‘We didn’t know the rules we were rebelling against’: how The Office changed comedy

As Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom turns 20, top comics and people behind the scenes explain how it rewired British humour

It wasn’t the first painstakingly naturalistic sitcom on British TV (see: The Royle Family). It wasn’t the first comedy to revolve around the cringeworthy antics of a delusional, middle-aged “entertainer” (see: I’m Alan Partridge). It wasn’t even the first mockumentary about the banalities of work (see: People Like Us). Yet by marrying all those things together – and so much more – The Office managed to raze the comedy landscape, establishing a whole new language and style for the British sitcom. Twenty years after it debuted, the influence of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s series about the long-suffering employees at a regional paper merchants and their incredibly unprofessional boss, David Brent, is still everywhere; nothing since has had a comparable impact. How did a sitcom that prioritised footage of photocopiers over proper jokes remake comedy in its image?

“We didn’t even really know the rules we were rebelling against,” says Ash Atalla, the show’s producer, who has since brought to life a raft of brilliant post-Office sitcoms, from People Just Do Nothing (a mockumentary about a crew of deeply misguided performers) to Stath Lets Flats (a lo-fi cringe-comedy revolving around a needy, socially inept man at work). “I was very inexperienced, Stephen and Ricky had never written anything before, so at the centre of the show were three people who, in terms of track record, had no right to be there.”

It was a good starting point from which to upend conventions, the first one being who was allowed to make sitcoms in the first place. “Ricky being someone that wasn’t trained and having this more punk attitude, that was an inspiration for us,” says Allan Mustafa, who plays MC Grindah in People Just Do Nothing. “We thought: ‘Oh, we could do something like this.’”

From its DIY attitude to its rejection of comedy’s prevailing winds, The Office did resemble punk – albeit in a very grey, Slough-centric, BBC-abetted way. And its most tangible legacy is similarly radical: it killed off the laughter track. The Royle Family – which had fought off executives’ demands for a studio audience a few years prior – paved the way, but it was Gervais and co’s agonising onslaught of dead air that seemed to really turn the tide. The Office’s second series aired just before the return of the similarly well-loved I’m Alan Partridge. Soon after, that show’s co-creator Armando Iannucci found himself forced to defend it from fans unhappy about its raucous laughter track, which they claimed obscured jokes and steamrollered all subtlety. “‘We’re not The Office,’ Iannucci tells Partridge fans”, ran one Guardian headline on a story that saw him explain that Partridge was “in the tradition of an old-fashioned sitcom”.

Gaffer prone ... Ricky Gervais as David Brent.
Gaffer prone ... Ricky Gervais as David Brent. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

Change was clearly afoot. In the years since, the number of studio-audience sitcoms on British TV has plummeted: Channel 4 doesn’t do them any more; last year, ITV came up with its first in seven years (Kate and Koji); and the BBC has four.

“The vast majority would have been studio pieces, now you’re down to a handful of shows. It is a dwindling artform,” says the BBC’s outgoing director of comedy, Shane Allen, whose commissions have included This Country (a mockumentary focusing on the mundanity of rural life) and Fleabag (about the humiliations of a character who constantly plays up to the camera).

Rather than another studio sitcom, Partridge’s next appearance was in a mockumentary (2003’s Anglian Lives), the medium that has largely superseded the traditional studio sitcom. The Office is sometimes credited with popularising the form: it did and it didn’t. By 2001, the faux documentary was a well-worn device, having been used by Monty Python and French & Saunders among others. Yet The Office managed to make the style work for a long-running, character-led sitcom rather than a one-off sketch – and that’s because it was mocking up a whole new genre of TV. In the late 90s, a handful of docusoaps about normal life began making stars out of their subjects by, as Atalla puts it, “allowing ordinary people to hang themselves on TV by being incredibly unself-aware”.

The Office drew on these early examples of reality television, observing what happens when members of the public meet the unforgiving glare and lionising caress of the camera.

The mockumentary is now ubiquitous both in Britain and across the pond, thanks to the popularity of The Office’s US remake (American examples include Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, What We Do in the Shadows and The Comeback). That shift is partly attributable to the fact that Gervais and Merchant had landed upon a sitcom cheat code. “So much of comedy is to do with the gap between the sense of themselves that a character has and the reality of what they are,” says Alex Owen, creator of the web mockumentary series Petrichor and one half of sketch duo the Pin. “It’s very convenient if you have a format where they can say: ‘This is what I think of myself’, and then immediately show the way in which it’s disconnected from reality.” Characters’ ability to directly address the camera means they can introduce themselves – and plots, too, so “you haven’t got to bother with a more traditional story setup”. Allen, meanwhile, cites the fact that mockumentaries are “the cheapest thing to film”.

