This piece was co-authored by CustardTV Editor Luke Knowles and site contributor Eamon Hennedy
It’s difficult to say where ‘cringe comedy’ came from. The idea that you’re laughing at the joke but also at the awfulness of the situation and the agony of those it affects. It was a skill the show’s creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant mastered and made their new show stand out immediately.
The show began life when the pair filmed a sketch called ‘seedy boss’ with Gervais playing Brent before he was Brent while Merchant was on a BBC training course. The pair may well have invented the idea of cringe comedy on British television. In interviews, they’d reference their appreciation and admiration for what Larry David was doing in Curb Your Enthusiasm or the genius of Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, but it’s important to stress how different and clever The Office was from anything else airing on the BBC at the time. It began with confidence, fully formed and self-assured and with it, it ushered in a new era of television comedy that would use its template to form future hits.
The humour in The Office is immediately different to anything we’d seen in the British sitcom before. When Del Boy fell through the bar we’re laughing at him but the character feels larger than life which means we never really worry about his embarrassment or his feelings. When David Brent whips out his guitar during management training and serenades a bemused room with his original song ‘Freelove Freeway’ the response it gets from the audience is multilayered.
The Office owes a debt to one of the earliest forms of reality television. Prior to that characteristically excruciating introduction to David Brent, and with it, the moment Ricky Gervais became a star, you couldn’t move through the British television schedules without a representation of the fly-on-the-wall documentary dotted somewhere on the BBC or ITV schedules. Somewhere along the line, we’d become obsessed with the idea that normal people could be the star.
Airport, Airline, The Cruise, The Hotel, Driving School, Vet School, The Clampers broadcasters could and would make a docuseries about any profession. These shows could be made cheaply but appealed as they were able to capture a slice of normality. What was perhaps a little less expected in the mid-nineties was that ordinary members of the public would become proper stars. I vividly remember foul-mouthed Maureen Rees verbally abusing husband Dave as she struggled to parallel park. I also remember her awful version of Drive My Car by Madness which peaked at number 49 on the singles charts in 1996.
It’s impossible to really explain how taken we all were by seeing ordinary people on screen. It was strangely thrilling to see these people get their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. It was a format that Gervais and Merchant would emulate with immense care and detail.
Before the premiere of The Office on Monday the 9th of July 2001 on BBC2, most scripted television comedies were produced in the sitcom format, and were likely to have been ‘filmed in front of a live studio audience’. If they weren’t, they still came with a soundtrack of ‘canned laughter’ to achieve the effect that we were all in on the joke with an unknown audience of laughing people and it was a joy to join along. Gervais and Merchant would go on to spoof this in their next hit Extras. BBC Two had had great success with The Royle Family, a show that in its own way felt documentary-like. It captured life in the living room of an ordinary family. With no obvious setups to jokes.
The studio audience component has been deployed less and less over the last few years, the peak of the format arguably occurring during the halcyon days of Friends, Frasier and Will and Grace, all series that made their marks on NBC in the US and Channel 4 in the UK through their then iconic Friday night comedy line-up. Admittedly there have been some successful studio filmed sitcoms in recent years, not least the Chuck Lorre productions of The Big Bang Theory and Mom, while in the UK, Miranda felt like a lovely call-back to a bygone age of a clearly enthusiastic studio audience laughing along with well-timed comedic beats and much fourth-wall-breaking.
However, the premiere of The Office would end up spearheading a change of sorts, not only for British comedy but on the other side of the Atlantic too.
If traditional sitcoms were all about punctuating (i.e., telling the audience) the moment when to laugh using an audience laughter track, then Gervais and Merchant went a subtle route by demanding the audience pay attention to the nuances of the performances and the writing.
The jokes at first glance aren’t obvious. If you tuned in on that first night to watch it not knowing it was a comedy series, then you might have been forgiven for thinking that you were watching the latest in a genre that was filling up the television schedules. This was by design. Great effort is paid to make the documentary side of things feel as authentic and downbeat and ordinary as possible. The show’s brilliantly bland and ordinary opening titles gave viewers little clue as to what was in store.
Danny, one of the co-hosts of Wernham Blogg – The Office Podcast, remembers seeing the show on the first night.
“I still recall the inauspicious summer night in 2001, deep in the era of fly on the wall “docu soaps”, when I tuned into a barely heralded new BBC2 show, The Office…and initially thought it was simply another of these shows, albeit with a very eccentric lead character in David Brent. Up until The Office, the closest thing to a Brent in the prior era was probably someone like Chris Barrie’s Gordon Brittas, the “annoying boss with no self-awareness” presented in broad strokes, getting into absurd situations every episode.”
