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(Credit: BBC)

20 years of 'The Office' - A pioneer of contemporary comedy

“You just have to accept that some days you are the pigeon, and some days you are the statue” – David Brent 

Tagged onto the end of every joke from its inception in the 1950s, the fourth-wall-breaking use of canned laughter, was in its most basic terms, a prompt for audiences to let them know when to laugh and when not to. It created a formulaic, rudimentary form of late 20th-century comedy where to laugh felt more like a gut reaction rather than an actual emotional response. As the new millennium approached, programming, in the UK particularly, began to drop these laughing prompts, with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s being one of the notable firsts in 1981, followed by The Office in 2001. 

In dropping this facade of forced laughter suddenly comedy became more intimate and noticeably quieter, with silence filling the void of audience hooting. Embracing silence, comedy was now permitted to be awkward, with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office relying on the absence of a laugh track and even the air of any real joy at all, to be funny. Presented in the mode of cinéma vérité, the mockumentary followed life at a painfully normal English workplace called Wernham Hogg; where “life is stationery”. Though it is just when life is stationery that we can start to appreciate its hilarious obscurities, as interests of place and time become immaterial and the mundane musings of everyday folk typify a dry cultural humour frequently forgotten. 

Since the series’ final series in 2003, Ricky Gervais’ lead character David Brent has become a cultural icon, and one ubiquitous with every office manager whose self-importance precedes their self-respect. It is now twenty years ago, in 2001, when he called his staff for a spontaneous meeting, announcing “There is good news and bad news” before revealing that, “some of you will lose your jobs. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon”. Devastated, Brent shares in their sorrow for just a moment before continuing, “On a more positive note, the good news is… I’ve been promoted!…so, every cloud”. 

Though Brent doesn’t just represent that narcissistic office manager or overbearing team leader, Gervais’ character is, in essence, representative of the very British identity which has come to define modern comedy. As Stephen Fry explains in a conversation regarding the difference between American and British comedy, “We want to play the failure. All the great British comic heroes are people who want life to be better and on whom life craps from a terrible height”. He elaborates on this, noting David Brent as a typical example, stating that, “Their lack of dignity is embarrassing, they are a failure. They are an utter failure”.

Such is evident in classic comedies of old, in Dad’s Army’s Arthur Lowe and Only Fools and Horses Del Boy, though this caricature also exists today, their existence amplified by the cultural success of David Brent. Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan and This Country’s Kerry Mucklowe illustrate this same persistence of failure with a squirming lack of self-confidence, the perfect case studies to attribute to what Stephen Fry describes as a British identity, “bathed in failure”. Though, as Fry elaborates, “we make a glory of our failure, we celebrate it”. 

Embracing the importance of silence in the modern genre, Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant taught contemporary comedy that there is a certain truth and innate hilarity to extract from reality when “life is stationery”. 

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