Work mates
Office mates ... (clockwise from top left) Stath Lets Flats, The Office US, This Country, People Just Do Nothing, Composite: The Guide

Audiences were on board in a big way. Reality TV – a genre that requires barely any suspension of disbelief – surged in popularity in the intervening years, cultivating a widespread appetite for shows with a lifelike sheen. This air of realism seeped into other sitcoms, even if they weren’t explicitly mockumentaries: The Thick of It, Arrested Development and 30 Rock were among those that borrowed the visual grammar of the modern documentary, with shaky camerawork and awkwardly framed shots.

In the years since The Office aired, naturalism and believability have become standards TV comedies are widely held to – marking a massive shift in audience expectation. “In different generations you would understand that a character was acting in a way that was deliberately to make you laugh, but you never questioned if it was real,” says Atalla.

It wasn’t merely the vérité aesthetic that made The Office feel real: it was also the painful emotional truth at its core. At the turn of the millennium, cringe was emerging as the comic language du jour, thanks to Partridge, Ali G and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David. But it was the general manager of Wernham Hogg’s Slough branch, his stomach-churning songs and dance moves that became shorthand for excruciating discomfort. That was because The Office’s trick-of-the-eye realism amped up the awkwardness, turning cringe into a cultural force.

Yet The Office’s real legacy lies in that fact its scope stretched far beyond torturous embarrassment. “The awkwardness is only one component of quite a complex and sometimes challenging emotional texture,” observes Liam Williams, the star and writer of vlogger mockumentary Pls Like and Ladhood, a bittersweet sitcom about his adolescence. “Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes it’s sad, sometimes it’s wistful; there are a lot of difficult emotions.”

The whole Hogg ... the Office gang.
The whole Hogg ... the Office gang. Photograph: Adrian Rogers/BBC

Nowadays, the dramedy – AKA the sadcom – is omnipresent: it feels more notable when a comedy doesn’t blur into drama via the inclusion of painful life experiences, but The Office was among the first to fuse the two forms in a holistic way. “I don’t think it invented it, but it certainly codified it in some ways: that you could be emotionally engaging and yet not compromise on how funny something was,” says Allen, citing Only Fools and Horses as a precursor. The Office drew on the bathos, melancholy and sentimentality of British sitcoms past and created something that was gut-wrenching from start to finish: a show that dealt unflinchingly with unrealised dreams, delusion, loneliness and disappointment. Its finale, a two-part Christmas special in which Tim and Dawn’s will-they-won’t-they romance is finally resolved, extracts agony, ecstasy and absurdity from unremarkable situations in a way that seems to render the categories of “drama” and “comedy” null and void.

Since The Office, the sitcom has gained much emotional intelligence, as well as a preoccupation with truth. Shows from The Trip to Better Things rely on the autobiographical kernel at their centre to bridge the divide between reality and fiction. Elsewhere, comedies routinely deal with grief, mental illness and identity politics in a sensitive manner. Adjani Salmon, the co-creator and star of the BBC comedy Dreaming Whilst Black – which is partly set in a bleak office environment where racist microaggressions abound – says the naturalism and nuance of The Office provided a framework for the subject he wanted to explore. “Because it’s race and sometimes racism, to be exaggerated or larger than life would either feel disingenuous or disrespectful.”

With all this newfangled realism and emotion, something had to give. That thing was traditional gags. The Office is relentlessly, ridiculously funny, and yet, suggests Allen, also helped liberate sitcoms from the “pressure to do jokes, jokes, jokes”. Alistair Green, a character comedian whose sketches about delusional middle-Englanders are wildly popular on Twitter, says he was inspired by The Office to “take out jokes so I can make it more real. A joke would be quite jarring and take you out of that [naturalism].”

It was more than that, though: The Office made jokes themselves feel hackneyed and embarrassing. “When I was at university, standup was so unfashionable, because it was trying to deliver a punchline,” says Joe Thomas, star of The Inbetweeners and Fresh Meat. “The only person in The Office who is trying to deliver punchlines is Brent, and they’re not funny.”

