On October 12, BBC America aired the second-season premiere of The Office, the beloved mockumentary that follows paper-selling rats 'round the maze of cubicles leading to the office of head cheese David Brent, a pathetic little man who says in public things no rational human being would even think in private. On October 13, those of us addicted to this British-imported fiction that often feels more tangible than real life spent a good part of the day in our own offices recounting the events of the episode, in which new workers arrive and throw David's cozy fiefdom into disarray.
After a season of being tolerated by his own staff, who shrug off his lousy jokes and sexist comments and racist asides, David is no longer considered office funnyman but the butt of his own stupid and ill-considered gags. And none is more stupid and ill-considered than the one about the Royal Family playing 20 questions ("Is it bigger than a bread bin?" "Can I put it in my mouth?"), which stopped no one who saw The Office from repeating its awful punch line around their own offices the next day.
"I think what was said most the next day was, Did you see how many times they said, is it a black man's cock?'" says Ricky Gervais, the man who created and plays David Brent. "Who'd have thought it? Now grannies and granddads around the country are saying that one."
Gervais, a beloved figure on British television and radio, where he co-hosts a show on station XFM with The Office's co-creator and co-director Stephen Merchant, then proceeds to giggle like a little boy who's gotten away with something. The joke with the horrible punch line, mind you, is not meant to offend, merely to show David's wrong-headed handling of issues of race and good taste. But it makes him giggle anyway, because Gervais knows that some people will find the line hilarious, while others will want to stab at the remote in an effort to run the hell away from this guy and this show.
The Office, set in the Slough office of paper-goods manufacturer Wernham-Hogg, belongs to a burgeoning brand of television best called "irritainment," in that it makes you cringe as much as it makes you chuckle. The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm belong to the genre; the forerunner, perhaps, was the film This is Spinal Tap, among Gervais' most-cited influences. On Larry Sanders, you had actors playing themselves--darker, angrier, meaner versions of themselves. On Curb, you have Seinfeld creator Larry David playing Seinfeld creator Larry David, without any tact or hint of decency. They have in common this uncanny ability to make you turn away from the TV set, as though you were peeking through your fingers at films of extreme plastic-surgery makeovers or Sharon Osbourne's talk show. You know these to be fiction, yet still you gasp in horror when the people in them say things so stupid and offensive they land themselves in oceans of boiling-hot water.
"It's the comedy of embarrassment," Gervais says. "It's a man making it worse for himself. There's a reality about it, a realism even down to references...And it is irritainment, yeah. The thing about that is, I get embarrassed watching television. I watch things, usually documentaries or reality game shows, where the celebrities say things that I just want to crawl into a hole for their sake. My worst one is someone singing seriously. I have to leave the room. So I tried to get that in there--someone just exposing themselves. I know what irritates me, so some of the things Brent does I find irritating, and I know it's annoying other people more than me. So, I'm on top."
In the first season, just out on DVD in the States, David is a laughable, lovable buffoon--a sympathetic clod desperate for respect, attention and love from the people who work for him, including Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), a self-important ex-military man; Tim (Martin Freeman), a sales rep aware he's starting at a dead end; and Dawn (Lucy Davis), the lovely receptionist with the shit boyfriend. David fancies himself a rock star among drooling groupies, which is made horrifically clear during a management-training session when he whips out his acoustic guitar and begins performing his self-penned "Freelove Highway."
David has no life outside the workplace and believes instead the people who work for him are his family--blood brothers, even if the blood is just that drawn from a workplace paper cut. Yet the irony is that David thinks only of himself: When informed the company will be downsizing and that some of his workers will be fired, he happily acquiesces if it means a promotion. As he tells the staff, "There's good news and bad news. The bad news is Neil will be taking over both branches and some of you will lose your job. On a more positive note, the good news is I've been promoted, so every cloud...You're still thinking about the bad news, aren't you?" He's delusional and occasionally even cruel, but so unbelievably pitiable you can't help but like him. Or maybe you're just glad you aren't him, which is enough.