Hear their chat with Ricky Gervais here.
The Office’s comedic effect wasn’t just in eliciting laughter in the audience, it was also in making one cringe on a level that sometimes made the antics of Wernham Hogg more akin to a subtly skin-crawling horror piece where embarrassment was taken to the levels of epic, albeit subtly played due to how life-life it frequently felt. It wasn’t played for well-choreographed laughs, but instead for how recognisably human it was to either be embarrassed or fail in life’s journey.
Gervais’ performance as Brent became a comedy icon for the age, one divined by knowledge of cameras in a media-savvy world. Where modern American comedies have frequently gone for good looking types of the Friends variety going through life breezily getting into all sorts of comedic scrapes, there was something that bordered on horrifyingly tragic about Brent and The Office’s world.
Maybe because of the near theatrical component of sitcoms, but there was sometimes a sense that the characters were in on the joke even if the fourth wall wasn’t being broken. How can it be? That’s where the studio audience lives. Yet, Brent is a character who revels in being the lead of his own television series. Brent is always aware of the cameras. Always performing, always desperate to be noticed. You realise quickly that he’s hoping he’ll follow in the footsteps of Jane MacDonald or Jermey from Airport who found fame because the public fell in love with them. The difference between Brent and Jane MacDonald though, is that Jane was unaware of the level of impact the documentary could or would have. The fact that The Office comes a few years after the genre first exploded, it’s easy to believe that Brent has seen all those ordinary people find fame and is desperate that the documentary makers will paint him as the star he believes himself to be. The existence of the cameras means that Brent is always tripping over himself. Making a joke one second then realising how that might come across and taking back his statements. He’s a man desperate to be taken seriously but yet embarrassments, failures, and other such horrors befall him throughout.
An early example of this comes when he tells his team the branch will be closing. It’s a scene that shows you how bad Brent is at his job, but also how desperate he is to be liked, even when delivering life-changing news.
His characterisation is frequently complex. You find yourself feeling sympathy one moment, and in the next a semblance of jaw-dropping horror at just how blatantly terrible and ill-thought a person he can be.
I always felt sorry for those who ‘didn’t get’ The Office. Who couldn’t get past its more excruciating moments because even now, 20 years on from its brilliantly executed conclusion, it stands as one of the biggest achievements in the history of television.
It may have used the rise of the docuseries as its base and stayed faithful to the format to the end, but its true genius is in bringing us characters that feel so achingly real. David Brent, the oafish, attention-seeking wannabe entertainer was a deeply interesting character. There weren’t many times in the series where his mask dropped, but in the moments he did reveal the man he really was, you couldn’t help but be on his side.
If the first series was a piece of comic genius that some were late to latch onto, the second was a true masterpiece. The second sees the Slough branch merge with a defunct branch in Swindon. It means Brent has new staff to entertain but it also means he has a new boss in the ultra-professional and straight-laced Neil (Patrick Baladi). In lots of ways, Neil is Brent’s enemy and in another way, he’s someone who Brent wants to emulate. In a key scene, Brent comes to work wearing a leather jacket similar to Neil’s with an ear-piercing that instantly regrets but hopes will make him look cool. Neil is unimpressed with Brent’s antics around the office. Strangely, seeing Brent belittled and reprimanded by Neil only makes you empathise with Brent more. “The Swindon Lot” as Brent refers to them, have little time for his jokes and quickly see through his attempts to win them over.
One of the best examples of Gervais and Merchant’s work comes in the scene where Brent takes his new colleagues for a drink at the local pub. It’s a sequence that sees David Brent desperately trying to win the new team over as they sit disinterested finishing their food and drink. It’s a sequence filled with tension and pathos and it’s in these quiet and tender moments that the series and Gervais and Merchant as a writing team really excel.
By the final episodes of the second series, when Brent is made redundant, our relationship with the character had grown into something different. Yes, there are moments in those final episodes of the series that made us cry with laughter and cringe with embarrassment, namely the scene where Brent gives a motivational talk to a room of bemused and disinterested people and ends his talk by trying and failing to get them to clap along to ‘The Best’ from Tina Turner. However, it’s in the moments where Gervais is able to show the man behind Brent’s comedic facade that truly hit you.