Frenemies ... Mackenzie Crook’s Gareth and Martin Freeman’s Tim.
Frenemies ... Mackenzie Crook’s Gareth and Martin Freeman’s Tim. Photograph: Jack Barnes/BBC

If The Office contributed to the demise of catchphrase comedy and punchline-heavy standup, it wasn’t exactly an accident. The Office is a comedy about comedy. “What we were picking up in the air was that funniness became currency,” says Atalla, citing both a “culture of wackiness” encouraged by The Fast Show and its cartoonish characters as well as “the explosion of standup comedians becoming celebrities. When those people who are doing it very well become imitated by the bloke in the pub, that’s where it goes wrong.”

Friend first, boss second, entertainer third, Brent attempts to fulfil all those roles by acting as a sketch-and-sitcom jukebox, flitting between Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, The Two Ronnies, Monty Python and Harry Enfield and Chums, while speaking of his reverence for comedians (in particular “Milligan, Cleese, Everett … Sessions”). In doing so he helped demystify comedy, giving audiences a more sophisticated understanding of its social function as well as drawing attention to the mindless nature of much of its appeal. It is ironic, therefore, that Brent himself became an outsized comic character, his speech patterns, references and mannerisms all easy to mimic. And everyone did. “You’d have a lot of audition tapes that would ape that style and you’d be like: ‘Oh right, someone’s doing a Ricky.’ It just became this shorthand,” says Allen.

Being Brent was addictive because he sounded like a real person, just more so, thinks Thomas. “You almost got locked into the rhythm of speaking in that Brent way, it was a musical thing. I remember writing something at university and being like: ‘I’ve got to make this sound less like The Office.’ It was like crack.” It was a style that he felt echoed through the cringe-tastic scrapes of The Inbetweeners, whose creators, Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, had both previously worked with Gervais (on 1998’s The 11 O’Clock Show and 2000’s Meet Ricky Gervais ).

Brentisms didn’t just permeate comedy; they found their way into people’s actual selves. “It became a way of communicating,” says Mustafa. “The quotes, the intonations, the faux-arrogance, biting your lip. It almost ruined my life, in a great way, because I just spoke like that constantly.” He describes his alter ego, the self-important and petulant MC Grindah as “massively influenced” by Gervais’s performance.

King of cringe ... David Brent.
King of cringe ... David Brent. Photograph: Adrian Rogers/BBC

Desperate to be loved for his wit, inclusivity and success, Brent rendered our social instincts grotesque – and by doing so he helped us understand ourselves. Williams connects Brent’s impact to the British preoccupation with irony. “Part of irony is self-awareness; [The Office] was a huge contribution to an ongoing tradition of self-awareness in British popular culture.”

If Brent is a caricature, his colleague Tim, played by Martin Freeman, is a photorealist portrait: we parse Wernham Hogg’s work culture through the widening of his eyes. In a sense, he also reshaped the British sense of humour: detached bemusement is his coping mechanism, and for certain viewers it provided a blueprint for surviving the banal indignities of everyday life. Mustafa says The Office was “a bit of a lifesaver” as it gave him the ability “to make light of any situation”. His People Just Do Nothing co-star Steve Stamp agrees: “If you tune into the nuances of awkward behaviour and people with egos, you can enjoy the mundane world we all live in.”

Yet Brent’s behaviour was, in many ways, spookily prescient. Thanks to social media, trying to win approval by portraying oneself as funny and considerate has become a universal pastime; Brent is a virtue-signalling pioneer. “He’s so insecure, so he’s showing everybody all the time that he’s a good guy, that he can play the guitar, that he’s funny, that he loves to drink and he’s had sex – and that’s essentially what online behaviour is,” says Phoebe Walsh, the star and co-creator of the BBC comedy Behind the Filter, which follows a young woman trying to win friends and status with clumsy attempts at wokeness (The Office is “definitely the main reference for it,” she says). “There is no humility on Twitter, that’s what David Brent lacks: humility.”

The Office’s sophistication and its sensitivity, its determination to pay attention to the pathos of humdrum British lives, has cast a long shadow over the sitcom. But its impact also remains so smothering because it anticipated key aspects of contemporary life. We have, in a sense, all been saddled with our own (optional) documentary crew; thanks to social media, everyone has the opportunity to play up to the camera and offer up inspirational bon mots a la Brent. Yet few of us, however hard we try, will manage to do quite as much influencing as The Office.

• This article was amended on 14 July 2021 to make it clear that Iain Morris and Damon Beesley worked with Gervais on both of the shows mentioned, ie The 11 O’Clock Show and Meet Ricky Gervais. An earlier version suggested that they had each only worked on one of those shows.


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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