Twenty years ago, in the summer of 2001, Messrs Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant unveiled the muchly exalted media meteorite that is The Office. After the success of the original UK version, the show was subsequently remade in ten other countries; the most successful of which by far being the US version starring Steve Carell as optimistic fool Michael Scott. The US version became so popular in fact that it is repeatedly mistaken as the original; a comedic misnomer that Gervais has often called back to in award shows and US interviews (“The UK Office? We just call it THE Office“).
Soon after the success of both the UK and US versions of The Office, a gold rush of mockumentary, fly-on-the-wall shows began to proliferate: Parks and Rec, Modern Family, Arrested Development, My Generation, My Life as Liz, Reno 911! – the list goes on. Soon, it became somewhat of a cultural touchstone. Rachel Isaac (who played Trudy in The Office) said in an interview for The Independent in July:
“A few years after the show, whenever you read scripts you'd hear things like ‘a bit like The Office' or ‘a bit like Brent'.”
Like Inception or Black Mirror, The Office became shorthand for everything it encapsulated; a kind of media-based synecdoche for cringe, mockumentaries, inept bosses, and witnessing awkward social interactions – particularly in a work environment.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I haven't even included the traditional “for the uninitiated” spiel aimed at zoomers, boomers, and any portion of the population who have clearly been living under a Michael Bay action-thriller starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. The Office (UK) is a 2001 mockumentary comedy that takes place in a nondescript branch of large paper company Wernham Hogg located in a trading estate in Slough. The camera crew films the daily, dreary grind of office workers, focusing on the cringe-inducing antics of incompetent manager David Brent, narcissistic sycophant Gareth Keenan, loveable but existentially lost sales rep Tim Canterbury, and Tim's unrequited office crush in the form of the charming Dawn Tinsley. The crux of the show's comedy is in Brent's catastrophic attempts to be an office comedian. Oftentimes his predilection for accidental faux pas results in several seconds of silence (enough cringe to cause moderate to severe levels of internal bleeding) or they expose his limited understanding of political correctness to the stunned horror of his colleagues within the vicinity. Whilst there are many moments of “traditional” comedy, all of it is shown through the ironic lens of the show's format wherein the people in the show are aware that they're being filmed, thereby making any displays of comedy by the characters on camera being axiomatically a commentary on that kind of comedy by creators, Gervais and Merchant. As David Baddiel said in a web-exclusive BTS clip called ‘The Office – Comedy v. Humour' from the 10-year anniversary retrospective, The Office: A Night At The Office:
“(The Office) is about comedy. It's about a bloke who thinks he's the funniest person in the room and he isn't and that is a very great tragedy in modern life.”
Ricky Gervais as David Brent doing his infamous charity dance. Gervais notes: “I look like an orangutan!”
In season 11's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode ‘Ricky Gervais: China Maybe Part 1', Gervais explains to Jerry Seinfeld:
“(If) you take the fake documentary away, The Office is quite a boring show because it's just an idiot being stupid and people not caring. Once you know he's trying to be discovered “everyone will love me” it suddenly brings it to life. Comedy is a normal person trying to do something they're not equipped to do and the bigger the blind spot, the more exciting it is and I tried to take it nth degree with Brent and you do it with a fake documentary so now he can say something to the camera and then we can see that's not true.”
The mockumentary format was advantageous in a myriad of others ways. Firstly, documentaries within indoor workplaces are one of the cheapest things to film as it is a fixed location, lighting becomes less of an issue, and, in the case of The Office, using an actual office rather than recreating one in a studio helped too. Because this helped greatly with the budget, it meant it lessened the financial risk by the BBC to make it, which helped Gervais and Merchant to retain full creative control. Secondly, the interviews (or “Talking Heads” as they are called) not only allow for easy editing, but the exposition they provide enables the characters to tell the camera crew how they view themselves whilst concurrently juxtaposing their self-analysis – often comedically – with candid-camera footage of that character contradicting what they've just said.
