Algonquin Kids' Table: The Office
Leonard Pierce - 07:12am Aug 3, 2003 PST
So why has this show struck such a chord among comedy acolytes?
Good television comedy tends to combine smart, funny scripts with a great cast. One can overcome the other -- Seinfeld was often able to overcome weak acting with good writing, and NewsRadio wasn't the best-written show in the world, but had a remarkably strong ensemble cast -- but the best comedies try to keep the ratio pretty close. With The Office, you get a very strong script indeed; the fact that its dialogue has been so endlessly quoted around here, amongst a bunch of people who are hardly the parroting fanboy type, is very telling. But the cast, I think, is what carries the day.
This is not to say that the writing is weak; far from it. The dialogue is razor-sharp, the situations are subtle and don't seem forced or contrived, and the dramatic structure is quite sophisticated. (This latter fact is probably attributable to the fact that it was conceived and executed as a limited series. The open-ended, "run it as long as we can" nature of American sitcoms tends to remove the possibility of setting up this sort of dramatic arc or framework. And it's too bad, too -- once you've seen the entire run of Season 1 of The Office, you really appreciate the little structural points, like how the series opens with a forklift driver in David Brent's office(with David explaining how he can hire him even though he's not qualified), and it closes with the same driver in the same seat in Brent's office (with David explaining how he has to fire him even though it's not his decision).
But -- and as a writer, it pains me to say this -- it's not hard to write a funny episode of a sitcom. What's hard is to write a funny episode of a sitcom where the cast and characters are strong enough to make everyone realize how goddamn funny it is. Take the script for an episode of The Office and hand it to the cast of Just Shoot Me, and it's going nowhere. Not that a few people won't notice; you'll see the handful of smart people who were watching that particular episode of Just Shoot Me for whatever reason saying "Hey, what was up with Just Shoot Me the other day? That episode was really funny." But they aren't going to go around saying the show is brilliant and groundbreaking and subversive. Why? Because Just Shoot Me is a mediocre sitcom with a tired premise and a sub-par cast. People aren't going to go ga-ga over the occasional good writing, because it's in the context of an uninteresting show with unimpressive actors playing characters we've seen a million times before.
The Office, on the other hand, has the kind of cast that makes its scripts absolutely burn up the screen. The show took a notoriously long time to produce, and according to interviews with Ricky Gervais, a lot of the time was spent selecting just the right cast. It was obviously worth it. So many of the laughs in the show depend on having great acting -- the awkward pauses, the blank looks, the hostile glares, the clueless monologues, and David Brent's famous "look" he gives the camera when he's said something for which he expects to be praised -- that it could easily have been a disaster without such a fantastically skilled group of actors. I can't think of a single flawed performance; the actors are so fully aware of who they're supposed to be and what they're supposed to be communicating that while the faux-documentary gimmick is an obvious contrivance, it's not at all hard to believe that you're watching real people instead of performers.
Of course, it helps that they've got such terrific characters to inhabit. There's no cliched stock characters here -- or, if there are, they're the stock characters of life, not of drama. David Brent, of course, is an incredible creation, an egomaniacal, desperate clown light-years removed from the gruff, shouting "bad boss" of bad television. His toady, Gareth Keenan, gets many of the show's biggest laughs with his demented monologues, and his amazing face, with the eerily sunken eyes, makes every scene he's in inherently funny. Tim Canterbury and Dawn Tinsley aren't the typical star-crossed lovers of sitcom fame; there's no predictable happy ending for them. Tim is the character we're all supposed to identify with, of course, but he's not the morally pure, wisecracking card of most office sit-coms; he's deeply flawed and compromised, and what drives his character isn't superiority but frustration. Dawn herself is the character we actually do end up identifying with, but even she's an enigma; she doesn't let us in enough to know why she's loyal to the boorish Lee. Even the minor characters are extremely well-drawn and well-played: the bored, clumsy Keith; the nervous, touchy old-timer Malcolm; and, of course, the monstrous Finch.
The Office started with a good idea and a great script. But where it ended up was entirely contingent on their finding a fantastic cast to pull it off. Luckily for all of us, they did.
And what does it say about its fans that such a quietly bleak, often painful evocation of workaday frustration-cum-desperation leaves them paralyzed with laughter?
It's a comedy truism that people like to laugh at things they see every day; observational humor, drawn from life, has been a staple of television sitcoms for decades. Jokes still drive the sitcom, but increasingly, they're jokes about situations and circumstances that are meant to be familiar to the average viewer.