David Brent was born in 1997, when Gervais and Merchant were killing time at XFM. Back then he was known only as "Seedy Boss," a scurvy womanizer prone to fits of rage. Gervais and Merchant made a demo, seen on the DVD's making-of documentary, that was eventually bought by the BBC and turned into The Office. But the writing partners found it necessary to temper David for the series; otherwise he would have been so unlikable viewers wouldn't have tolerated him for an episode.
"Originally, it was more about his dark side," Gervais says. "Like, he was lecherous, and he lost his temper. And I was worried about that, because if you've got a sitcom and you've got any investment in this character, he can't actually be a nasty piece of work. You've actually got to love to hate him, and that means having a bit of affection for him. So I think now what you've got is a man who's a prat and not very good at his job and wanting to be loved and a bit of a loser, but I like him now. I think he's all right. He's just a bit wounded, but he's all right."
The first season, for all its brilliance, was observational--a satire on the workplace, populated by delusional fools and daydreamers who've found themselves stuck in a mundane nightmare. The second season ups the ante, turning the archetypes into full-blown characters; we learn in the second episode, for instance, that Dawn was an illustrator who has sadly relinquished any hope of returning to her chosen profession. But it's David who suffers the most: He discovers that not only isn't he respected by his co-workers, including the new crew from the shuttered Swindon office, he isn't even liked.
They prefer newcomer Neil (Patrick Baladi), once David's counterpart and now his boss. He's everything David is not: handsome, clever, stylish, popular. This realization ultimately sends David into a total meltdown, which in part involves a dance number in which he resembles "a crab having an allergic reaction," Gervais says, adding that of all the scenes on all the shows, it's still the one that makes him laugh.
Introducing the Swindon staff--which includes a black man, a woman in a wheelchair and a girl for whom Tim has the hots--was Gervais and Merchant's way of underscoring how ridiculous David really is. The first season, he just looked like Lord of the Fools, overseer of people who deserved such a delusional man. Now, among the normal and hard-working Swindon staff, he's revealed for what he is--to us and, worse, to himself. The caricature gains character when it happens; the man you liked to see fail becomes the man you want to see succeed. Suddenly, The Office feels less mock and more doc--even more real, even more uncomfortable, if such things are possible.
"It's almost like an experimental world now: Let's see how these people cope when you put them into an office," Gervais says. "We knew that Brent wasn't really this person. He spoke a PC sort of language, but we knew he was lying to himself. It's all these things we could put into practice now. He'd been there for seven years or 12 years or whatever, and everyone, he thought, loved him. Now let's see how people don't play the game, the people that don't know they have to go, Yes, you're the funniest man in the world.' Neil's younger, better-looking, better at his job, actually funny, and the worst one is, more popular. Brent would forgive him all the others if people just said, You know you're funnier than Neil, aren't you?' But there's a double-edged sword: Neil's right, but at the back of your mind, you believe Brent really does care more. By the end, I think you'll like David Brent more than Neil. That's what I hope anyway."
Sadly, The Office is about to shutter: Gervais is currently editing the final two episodes, which will debut in England in December and in the United States next year. It is time to say goodbye to David Brent just as we get to really know him; better that, Gervais says, than he wear out his welcome, like too many other sitcom creations. (There will be a U.S. version, headed by King of the Hill's co-creator Greg Daniels, though it seems quite pointless. Like the American Coupling.) Still, you get the sense that Gervais will still think of David--still wonder what he's up to, whether he's made something of himself.
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Gervais talks about how he used to have a nice, cushy job not far from where he lived. All his mates worked there; they all loved having a laugh at the bar after work. He's not David Brent, no, but Ricky Gervais certainly knew him. That's why he invented David--so he wouldn't become him.
"That's what's dangerous," he says. "It's OK for a couple of years to have a lovely, cozy job, but you don't want to wake up at 60 and go, Aw, fuck, I was gonna write a book. Shit, I forgot. I was drinkin' in a bar with all my mates, but they wrote books. Fuck.'" He laughs. "That's the terrible thing."
Yes, but does David have it within him to wake up before it's too late? Gervais pauses before answering, as though he's considering a real guy with real potential.
"I think he does," he says. "I think he does, to be honest. In those quiet moments no one ever sees, just when he's alone in the dark in his bedsit or wherever he lives, I think he does."