Also, it's the rigidity of keeping to the mockumentary format that creates the realism needed to intensify the stakes, and thereby the cringe. Sometimes the camera crew are visible to the characters, other times they (and, by proxy, we) eavesdrop on private conversations through the windows of meeting rooms. Whilst the use of the camera crew's interviews can be naively waved off as nothing more than a method to find out what characters think, the actual nuance of it means that not only do the interviews reveal a lot based on what characters choose not to say, but also they reveal what the character wants the audience to believe about them. They can try to sell us a narrative and we can infer their true motives based on their attempts to sell us that narrative. But what really sells the documentary vibe is the inclusion of uneventful office activity i.e. a photocopier printing off sheets, the answering of phones, an office worker typing on the computer, etc. As Stephen Merchant says in The Office‘s series 1 DVD extra documentary, How I Made The Office:
“It is just that kinda monotony – often if it is a job you don't enjoy – which is occasionally interspersed with someone making a joke or something. So we wanted lots of sequences when, between the jokes, of people just working and there's something lovely and empty and boring and static about someone just sat typing at a computer.”
In this sense, not only did this sell the show comedically in its determination to create hilarious anguish in lingering well after a bad joke is said, but it also made the show excruciatingly relatable as a performance piece in and of itself. However, despite this relatability, the original run of the show wasn't an immediate hit. In fact, it initially had one of the worst focus-group scores in BBC history; making joint-lowest with women's lawn bowls. But, I guess, that's the creative risk that Gervais and Merchant took when creating such a low-fi, cinéma vérité office documentary aesthetic for their sitcom. Lucy Davis, who played Dawn Tinsley, in a 2007 BBC One Comedy Connections episode concerning the creation of The Office said:
“(Gervais and Merchant) were like ‘Look, this gonna be this sort of mock-documentary so it has to be as real as it possibly can be so that when people are watching – they're not gonna really know whether you're acting or not.'”
Blurring the lines of reality and comedy was their aim; a kind of comedic phantasmagoria. The self-restraint required to attain this Kaufmanesque mischief seemed to pay off as co-creator Stephen Merchant explained in a 2011 Q&A/interview for The Hudson Union:
“After the first episode had aired I was on a train and a woman said to her friend: “Saw a documentary last night about an office, did you see that?' and her friend said, ‘I didn't see that.' and this woman who had seen it said, “Oh, is brilliant. Hilarious! The boss? Hilarious!” and her friend said, ‘No I think that was a sitcom” and the other one went ‘Oh…no. Not very funny then. Hated it”
The beginnings of what eventually became The Office began to germinate via the comedic stylings of Gervais during his stint with Stephen Merchant on London radio station, XFM where Gervais – to make Merchant laugh – would often impersonate amusing “personalities”; one such personality they called ‘Seedy Boss'. Merchant left the radio show in 1998 for a BBC Trainee Assistant Producer Scheme and, as part of the course, Merchant had to use a camera crew to film a short documentary for a few days. Merchant remembered Gervais' seedy boss character and, inspired by their love of rockumentary comedy This is Spinal Tap and talk show satire The Larry Sanders Show, the two decided to make a spoof documentary about “seedy boss”. Though the documentary format was done purely for convenience, time, and logistics' sake, the choice was rather serendipitous, as Merchant further elucidated in A Night At The Office:
“We realised that the whole sort of documentary boom that was happening at the time – that sort of docusoap thing like Driving School (ITV, 1997) and that Airport program (BBC, 1996 – 2008) were throwing up these amazing characters who suddenly were acting in a very specific way because of the fact that they were being filmed.”
The comedic potential they had captured on camera excited them. And the fact that they had the concept already on-camera for the BBC to mull over was also fortunate as the rather lowkey nature of the show meant it had to be seen, and not read, to be understood. As Gervais explains in a 2009 BBC blog post:
“I think if we'd have just sent the script off it would still be in a big pile on someone's desk. ‘David Brent says something unfunny then looks awkwardly at the camera and touches his tie' doesn't jump off the page does it. We had to show them what we meant.”