The scene where his voice breaks as he begs Neil for his job back will stay with me forever. It’s a rare moment where he forgets he’s being filmed, forgets to perform and has a moment of realisation that he’s going to lose everything. For all the reaching for the stars, Brent is happiest when he’s working with his team. For all his talk and bravado, his life outside of Wernham Hogg isn’t exciting. Gervais was always great at playing the fool with Brent but it’s in the moments where the real Brent shines through that he proves his abilities as a performer.
Gervais and Merchant expertly juggle so many stories across the 14 episodes that make up The Office. For most shows, a comedic character like Brent would be enough, but there is so much more going on here.
Even Tim and Dawn’s tentative romance was subverted in ways that went against common comedy scripting logic.
The will-they-won’t-they between receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis) and salesmen Tim (Martin Freeman) is easily one of the best romances ever portrayed on television.
Tim was the everyman. He was us. He’d give us knowing glances to the camera when Brent would say something inappropriate or mad. He was talking to us all the time. He was not who we aspired to be, but who many of us thought we were. Dawn was trapped in a borderline abusive relationship with peak toxic male, Lee (Joel Beckett). When Tim saw Dawn’s dreams, Lee would crush them. And vice-versa. When Tim gave up his ambitions to go to university after being ridiculed by David, Dawn was the one who told him to keep going.
Gervais and Merchant have said that the show was really about Tim and Dawn. Their romance, or lack of it, was expertly handled. Again the docuseries format works brilliantly as the camera crew capture the little glances that Tim makes across to Dawn’s desk and vice versa. It’s often as painful to watch as one of Brent’s outbursts, as you’re so desperate for them to be together. Freeman and Davis are brilliant together. You can understand why they haven’t managed to get together. Tim is unsatisfied with his lot in life and has no desire to work for a paper company. Dawn is the only thing that keeps him coming to work in the morning. Just as in the talking heads that Brent does reveal almost too much about his character, the ones between Dawn and Tim reveal their unfulfilled potential and their want for something more. Their friendly and harmless banter perfectly balances Brent’s more outlandish moments. It also makes them allies as they can see how ludicrous Wernham Hogg is and are almost winking at the camera at times.
When Dawn breaks off her engagement in that brilliant management training episode, Tim picks the wrong moment, and the wrong place to finally ask her out. He does it in a packed room and his quick knockback is one of the first truly painful moments of the series. It’s the first time Tim feels like a fool.
Series 2 puts Dawn in Tim’s shoes when Rachel (Stacey Roca), one of the Swindon lot, quickly falls for Tim’s charms. The pair begin an overtly flirty relationship and end up becoming a couple. The scene where Rachel asks Dawn her opinion of Tim sees Lucy Davis at her very best. She plays with the question, dismissing it without even answering. It’s such a layered performance.
When the series came to a conclusion, it did so through two Christmas specials that drew in massive ratings when the BBC moved it to BBC1, a sure sign of how big the series had become at that point.
The Christmas Special might be the best Gervais and Merchant have ever been. In a masterstroke, they had the cameras return to Wernham Hogg to check in with the people they’d be following. The documentary has aired. Everyone has seen Tim being rejected by Dawn. Tim says, “When my Nanna saw it she said, I’m not surprised she chose the other fellow. I wouldn’t kick him out of bed!”
Brent hasn’t become the star he had hoped for though he has secured an agent for personal appearances at nightclubs up and down the country and waving to a crowd who only have a vague idea of who he is. Working as a sales rep, Brent is perhaps at his lowest. He lights during his frequent and unannounced trips back to The Office he had appeared so keen to move on from.
The awkward scenes that occur when the camera crew pay for a flight from Florida so that Dawn can be part of the special are perfectly paid off when Dawn rushes back into the Christmas Party grabbing an unsuspecting Tim for the passionate kiss fans had spent so long waiting for.
The original version of The Office worked so well because everyone involved made sure that the series didn’t veer from the confines of the documentary format. It couldn’t go on and on because why would a camera crew keep filming at a regional paper company? It never forgets that this is a show being filmed. When Brent meets his date for the Office Christmas Party, the camera stays on the periphery. Only giving us brief moments with David and his date Carol, who luckily for him hasn’t seen the documentary. When the camera asks Carol whether she’d like to see him again, she says she would and we see David in the background just sneaking up to hear her answer.
The Christmas Special cemented The Office as one of the best British comedies of all time. It gave everyone the ending they deserved and to their credit, Gervais and Merchant haven’t felt the need to revisit Wernham Hogg. They don’t need to. Those 14 episodes are perfect.
Unsurprisingly, The Office gained itself an American make-over. It came at a time when our original was already highly regarded by those who had caught it on BBCAMERICA. Gervais and Merchant and the team were surprises winners of the Golden Globe in 2004.