Unfortunately, none of us are the average viewer. The smart viewer is bored by the banal observations about traffic jams, about bad vending machine food, about how the boss doesn't know how to fix the paper jam in the FAX machine. Faced with the dull, the trite, and the predictable in the observational humor of most sitcoms, we flee to the absurd and surreal (like The Simpsons or the parodic and satirical (like Mr. Show). What The Office has done is to elevate observational humor to a higher level; as Phil points out, it introduces an element of philosophy to the tedium of the office sit-com. It doesn't just dwell on the everyday absurdities of the job, but on the meta-absurdities of jobs in general. It's not about someone stealing your stapler; it's about you stealing someone else's stapler because he's just an insufferable prick who lords his meaningless title over you and this sort of juvenile rebellion is the best you can muster. It's not about having a bad boss; it's about why your boss is bad, and why it makes you so crazy that he thinks he's a good boss. It's not about office romance; it's about how the office romance is impossible, but you keep flirting with that one smart guy or girl anyway, because it's the only way the two of you keep sane.
The Office is the thinking man's sitcom, because every time you watch it, you're thinking "Man! This show could be my life." It manages to take everything you've ever thought about the banality and futility of work, and what it does to your mind, body and spirit, in such a savagely funny way that it short-circuits your agony with laughter. At the very least, it's an inventive, sharp sit-com with a phenomenal cast; at its best, it's a reminder that there's other people who think like you do about your stupid, useless job, and that knowledge might be enough to keep you alive. Forget about Seinfeld: this is REALLY a show about nothing, and how painful and funny nothing can be.
Leonard Pierce - 07:44am Aug 3, 2003 PST
A side note I brought up with Hayden & Ham. I'll throw it out here, in case anyone wants to comment on it/build on it:
One thing that interests me about The Office is its portrayal of class. It's not interesting because it portrays class at all; that would be noteworthy in an American sit-com (we're allergic to class in the U.S.), but this is British TV, where socio-economic class issues are always a going concern.
The thing that interests me is how they toy with, invert and parody the whole class issue. For one thing, they avoid the whole "saintly working class vs. cruel upper class" cliche, and yet there's never a sense of the "civilized upper class vs. filthy rabble", either. The one character identifiable as an 'upper' type is David's boss, Jennifer Taylor-Clark. She's an interesting character; she's pretty much the only employee of Wernham-Hogg who seems to actually care about the company or who's interested in doing actual work. But of course, that's easy for her: she's a partner, and isn't vulnerable to the everyday tedium of shitwork that plagues Tim or Dawn or the forklift drivers. She's there to put the lie to David Brent's ambitions and deceptions; we're glad she's there, but we wouldn't really want to be her, or even necessarily spend a lot of time around her.
The working-class characters are likewise complex; Dawn's fiancee Lee and the warehouse supervisor Tuffy are crass, loud-mouthed slackers, but the forklift driver Ben is a character of great sympathy, beginning the series as the beneficiary of David Brent's lies and ending it as the victim of them. Sort of the opposite number to Jennifer Taylor-Clark, we can see his obvious superiority to David, but we're equally glad we're not in his position.
So whose position are we in? More than likely, that of the "strivers" -- the people like Tim, Dawn and Ricky who are stuck somewhere between the working-class dead end of Ben and Lee and the middle-class comfort zone of David Brent himself. But even here, there's a subversion of class values at work, because although we're clearly meant to identify with these three, where does that get us? Sure, they're smart, they're personable, they're educated and funny -- and they all work for David Brent. The monstrous Finch's sneer of "college boys" cuts extra-deep when you realize how right he is: all that learning, all those smarts, and where does it get you? It gets you lorded over by a talentless nonentity like David Brent.
And what about David Brent? What's his class role? He's middle-class, clearly, and while his may be the least "inverted" or tampered-with class portrayal, it's probably the most clearly drawn. He's a near-perfect embodiment of the savage portrait of the middle class drawn by everyone from George Orwell (who noted that the middle class man is "never his own man") to Paul Fussell, who could use The Office as a sort of audiovisual companion piece to his excellent book Class. David has a lot in common with another famous middle-class climber of British sit-com history: Basil Fawlty. Like Basil, he's a monstrous egomaniac and self-flatterer; like Basil, he's an utter toady with his superiors and a holy terror with his inferiors; and like Basil, he slags people off mercilessly behind their backs while fawning over them to their faces. But he's more true-to-life than Basil Fawlty in one regard: he never explodes. He never boils over and blows up. He's almost painfully repressed and sublimated, because in the true middle-class manner, he's terrified of jeopardizing his position by offending anyone (not that this keeps him from inadvertently offending everyone). He wants everyone to like him, and that's why, in the end, no one does.
And why is Finch a monster? Because he doesn't care if no one likes him. He's the bougeoise without conscience; he's David Brent with no governor. He's the middle-class man as the Monster from the Id, and the thought of what a demon Finchy would be as a boss is almost enough to make you feel thankful for David.
"As goeth the character, so goeth the show as well."
----------->More Office Talk, Page Three