This logic was sound as Gervais' comedy hero, Christopher Guest, had a similar experience with This is Spinal Tap where he – and the co-creators – soon realised that the concept of the movie could only be properly conveyed to studios in the form of a filmed demo. Much like the ratings of the initial episodes of The Office, the demo didn't immediately catch fire with the BBC comedy execs. Like some 1st edition shiny Charizard card in my old primary school in the late 90s, the demo was passed around the offices at the BBC (covered in jam and scabs and whatnot) – all blissfully unaware of its gargantuan value in years to come. However, enough of a buzz had been created for Gervais to be invited onto Channel 4's satirical late-night sketch show The 11 O'Clock Show, as well as getting the opportunity at another sitcom pilot for Channel 4's Comedy Lab; an anthology comedy series where stand-alone sitcom pilots are curated. Gervais and Merchant's contribution to Comedy Lab in 1999 was a pilot called Golden Years; a show about a co-owner of a video rental company called Clive Meadows (played by Gervais) who has a David Bowie obsession. In terms of similarities with The Office, whilst Golden Years isn't in a mockumentary format, there are still several sequences whereby Gervais' character performs to a camera that he is aware is filming him – this time in the guise of an audition for Stars in Their Eyes. Also Meadows, like Brent, seems to invest more time in preparing for various press or media opportunities than actually doing his job.
Whilst The Office certainly explores the life of a white-collar worker, the nature of comedy, the spiritual crisis of middle management, etc, a too often ignored theme of the show is one of stifled ambition. Funnily enough, The Office seems to be part of a slew of late 90s cinema wherein protagonists suffering in a workplace/office cubicle are all stuck and desperate to break free. These include Office Space, The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, and Clerks to name a few. Almost all the characters in The Office are caught in a similar limbo of wanting to achieve something greater than their current existence, whilst also settling for the safety and comfort of the job that they contentedly hate. David Brent regularly bangs on about his “glory years” as lead vocalist for his band ‘Foregone Conclusion'; a fixation that eventually culminates in him wasting his redundancy money on releasing a twee cover of ‘If You Don't Know Me By Now' by Gamble and Huff in The Office Christmas Specials. Gareth Keenan perpetually calls back to his time in the territorial army – regardless of context. Dawn Tinsley tells Brent in episode two of series two that she originally wanted to become a children's illustrator. Tim Canterbury toys with the idea of quitting in favour of pursuing his Psychology degree at University. Despite this, all of them seem hesitant to take the leap as they do not want to risk their prosaic, undemanding, but ultimately dissatisfying life at Wernham Hogg. The only person who comes close to breaking free is Tim who, in the final episode of the first series, informs Brent that he fully intends to leave for University. As Tim goes on to say within the same episode:
“I think it was John Lennon who said ‘Life is what happens when you're making other plans.' And that's how I feel. Although he also said ‘I am the walrus. I am the eggman.' So I don't know what to believe.”
But what ends up happening? At the end of the episode, Brent offers Tim a token promotion and he accepts it – albeit with a blunt, stony-faced bleakness I might add (“Time to grow up. It's that simple”). This evolves over the course of series two into Tim displaying almost Brent-worthy levels of analogy-based copium:
“If you look at life like rolling a dice, then my situation now, as it stands – yeah, it may only be a 3. If I jack that in now, go for something bigger and better, yeah, I could easily roll a six – no problem, I could roll a 6… I could also roll a 1. OK? So, I think sometimes… Just leave the dice alone.”