The American remake eventually found its home at NBC. It came at a pivotal time for the network. Their big hits Friends and Frasier were ending and their Friends spin-off Joey was almost an immediate faliure. For the most part, traditional network sitcoms were still big affairs with a big star attached and heavy on punchlines. For the American remake to capture the same sense of normality it would have to cast unknowns. Those who were unfamiliar with the original might not watch if there wasn’t a recognisable name to hook them, and those who had seen the original had written it off as terrible before even seeing it.
To be fair, It didn’t have the best of starts, trying too hard to emulate the first series of the original. It didn’t take too long for it to settle into his groove. The first episode of the second season (The Dundies) showed the team had quickly worked out how their version would work. Their Brent, Micheal Scott (Steve Carell) wasn’t as nightmarish. He was a bumbling fool and manchild who was largely liked by his co-workers.
The characters were given variations of the original cast’s names (Tim and Dawn became Jim and Pam, David Brent became Michael Scott, Gareth became Dwight), but it became a worthy piece of work and is still to this day one of the most streamed television series in the world.
The visual style and atmosphere of the series translated surprisingly well even if did lessen the British realism of the original for something more comforting and frequently quirky. The background cast expanded during the American version’s run and by the time the series was hitting its groove, the likes of Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling), Toby (Paul Lieberstein) and the truly brilliant Creed (Creed Bratton) were as much of a draw as Michael, Jim, and Pam.
The talking heads technique was retained, and even made its way into companion series Parks and Recreation, initially mooted as a spin-off but which became its own wonderful thing complete with iconic characters and moments, not least in central character Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ron Swanson (the scene-stealing Nick Offerman in what must surely rank as one of the greatest comedic creations of all time).
Parks and Recreation is a wonderful series, but more so due to its good-natured approach to its comedy. If The Office was about finding the horror in cringe and asking the audience to laugh along when things go wrong, then the world of Pawnee, Indiana was one that found its laughter in kindness. Unless you were Jerry/Larry/Terry/Garry Gergich.
Like the US version of The Office, it struggled in its first season where it felt more akin to both versions of Gervais and Merchant’s series, and Leslie herself was written and performed as if she was a female version of the Brent/Scott character. Alas, in season two the series opted to make her brilliant at her job, and whose kind-hearted approach to her friends and work became the vibe that made the series soar, especially from season three onwards. It is the best American comedy of the last twenty years.
The US Office’s showrunner Greg Daniels co-created Parks and Recreation, but it was Michael Schur, who started off writing for the US version of The Office, whose fingerprints are mostly all over the world of Pawnee, Indiana. Through working on the US Office and subsequently going on to co-create Parks, Schur has become a dominant name in US television comedy, going on to create the masterpiece that was The Good Place and co-creating Brooklyn Nine-Nine, all series that fall into the thirty-minute US television comedy format, but which are reliant on single cameras set-ups.
In fact, a substantial portion of American comedy, the home of the sitcom format that stretched back to the days of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz who helped create it, found itself rejecting the studio-bound settings in favour of single cameras and a cinematic approach. While The Office might have owed a debt to those early docusoaps, US television comedy found itself using the single-camera format for a more cinematic style of comedy series that is still being used to this day.
While a small number of comedies have reverted to the studio-bound format in recent years (Netflix’s remake of One Day at a Time worked wonderfully and should be seen by everyone), more often than not the only way to still see what the world of the studio-bound sitcom was like is to stream or catch repeats of older, classic shows.
The Office remains a revolutionary series, but one borne out of subtlety and quiet ambition. It could be argued that it’s something of a ‘year zero’ for the current styling of television comedy. While there were other single-camera comedies being produced in a thirty-minute format prior to the premiere of Gervais and Merchant’s series, they were more of a rarity, and it always feels as if The Office was the one that popularised the format to the extent that others would gravitate toward it more frequently.
As Dan from, Wernham Blogg – The Office Podcast, puts it,
“Looking back in 2022, the show, which seemed so revolutionary at the time looks increasingly like a period piece. As well as capturing a moment in TV time with respect to the “docu soaps” trend, it depicts a simpler time, before the ubiquity of social media; even the physical office itself is fast becoming something of an anachronism following the covid home working boom, meaning that millions of people no longer have to spend quite so much time in the company of people with whom the only thing they share is walking around the same bit of carpet for 8 hours a day.
One thing is not in doubt, however; The Office’s mark on comedy history is indelible. For many years to come comedy fans should look back and say “there goes The Office; I must remember to thank it”