“The Office” plus 20

The Office, a modern sitcom classic co-created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (and starring Gervais), premiered on the BBC July 9, 2001. Its comedy was of a nature that required the viewer’s undivided attention, especially for its quieter conversations and other subtle comic nuances. In fact, it almost doesn’t feel right to refer to it as a “sitcom” at all. Like many of Britain’s best comedies through the years, The Office took the traditional sitcom form and discarded all but the most basic elements. Its creative success, though, inspired a number of other contemporary sitcoms to emulate its style.

We first visit the offices of Wernham Hogg, a paper company in the grey, industrial city of Slough, through the camera lens of an unseen documentary crew as they film the work-a-day activities of the Wernham Hogg staff. The employees are aware of the camera’s constant presence, and some adjust their behavior accordingly, while others simply ignore it. But their faces reveal the spirit-crushing boredom of their daily routine, as they crunch numbers and call clients.

They can rely on their manager, David Brent (Gervais) to shake things up — for better or worse. Far from being a traditional company man, David doesn’t have deadlines and office productivity foremost on his mind. He sees himself as the office cheerleader and comedian, believing, with all of his heavyhanded sincerity, that a happy staff will ensure quality output for the company.

The only problem is that David’s sense of humor consists not of wit, but primarily of contrived puns, inappropriate ethnic references, and practical jokes that inevitably backfire and cause considerable distress to their intended targets. He is well-meaning, however, and his attempts to make his colleagues laugh expose an almost desperate loneliness and craving to be liked. But give him enough verbal rope, and he’ll invariably hang himself, bringing a casual office conversation to a painfully awkward silence, from which David might skulk away and retreat to his office. But even his office often fails to provide adequate protection. David’s boss, the humorless Jennifer Taylor Clarke, appears regularly to check up on him, and to reprimand him in private for his clowning at the expense of getting work done. Ever aware of how he’ll come off in the finished product, David glances repeatedly to the camera with a nervous smile as Jennifer bawls him out.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant met while both were working at a London radio station. Merchant at the time was also taking a TV production course at the BBC, which required him to create his own 20-minute production. Gervais had never performed at that point, but, as Merchant recalls, “Ricky used to sort of make observations about certain types of behavior that people in offices have. He had a couple of key observations, but they weren’t fleshed out into a full character. They were just little tidbits. So when I did the production scheme I asked him if we should try to flesh that character into something for this little short project. And we fleshed out a couple of little vignettes, and the character sort of came fully formed to Ricky. You could ask him any question on any subject, and he could somehow improvise in character, giving you answers as he thought this character would.”

They gave the character a name and a backstory, and the short piece led to the team writing a 1998 BBC sitcom pilot called Golden Years, starring Gervais. It not only gave them experience working in television, but prompted the BBC to ask them to do a series of Golden Years. They declined, in favor of focusing on what would eventually become The Office.

Gervais and Merchant’s writing collaboration developed as they spent a good deal of time discussing their likes and dislikes about television, comparing their favorite films, and the styles of comedy that inspired them. As they built a common language, they also agreed to decide on project ideas democratically, without one person attempting to bully the other into accepting an idea. Their writing sessions consisted mostly of improvising dialogue, recording it into a dictaphone, transcribing it, and then reworking it. “We don’t go off and come back with new ideas,” Merchant said. “Perhaps initially I was a little bit more interested in the sort of romantic story, cause I have sort of a soft spot for that. Over time, the demarcation is blurred. I think Ricky’s become more and more intrigued with the dynamics of story telling, whereas when we started, he was more interested in the truth of the observation.”

The idea to present The Office documentary-style grew from the 20-minute piece Merchant produced for his BBC course. “I was given a camera crew just for one day, he explained. “So consequently we realized that if we tried to do it like proper television, and make it really slick and well-lit, we wouldn’t have very much time. So we figured if we did it documentary style, we could fill a lot more quickly, and it didn’t have to be as finessed, it could be a bit scrappier. But the biggest breakthrough was, in doing that, in order to fill up time, to get enough stuff in the can, we just sat Ricky down and we interviewed him as the character, and he started giving us these sort of fake interviews. And that very quickly opened up a whole other avenue, because we suddenly realized that this character would reveal so much about himself by his sort of pompous pronouncements to the camera.” The technique also fit in well with the trend of fly-on-the-wall documentaries filling the British airwaves at the time, in which very ordinary people doing their lackluster jobs were becoming semi-celebrities simply by virtue of being filmed at work for television.

Each episode of The Office intersperses the fly-on-the-wall camera technique, often eavesdropping on quiet side conversations between colleagues, with brief interview segments mixed in, since the employees would naturally feel more free to express their thoughts in private to the camera than in the open.

