Here’s the scene. Office workers in varying degrees of sullen intoxication stumble out of a Slough nightclub. It is one or two o’clock in the morning. It is a Wednesday night and work is a bare few hours away. A woman walks out with a bottle in her hand; a bouncer stops her and takes the drink. A couple who have pulled kiss on the steps: others, less successful, disappear alone into the night. A voice cuts in. It belongs to office manager David Brent, and he’s reading, and critiquing, John Betjeman’s ‘Slough’:
‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, it isn’t fit for humans now’ – right, I don’t think you solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place, he’s embarrassed himself there. Next. ‘In labour saving homes with care, their wives frizz out peroxide hair, and dry it in synthetic air, and paint their nails -’ They want to look nice, what’s the matter, doesn’t he like girls? ‘And talks of sports and makes of cars in various bogus Tudor bars, and daren’t look up and see the stars, but belch instead.’ What’s he on about, what, he’s never burped? ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, to get it ready for the plough. The cabbages are coming now. The earth exhales.’ He’s the only cabbage round here.
The novelist Scarlett Thomas, in her creative writing textbook Monkeys with Typewriters, discusses Brent’s critique:
David Brent is clearly wrong about the poem on many levels, and of course it has far more depth than he realises. But there is great humour in his strange analysis, and the way in which he positions himself as more of an ‘expert’ on Slough than Betjeman. Humour, like irony, relies on reversals. Here, David Brent thinks he’s being funnier than the poem, but the poem is both funnier and more profound than he will ever be. And when he is funny, it’s unintentional… More humour, and in fact sadness, comes from David Brent’s unawareness that the poem may be addressed to him, and may therefore be asking him to dare to ‘look up and see the stars’.
Narrative comedy comes out of a gap in perception – the conflict between the way we see things, and the way things actually are. It resonates with us because we all carry narratives in our heads about the way our lives are meant to go, and these narratives do not always accord with reality. For Brent the perception gap is a chasm. As Thomas says: ‘He has no idea that the world is not the way he says it is.’ Brent sees himself as an inspirational figure, a great comedian and a leader adored by his staff: in fact, he is pompous, incompetent, sleazy and awkward – whenever Brent enters a room, conversation stalls.
No one grows up dreaming of working in a Slough paper merchant’s. Brent’s staff aren’t all content with sports and cars and Tudor bars. Several have fantasy alternate careers. College dropout Tim wants to go back to university and become a psychiatrist. The receptionist Dawn sees herself as a children’s illustrator. Laconic accountant Keith is an electronica DJ in his spare time. Brent himself has written poetry, and enjoyed some success in his guitar band, at one point being supported by future international rock stars Texas. Those days are long gone but Brent, with little else to occupy him, still plots for celebrity status. Brent thinks of himself as someone with things to say. He’s waiting to be discovered.
In the last century this would have been comic material enough for a Walter Mitty style sitcom. There is added pathos in the fact that many people have big dreams, most are never realised and reconciling yourself to that is a part of growing up. But The Office screened in the early 2000s when celebrity appeared to be democratised to some extent. Ben Walters, in his excellent study of the series, charts the first age of reality television. Airport workers and driving instructors were becoming national names. Big Brother still seemed like an original and interesting idea. When a BBC documentary crew approach David Brent, asking to film a reality programme in his office, the manager sees his big chance.
The documentary is supposed to be a basic fly on the wall show, but Brent attempts to turn it into a vehicle for his particular brand of comic styling. This doesn’t work as well as he anticipates because Brent’s style of humour relies so heavily on what Walters calls a ‘confusion of reference with wit.’ He repeats catchphrases and dialogue from well known sitcoms and sketches, often immediately afterwards identifying the show in question, just in case we haven’t got it. His welcome-aboard speech is a confused mashup of Fawlty Towers and Harry Enfield catchphrases. He hangs puppets of Flat Eric and the Johnny Vegas monkey on the office hatstand, and points them out to guests with obvious delight. David Brent is a man who believes that the apex of hilarity is an electronic singing fish.