It's also worth noting that this theme of the suffocating effects of comfort, stability, and photocopied expectations – and the eventual crescendo of the character escaping such an existence – can be seen throughout Gervais and Merchant's entire shared oeuvre. In Extras we find Gervais' character, Andy Millman, trying to clamber up the greasy snakes and ladders of media as a downtrodden movie extra. In Life's Too Short we have famous actor Warwick Davis similarly trying to climb the rungs of showbusiness albeit by abusing his role as head of a little person's talent agency. In their 2010 movie, Cemetery Junction we have a group of young adults in 1970s Reading who, like the title, find themselves at a crossroads in the midst of their carefree lives of either being stuck in their hometown to the grave, or moving on to riskier, but possibly better things.
What's also relatively unique about this is that, traditionally, the premise of “escaping the small town” has strictly been within the purview of American cinema. To us Brits, America is the romantic world we see on the silver screen. It's a continent-sized landscape of great plains, dense forests, mountains, deserts, canyons, swamps, and grand metropoli. It is where Jack Kerouac hitchhiked along the endless highways to find God in On The Road. As Ricky Gervais elaborates in a 2010 episode of The Graham Norton Show with guests Stephen Merchant and Christina Ricci:
“Hollywood has done some of the best and the worst films ever, but they have got a monopoly on that kind of coming-of-age/angsty/'getting out there and leaving it all behind' thing. (Cemetery Junction) was influenced by a lyric by Bruce Springsteen from ‘Thunder Road': ‘it's a town full of losers and we're pulling out of here to win' and we thought ‘Why can't we do a British film that's glorious and exciting and cool?' And we've left that veil of irony behind with (Cemetery Junction) and I think we've done it.”
That irony to which Gervais is referring is the one that Christopher Hitchens mentions in his book, Letters to a Young Contrarian:
“Irony, says Czeslaw Milosz in his poem Not This Way, is “the glory of slaves”: the sharp aside and the witty nuance are the consolation of the losers and are the one thing that pomp and power can do nothing about.”
In other words, in the case of The Office, the dramatic elements, romantic quandaries, or philosophical concepts that are typically associated with Hollywood cinema are presented in a deliberately ironic and self-deprecating way by having these events unfolding in the least “Hollywood” location one could possibly conceive of i.e. a trading estate in Slough. The show's title sequence even evokes the cinematic establishing shots of some of America's most famous soap operas, except instead of cityscapes, bikini-clad women, and countryside mansions bathed in sunshine, there's grey roundabouts, concrete multistory car parks, and brutalist office buildings beneath an overcast sky. This aesthetic was intentionally done to poke fun at the quaint, parochial, and unglamorous aspects of Britain as well as mocking the gaudy, vulgar, and pretentious qualities of America. That is to say, being weaker, less powerful, less beautiful, less famous, and less rich gives you carte blanche to punch upwards. In the same episode of The Graham Norton Show, Stephen Merchant sums up this amusing contrast in theatrical profundity between America and Britain:
“I think part of the problem is that in America when Bruce (Springsteen) says ‘I'm gonna leave this town,' you know he's gonna drive for a thousand miles. Whereas here…you sort of drive and you end up in Leeds. It's quite tricky. It's not quite as romantic.”
This is why I think it can be argued that stifled ambition is the raison d'être behind every project Gervais and Merchant have ever collaborated on.