The major characters who slog through their workdays at Wernham Hogg include sales rep Tim (Martin Freeman), who tries to keep himself awake by either flirting with receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis), or deliberately clashing with Gareth, David’s young but rigid, by-the-book assistant. Tim is the most vocal in recognizing the maddening dullness of working for a paper company. As he describes his job for his first on-camera interview in the premiere episode, his speech slows and becomes more halting as he goes on. “I’m a sales rep,” he begins, “which means that my job is to speak to clients on the phone about quantity and type of paper…whether we can supply it with them, and whether the can pay for it…and I’m boring myself talking about it.”

Tim works in close quarters with Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), whose actual title is a point of debate. He refers to himself as “Assistant Regional Manager,” only to have David make the quick correction, “Assistant to the Regional Manager.” Gareth enjoys joking with David and having a drunken night out with the boys But while in the office, he insists on following the most trivial of company policies to the letter. He also tries to apply his three-year experience in the Territorial Army to solving office problems, but his effectiveness is negligible. While interrogating suspects about a pornographic picture appearing on a company computer, Gareth explains, “David has trusted me with this because not only have I got people skills, but I’m trained in covert operations.”

But it is David Brent who is the undeniable central focus of the series, as his attempts to whip up laughter and enthusiasm among his staff usually produce, as we’ve mentioned, the opposite effect.

In the second series, we find that Wernham Hogg has been forced to close a branch in Swindon. The Slough branch takes on the Swindon staffers who have survived the cut. David is eager to welcome them into his world. However, he also has a new boss from Swindon, Neil Godwin, who is to replace Jennifer. Neil wastes no time in letting David know that, as his superior, he will be keeping a sharp eye on David’s work, and won’t tolerate nonsense. This does not sit well with David, of course.

Once the second series was completed, Gervais and Merchant decided to quit while they were ahead, although they did include a two-part Christmas special.

The Office took the British television world by storm, and has been the recipient of the most major of awards. It won “Best Television Comedy” at the 2002 British Comedy Awards, which also bestowed Ricky Gervais with the “Best TV Comedy Actor” award. In January of 2004, the series became the first British comedy in twenty-five years to be nominated for a Golden Globe in the category “Best TV Series: Musical or Comedy,” and was the first ever to win. Gervais won the award for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical or Comedy.” The series also won the Peabody Award that year. The Office also received two Emmy nominations in 2005.

And, of course, it spawned an American version on NBC.

Despite the miserable record of American television networks attempting to adapt British sitcoms for domestic audiences, The Office became a rare exception. The American version premiered as a mid-season replacement in March of 2005, starring Steve Carell. Perhaps one reason for this incarnation’s success was that new characters were created for it, rather than simply transplanting the original characters to be played by an American cast. Gervais and Merchant were also careful to find just he right producer to take the reins.

“The one thing we noticed from all of the other failed attempts,” said Merchant, “was they often looked as though the original English creators had been very heavily involved, because we worred that we’d just be trying to replicate it as opposed to let someone be inspired but do their own thing”

They agreed that veteran comedy director Greg Daniels was the right person for the job. “We kep trying to encourage Greg to do his own thing,” Merchant said, “and I think in the first series of the American version, it was somewhere halfway. But I think by season 2, they seem to have found their own groove, and from there I think it went from strength to strength. Personally I’m very poroud and pleased with the American show…I think you have to treat it as a different beast, really.”

However, it could be argued that the original premise of presenting the setting in quasi-documentary form worked better in the short run of the original. “We were able to perhaps keep it more contained,” Merchant said of the original, “and end it before it became odd that a documentary team was still following these people after five years.” It’s interesting to see how that documentary style was chosen for subsequent American sitcoms such as Parks and Recreation and Modern Family.

Gervais and Merchant went on to write and star in Extras, arguably an even superior sitcom to The Office. Their subsequent series collaborations have included Life’s Too Short, An Idiot Abroad; Gervais’ has written and starred in two series, Derek, and After Life. Merchant has appeared in memorable Modern Family episodes, nearly stealing the show each time.

Martin Freeman later appeared in numerous comedy and dramas, taking the lead in the ITV sitcom Hardware in 2003–04, and the series Sherlock, as well as The Hobbit feature film trilogy. He also had a role in the Richard Curtis film Love, Actually. Lucy Davis later appeared on American television as a semi-regular character on the short-lived NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

So, today, we honor the original version of The Office, which will forever be admired for its unique comic tone, all-too-real characters, and the Gervais-Merchant trademark “awkward silence” method of conveying our almost instinctive reaction to the stray, inappropriate comment. Above all, though, is the masterful creation of David Brent, whose foibles undoubtedly reside, to some degree, in all of us.

Until next time…

You can learn about my book Best of the Britcoms: From Fawlty Towers to The Office (revised edition) at my website, www.GarryBerman.com, where you will also find the link to order it from Amazon.com.

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.