital.

And then there’s Derek Zoolander. In Zoolander, the titular character grapples with his popularity being usurped by Owen Wilson’s Hansel, after Hansel breaks Zoolander’s three-year winning streak as “Male Model of the Year.” Zoolander questions whether models do good in the world, and whether “there’s more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking, such as “doing something more meaningful, like helping people.”9 Shortly after raising these questions, Zoolander’s friends and roommates—who rebuffed his questioning by claiming that male models do help people by “making them feel good about themselves” and “showing them how to dress cool and wear their hair in interesting ways”—perish in the aforementioned freak gasoline fight accident.10 At their funeral, Zoolander declares that “a male model’s life is a precious, precious commodity.”11 However inadvertently, Zoolander’s declaration that his life is a commodity highlights the capitalist logic that imagines the culture worker’s life as a thing to be exchanged.

Stiller’s script, despite its generally ridiculous tone and its protagonist who pronounces “eulogy” as “you-googly,”12 deftly highlights the precarity and replaceability of the culture worker, the question of what work is meaningful (or whether work is meaningful at all), and the status of the worker’s life as a commodity. At the same time, the backdrop of these American culture worker questions is the entanglement of geopolitics, global extraction, and the American ruling class—Zoolander’s inciting incident is a plot to assassinate Malaysia’s prime minister, specifically because of his opposition to the child labor that the American fashion industry depends on. In other words: Zoolander is, among other things, about the global flows of commodities and labor, from child workers making garments in the global south to the prestigious-yet-precarious models wearing those garments in the Global North.

Positioning culture work as Stiller’s creative center of gravity accords with Sianne Ngai’s understanding of zaniness as “an aesthetic about the shrinking distinction between work and play.”13 This shrinking distinction is certainly manifest in Zoolander, where the play of “being ridiculously good looking” (and doing the “glamour labor”14 of maintaining one’s good looks) quickly collapses into the work of trying to beat out other models (or being brainwashed at a spa to carry out political assassinations). Though Zoolander’s presentation of this shrinking distinction is largely lighthearted and facetious, its grounding in the question of real-world labor exploitation at multiple scales points to the kind of work the zany can do in exposing such dynamics. The zany points to the increasing indistinguishability of work and play in the late capitalist moment, and the absorption of life under capital. According to Ngai, zaniness is about “a strenuous relation to playing that seems to be on a deeper level about work” and “calls up the character of a worker whose particularity lies paradoxically in the increasingly dedifferentiated nature of his or her labor.”15 Perhaps, then, a worker whose life is a precious, precious commodity.

Across Stiller’s creative output, whether writing, directing, or acting, he surfaces these questions through the documentation and embodiment of zany laborers and the absurdities that such a differentiation of labor produces. It’s perhaps no fluke, then, that Ngai’s key touchpoints in her explication of the zany are I Love Lucy (1951 – 57), The Toy (1982), and… Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy. Stiller’s zaniness isn’t confined to his performances, then. His writing, producing, and directing are themselves a zany documentation and dramatization of the culture industry’s shrinking distinction between work and play. He can’t stop working on what it means to work.

Zaniness likewise surfaces in Stiller’s two instances of child-oriented franchise work, the Night at the Museum series (2006–2014) and the animated Madagascar (2005–2012) series. These franchises also dramatize, in their own zany ways, “a place where occupational and cultural performance already intersect.”16 In the Madagascar franchise (notable to adults mostly for Madagascar 3 being scripted by Noah Baumbach, anecdotally to finance his divorce), Stiller plays Alex the Lion, a narcissistic zoo animal hyperactively devoted to performing for zoogoers and obsessed with his own image and merchandise. Despite the vast difference between Madagascar and Stiller’s own directorial work, there is an unexpected resonance between his voiceover performance as Alex, who fixates on his status as the zoo’s purported “King of New York City,” and his work as Tugg Speedman or Derek Zoolander.17 The question of fame, status, and the work of performing fame and status permeates. Stiller’s work traverses the space of culture work as success, as well as creative work as failure. 

In part, perhaps, this is because the line between success and failure in culture industries can feel quite permeable itself. The zany points to how a strained and straining commitment to fun and play highlights “the easiness with which these positions of safety and precariousness can be reversed.”18 The zany character needs “to labor excessively hard to produce our laughter,”19 a process of excess that calls to mind Zoolander’s pursed lips and furrowed brow, or Stiller’s near-maniacal pursuit of monetary success as the titular character in Mike White’s film Brad’s Status (2017), as well as his acrobatic voice work as Alex the Lion and his constant sprinting and pratfalls in Night at the Museum.

In the first ten minutes of the first Night at the Museum, in fact, Stiller’s character, a divorced, down-on-his-luck aspiring inventor named Larry, is distressed to learn that his young son plans to become a bond trader. “So what, you want to dress up in a monkey suit and tie every day? Like an automaton robot?” he asks.20 Already, the question of what kind of work is “good” comes to the fore, even in a brief exchange in a children’s film. The child’s realist vision of his future (he calls his interest in hockey “a fallback”) contrasts with Larry’s imagination of corporate work as both performative (“a monkey suit”) and deadening (“an automaton robot”). But Larry’s son expresses concern that his father is in a bad spot financially, to which Larry assures him that his luck is about to turn. His son responds: “What if you’re wrong, and you’re just an ordinary guy who should get a job?”21

In other words: get back to work. 