The Office is mainstream postmodernist, a show not just about comedy but about how comedy is used. Laughter is never just about laughter. Comedy is about competition. It also acts as a shared reference point, a moment of contact with others, something that brings us together. How many times have you sat in a pub with friends, quoting stuff from Green Wing or Stewart Lee and making yourself sick with helpless laughter? How many mornings did you walk into the school form room quoting the previous night’s Alan Partridge episode? As Walters shows, Tim and Dawn, who are in love but can’t be together, develop their relationship through play and practical jokes – often at the expense of hapless jobsworth Gareth Keenan. Play is important.
For Brent himself comedy is a means to an end, it’s a way of bonding with others, receiving affection, being loved. As Gervais says, David Brent wants what the rest of us want: ‘he wants to be loved, he wants to be hugged.’ This is where the sadness comes in. Take Brent’s relationship with the fly by night travelling rep, Chris Finch. There is a two-episode build up to this character, during which Brent praises Finch to the skies, repeats his jokes, and proclaims them a double act. In reality, Chris Finch is a vicious bully, with no respect or love for Brent or anyone else. He treats Brent as an acolyte, and Brent accedes in a doomed attempt to inherit some of Finchy’s alpha-male success. Finch is Betjeman’s ‘man with double chin/Who’ll always cheat and always win/Who washes his repulsive skin/In women’s tears.’
As Brent pursues his goal of a TV career, he loses grip of Wernham Hogg. During the first series Brent appears to be the unchallenged king of Slough, his position assured, only losing out on promotion because of high blood pressure. Then, a new UK manager is drafted in – the crisp corporate man Neil Godwin – who quickly picks up on the fact that Brent doesn’t actually do any work. At one point Neil walks into Brent’s office to find that instead of the business report Brent has been tasked with, the Slough boss has written a proposal for a game show:
Neil: You know how important I consider this report to be. I come in today to find that this is the fruit of your labour. Read the first sentence for Jennifer [Taylor-Clarke, partner].
David (stalling) Well, you know, but -
Neil: Seriously. Read the first sentence for Jennifer.
David: Imagine a cross between Telly’s Addicts and Noel’s House Party. You’ve just imagined Upstairs Downstairs, a new quiz show devised and hosted by David Brent.
Neil: David, I don’t understand.
David: Well, the contestants run upstairs and they get a clue -
Neil (exploding): No, not the game show! I don’t understand why you didn’t do the report you said you’d do, I don’t understand your consistent negligence and failure to do what is asked of you!
The disconnect between Brent’s job and his ambitions has become unsustainable. For Brent the perception gap has widened into an almost total disengagement from reality, at one point comparing himself to Jesus Christ. He is quietly fired from the company, an event Brent rapidly reframes as his opportunity for national renown. By now the BBC documentary has screened and Brent is genuinely a household name. But the chilled-out entertainer finds out the hard way that life is better lived off screen. At the entry level, being on TV isn’t a solution to your problems. In fact it’s often just the beginning of your problems. The money runs out, the invitations stop coming and, if you’ve got Big Brother on your record, it can be difficult to get back into regular employment. Brent finds that women won’t date him because of his on screen persona and his celebrity work is limited to personal appearances at provincial beer barns.
It’s in the HBO-length Christmas specials that The Office really shows its depth as the characters finally confront the mess they have made of their lives. Senior sales clerk Tim, the show’s most sympathetic character, who really is popular and funny, has more or less given up: he’s blown his hand on national television and the rejection has sent him into a dark hole. Dawn is about to marry a man who is decent enough but doesn’t have Tim’s spark. Brent has been challenged by Neil Godwin to produce a date for the office Christmas party, forcing him to face the emptiness of his life. It seems like the show will end in the usual disillusionment and awkwardness. And then – somehow – everything comes right. There’s hope, there’s love, there’s camaraderie, and you get the feeling that Brent really was stitched up by the documentary crew: perhaps he wasn’t such a bad boss after all.
Comedy relies on repetition. What was original about The Office is that Gervais and Merchant allowed their characters to change. Lucy Davis says on the extras that Tim and Dawn will probably never pursue their dreams – in ten years’ time they will both probably still be working at Wernham Hogg, but happier. Contrast this with Tim’s message to Dawn – NEVER GIVE UP – which makes her mind up for good, and you have a bittersweet story that explores the worst, and celebrates the best, of provincial life. Dares us to look up and see the stars. And gives us that rare thing in comedy. A happy ending.