The One to Watch For A Comedy Legacy: “The Office (UK)” S1E1 – “Downsize”


It has been almost fifteen years since The Office (2001-2003) premiered on BBC. The workplace comedy introduced us to one of the best worst bosses in modern television history, David Brent. Both overconfident and insecure, Ricky Gervais’s Brent is too close with his co-workers yet hardly seems to know anything about them. He never fails to make both his employees and his audience feel deeply uncomfortable. Gervais clearly relishes the awkward, which is why he made so many in Hollywood nervous when they found out he was hosting the Golden Globe awards again on Sunday, January 10, 2016.

Gervais created The Office with his writing partner and friend Stephen Merchant, another British awkward-comedy genius. The show aired for three seasons and was not only a hit at home but also inspired long-running US Remake The Office (2005-2013). Crucially, the show’s humor and philosophy represented a fundamental shift in the history of the television situation comedy.

The Office is shot in a mockumentary style that, before that time, was most famously used in the Rob Reiner film, This is Spinal Tap (1984). After The Office, the mockumentary style will be forever tied in our minds to Gervais’ show. Deadpan looks towards the camera, reality show-style interviews, shaky handheld shots, crash zooms, a camera that often misses and catches up to interesting moments—all these devices feel familiar now in a post-Office world, but at the time they were edgy and unsettling to the viewer. Many of these techniques were traditionally considered “bad” or incorrect cinematography and camera choices. Yet The Office defiantly embraces precisely what film students and professionals were trained not to do, recognizing the power of this filming style to create an atmosphere of the everyday, unglamorous, unedited life. As a result, these mockumentary filming devices became today’s comedy norm.

The brilliance of The Office lies in celebrating the pain of the mundane. The characters — weird, dull, or unmotivated co-workers — are universally familiar. The settings — the office cubicles, the fax machines, the mini-blinds — were then and are now instantly recognizable to millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The pilot episode introduces the style of the show without explanation, offering no reason for how or why a documentary film crew has descended upon the Wernham Hogg Paper Company branch in Slough, England. Time is spent with each of the main characters, and David Brent’s ineptitude is on full display as he gives a new temp a first-day tour. Sure, the temp is a device to provide exposition to the audience, but it works. The series-long conflict between Tim and Gareth is set up within the first few minutes. Even the love triangle between Tim and Dawn and Dawn’s fiancé, Lee, gets screen time. These three storylines become the core narratives of both versions of the series. Seldom can you rewatch a pilot and so clearly identify the stories that will define a show years later.

For an exercise, watch both pilot episodes of the original Office and the American television version, developed for NBC by Greg Daniels in 2005. The Daniels’ version is not a shot for shot remake, but there are several scenes (like the fax from the head office and the tour with the temp) that are nearly word for word. In the first few years of The Office on NBC, the show struggled to find the right tone of translation from the original. Steve Carrel’s Michael Scott had softer edges than David Brent, but the UK show’s awkwardness and the long, uncomfortable pauses needed no translation. Eventually, the NBC version found its voice and went only to influence other shows. To get a sense of the strength of the legacy created by Gervais, watch Parks and Recreation, wherein the mockumentary style moves from a corporate office to small town government, or The Mindy Project or Master of None, two shows created by actor-writers who found homes following in Gervais’s comic footsteps.

Gervais’s influence via The Office still echoes in American television today. Playing a game of Six Degrees of Ricky Gervais for people who either worked on The Office (or one of its direct descendants) at this year’s Golden Globes alone would lead us to Steve Carrel (The Big Short, 2015), Aziz Ansari (Master of None, 2015), and Rob Lowe (The Grinder, 2015). Expanding the universe further would include big names like Martin Freeman, John Krasinski, Mindy Kaling, and Amy Poehler.

When Gervais takes the stage to host the Golden Globes, people do get nervous. He will not pull any punches to spare the feelings of a celebrity at the expense of a joke. In The Office pilot, David Brent tells someone to use money from petty cash to buy new batteries for the Big Mouth Billy Bass on the wall, saying, “You can’t put a price on comedy.” Likewise, it would be impossible to put a value on the contribution that Gervais has made to television comedy, whether the uncomfortable celebrities at the Globes want to admit it or not.

(Bonus track for the real David Brent fans out there: Gervais is currently putting the finishing touches on Life On The Road, a new “documentary” film that follows Brent and his band, Foregone Conculsion, on tour.)