But in Night at the Museum, Larry is not just “an ordinary guy.” Rather, his attempt to “get a job” results in him eventually becoming the protector of a magical natural history museum whose exhibits come to life every night through the power of an ancient Egyptian tablet. Even as he plays (and writes and directs) zany laborers anxious about their work and status, Stiller’s characters are also often “special.” In the climax of Zoolander, Zoolander’s ultimate model look, the “Magnum,” literally has the power to stop and suspend a shuriken in mid-air. The end of Walter Mitty reveals that the mysterious photo negative that shows the “quintessence of life,” which Walter has spent the film tracking down, is a photograph of Walter himself.22 Tropic Thunder concludes with Tugg Speedman winning his first Oscar, his film becoming both a critical hit and a box office smash (as Bill Hader’s studio assistant declares to Tom Cruise’s studio executive near the end of the film: “Eight Oscars, 400 million dollars, and you saved Tugg Speedman’s career!”).23 Even in Reality Bites, where Stiller’s character Michael’s “selling out” prevents him from “getting the girl,” he still gets the last word: the film’s credits are interrupted by a TV parody of the film’s events, suggesting that Michael ended up turning his experiences into a show for his network.

These special characters suggest another dimension of Stiller’s career-long preoccupations with work: anxieties around merit. It is perhaps not a coincidence that someone whose work is continually negotiating questions of labor would also be what we now call a nepo baby. Though the term may conjure the image of en vogue Gen Z celebs like Hailey Bieber or Maya Hawke, Ben Stiller is the son of comedy duo Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. A 2006 profile for Parade detailed his childhood as the son of Stiller and Meara, asking: “How many kids were cuddled by Rodney Dangerfield, hung out at the Chateau Marmont pool with Tony Randall or watched their parents appear dozens of times on The Ed Sullivan Show?”24 And yet, despite this clear link to the entertainment industry and the privileges and advantages it provides, Stiller claimed in a 2021 tweet that “Show biz as we all know is pretty rough, and ultimately is a meritocracy.”25 Stiller’s insistence that the U.S. entertainment industry operates by merit surfaces another undercurrent of his interest in documenting (and, in Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, satirizing) culture industries. For all his skewering of the idiosyncrasies of cultural production, for all the anxious, zany laborers straddling safety and precariousness he’s created and portrayed, he nonetheless must operate under a framework by which his own achievements occur, ultimately, through his own merit. 

There is, then, something of Stiller in Severance’s Helly, a “severed” worker who is revealed in the season one finale (directed by Stiller) to be Helena Eagan, the daughter of the CEO of Lumon Industries, the company all the severed employees work for. Helly, we learn, was severed to boost support for the severance procedure and her father’s company. (And, fascinatingly, while Helena Eagan’s father is deceased, an animated version of him is played, in an uncredited voice cameo, by Stiller himself.) 

The Helly reveal does a similar kind of work, I think, to Stiller’s avowed claims of meritocracy. Like Stiller, Helly is a Nepo Baby Putting In The Work. But for most of the first season of Severance, Helly doesn’t know she is Helena Eagan. She can only be both Helly and Helena by becoming severed, by embodying the ignorance of a contradiction—the very contradiction that lockdown dramatically unveiled in its exposure of work creep and its saturation of “real life.” Helly’s dual role as severed worker protagonist and corporate nepo baby points to the contradictory nature of the kind of work Severance portrays, and surfaces not only the tension between “work” and “life” exacerbated by the pandemic, but also the tension between the myth of meritocracy and the truths of exploitation and immiseration that that myth obscures. It’s no wonder, then, that viewers and critics latched on to Severance—to seeing the conditions of their lives, these contradictions and tensions, analogized. But it’s also no wonder that, despite these contradictions and tensions, we all keep getting back to work.

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  1. Ben Stiller (@BenStiller), “Back to work. #SEVERANCE,” Twitter, 29 January 2024, twitter.com/BenStiller/status/1751977764490531058?lang=en.
  2. Tyler Aquilina, “Ben Stiller Talks Severance’s Long Road to TV and the Challenge of Work-Life Balance,” Entertainment Weekly, Dotdash Meredith Publishing, 19 February 2022, ew.com/tv/ben-stiller-severance-interview/.
  3. Aquilina, “Hollywood Crews Are Poised to Strike over Brutal Working Conditions: Here’s What You Should Know,” Entertainment Weekly, Dotdash Meredith Publishing, October 1, 2021, ew.com/movies/iatse-strike-authorization-vote-explained/.
  4. Aquilina, “Ben Stiller Talks…”
  5. Ibid.
  6. The slight blip in this long break from TV directing is Stiller’s direction of the 1999 pilot for the never-ordered series Heat Vision and Jack.
  7. Tropic Thunder, directed by Ben Stiller (2008; Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures), Paramount Plus.
  8. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller (2013; Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox), Amazon Prime Video.
  9. Zoolander, directed by Ben Stiller (2001; Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures), Paramount Plus.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 231.
  14. See Elizabeth A. Wissinger, This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour (NYU Press, 2015). 
  15. Ngai, 7 – 9.
  16. Ibid., 197.
  17. Madagascar, directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath (2005; Universal City, CA: DreamWorks Pictures), Peacock.
  18. Ngai, 11.
  19. Ibid.,10.
  20. Night at the Museum, directed by Shawn Levy (2006; Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox), Disney Plus.
  21. Ibid.
  22. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller (2013; Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox), Amazon Prime Video.
  23. Tropic Thunder.
  24. Robert Masello, “What Makes Ben Stiller Funny?” Parade, November 28, 2006, web.archive.org/web/20090603000915/http://www.parade.com/articles/editions/2006/edition_12-10-2006/Ben_Stiller.
  25. Ben Stiller (@BenStiller), “Yes. Just speaking from experience, and I don’t know any of them, I would bet they all have faced challenges. Different than those with no access to the industry. Show biz as we all know is pretty rough, and ultimately is a meritocracy,” Twitter, 27 July 2021, twitter.com/BenStiller/status/1420208066998333447.