But where oh where is the beating heart of this cringe-inducing suffocator of dreams? If the show is such a perfect depiction of that desk life with all those muted grey suits trudging over lifeless mauve carpets flecked with coffee, staples, and sensible-shoe scuff, then why aren't we all as miserable as the people in it? Perhaps it's the fact that because we're all laughing at Brent failing for our amusement, we are happy to be given an opportunity to inform everyone, by pointing and laughing, that we aren't “like that”. I don't think it's this. The sad truth is that we've all been Brent from one time or another, and to some extent, we feel for him. Gervais tried to explain this to Michael Parkinson in that same interview where Parkinson described Brent as “appalling” and a character who has “no redeeming qualities about him”:
“He's not a bastard really. He's a bit of a twit. He's stupid and desperate as well. He desperately wants to be loved. We are all one step away from it and most of us make a fool of ourselves, you know, once a day but there's usually just one person there. But when the jeopardy is up and it's being filmed and he keeps trying, he just makes it worse for himself. He's not that bad. He's just confused popularity with respect”
Whilst Brent occasionally has moments of spitefulness, he's more pitiful than horrible. In fact, it was Gervais and Merchant's clever inclusion of a foil to Brent in the form of Finchy that emphasises this sentiment best. Brent spends several episodes in the first series constantly bringing up Finchy as though he were some enigmatic comedic legend, only to find – when he arrives on screen – that he, unlike Brent, is little more than a cruel bully whereby every joke he utters is either sexist, racist, homophobic, crass, or is always at someone else's expense. Brent, in this sense, is sort of innocent, despite his sometimes obnoxious behaviour. As Gervais says in this New York Times interview from 2017:
“He was never a bad person. He's accidentally offensive because he's trying so hard. He wants to please everyone. We're still laughing at his blind spot — at the difference between how he sees himself and how we see him. But there's also a slight affection for him because he falls over and gets back up again. He is a loser, but that's why, certainly as a Brit, I side with him more than I would if he was a winner.”
Brent's innocence created by this blind spot, along with his low status and unintimidating presence, serves as the alibi needed for us to feel sorry for him. And whilst this is perhaps another element that draws our emotions in, the ironic nature of having a blindspot means that, by definition, you're not aware of your own. This creates a situation where the very people the show is poking fun at either assume the show's target is someone else and laugh not knowing (somewhat Kafkaesque if you have imposter syndrome), or they unironically celebrate the lampooned behaviour as though it were a homage. Stephen Merchant talked about this phenomenon on The Rich Eisen Show in 2019:
“It makes no difference. It's like you put these shows on the air, you highlight these kinds of people and – I remember I'll be walking with Ricky Gervais and people would come up to him and be like: ‘Hey! You know that boss you play? I'M JUST LIKE THAT GUY!' and say it like a badge of honour. It's like, you know that's not a good thing, right?”
Whilst it's certainly sympathy towards Brent's misguided foolishness that tugs at our heart's tendrils, the true culprit that is giving them arteries the real heave-ho is without a doubt the empathy we have towards Tim and Dawn's will-they-won't-they romance. Treated with almost the same ephemerality as those cut-away shots of photocopiers printing or a computer monitor displaying the classic Windows 95™ 3D-Pipes screensaver are the seemingly uneventful moments that Tim Canterbury and Dawn Tinsley share. You'll see a few seconds of “filler” involving Dawn playfully scrunching the back of Tim's nape as she walks by, or Tim playing with Dawn's hair whilst she is sat at reception, or faux-surreptitiously poking one another with pens and elbows as they sit next to each other during an office training talk. All of this would seem unimportant had it not been for the narrative context. Whilst the affable Tim is very much single (joking to the camera crew that his bedroom has seen lots of action – “mainly dusting”), Dawn on the other hand has been engaged with laddish warehouse trog, Lee for three years. It is clear that Tim and Dawn have crushes for one another but they are held back by a plethora of encroaching factors. Firstly, Tim feels impeded by her commitment to Lee, as well as his fear of the formidable presence of Lee in general. Secondly, Dawn also feels stuck, having foolishly convinced herself that her unhappiness with Lee is “normal” and based on coming to terms with the cold, hard facts of how relationships work:
“A real relationship isn't like a fairy tale, if you think that for the next forty years, every time you see each other you're going to glow, or, every time you hold hands there's going to be electricity, then, you're kidding yourself really. What about reliability, or er, someone paying the mortgage, or someone who's never been out of work. Those are the more important, practical things, you know. In reality.”
Despite this, Dawn keeps showing consistent signs to Tim of being romantically interested: staring at him from across the office as Tim works, speaking in close proximity to him, going out of her way to hang out with him, repeatedly touching his arm or shoulder when joking around, etc. It seems as though the two of them subconsciously decided to sate their mutually unspoken desire for each other by savouring on the meagre crumbs of intimacy their interactions afford them. These interactions between Tim and Dawn, and the romantic implications of them, involve enough affection to partially satisfy their longing for one another whilst also being restrained enough so that the two of them can claim plausible deniability should any onlooker claim impropriety. If the behavioural nuance in this forbidden love tête-à-tête didn't already have the intricacies and stakes of Vincent Cassel laser-dancing in Ocean's Twelve, the presence of an entire camera crew turns things up to eleven. Essentially it completely inhibits what they are “allowed” to do, thereby making every interaction feel, as Merchant phrases it in A Night At The Office, somehow “illicit” and “under a microscope”. Therefore, the “throwaway” shots I referred to earlier have a heightened sense of significance when coupled with the suppressing effects of the cameras around them, thereby making The Office a fantastic case study about the minutiae of human behaviour. As Gervais and Merchant elaborate in the 2001 documentary, How I Made The Office:
MERCHANT: “What you find with the romantic plot is it's like because the camera is filming them, they can't show their emotions for each other, they can't show their true feelings (Tim and Dawn) so you have some sort of Victorian, seething kind of melodrama where, you know, suddenly just him touching her or her touching him – that becomes just as much as a kiss, it means as much.”
GERVAIS: “A kiss becomes a shag – “
MERCHANT: ” – so it becomes a kind of – you get that nice kind of electricity between them”
Another detail worth noting is that the audience has the advantage of being an omnipresent spectator. Whilst we see everything that the camera crew has seen, the characters within The Office do not know what footage has been captured by the documentary crew nor what will make it to air. Thanks to the talking heads and secretive zooms on distant facial expressions and the ability to compare them with what the characters claim to think when among their peers, we are privy to the protagonists' thoughts about one another – more so than they are about each other. In the case of Tim and Dawn, this knowledge can become a curse more so than a blessing. Take the Christmas special for instance. After Dawn is flown in from Florida for the office's Christmas shindig, Tim and Dawn can finally reconnect having been apart for nearly a year; chatting, pranking Gareth, and Dawn drawing a sketch of Tim as they laugh together. The boorish FHM-patron Lee yet again displays little compassion for Dawn's dreams, telling Tim, in front of Dawn, that the reason he has got her to “give up” on her illustrating aspirations is that, “to make money out of it, you know, you've got to be good!”.
One can see a direct parallel between the stifled ambition theme and the romantic plot as they similarly convey the ‘leap of faith' dilemma. To use a classic office tool for a moment, the Venn diagram of ‘Career' and ‘Romance' overlap in the final scenes of the Christmas special. As Dawn hops into a taxi with Lee to the airport back to America where she is expected to live out the rest of her life with someone she doesn't love, a member of the camera crew sits beside her in the backseat and films her opening the secret Santa gift given to her at the office party: it's a box of oil paints accompanied by her sketch of Tim with the words ‘NEVER GIVE UP' written next to it. It's this final act of love from Tim that convinces Dawn to return to the office, in floods of tears, to take the leap and succumb to her romantic feelings by kissing him in front of the entire office to the sound of ‘Only You' by Yazoo. Brent, who is present during this magical moment, smiles warmly towards the camera crew like a proud dad.
Whilst a highly astute, revolutionary, and perspicacious observation and commentary on perception, office life, comedy, the desire for fame, and stifled ambition, The Office is fundamentally about people's yearning to be accepted and loved, and the struggles and pitfalls in attempting to attain these things, and that, ultimately, love and hope will out. And, as the Brentmeister general himself once said (taken from his interview at the end of series two):
‘If you want the rainbow you've got to put up with the rain.' Do you know which ‘philosopher' said that? Dolly Parton. And people say she's just a big pair of tits.”