April 23, 2004

SOMETHING THERE IS IN THE WORKPLACE THAT DOES LOVE A WALL:

'IT'S STIFLING, THAT FEELING OF FALSENESS': Ricky Gervais talks to Ed Barrett about The Office and offices. (Ed Barrett, 4/22/04, sp!ked-culture)

One striking thing about the paper merchants in The Office is that nobody actually mentions paper, unless the subject is unavoidable. 'Nobody cares!' laughs Gervais. 'You never talk about the product, or how proud you are of your work, you talk about people: "You'll never believe what that Pete Gibbons said to me last night - idiot!" or "So-and-so's got a pay rise!".'

Although offices are changing, they are still places where people of different types and ages are thrown together - unlike pubs and other institutions, which are becoming increasingly segmented. [...]

Even the open-plan office itself, that symbol of openness and team-building has been divided up into personal territories, each customised with pictures, novelty mouse mats, charity stick-bugs, trinkets and, of course, ersatz barriers like the wall of box files that is erected between desks in one episode of The Office. 'I'm not an anthropologist or sociologist', admits Gervais, 'but I don't think open plan offices are natural. I imagine that the first thing you do when you're thrown together with 30 people that you might not care for, is build a wall.'

Gervais was drawn to the subject of offices by precisely this random - and frankly misanthropic - way in which they draw together people of different ages who have nothing in common. Yet for all their personal quirks, there is something instantly recognisable about the dramatis personae of The Office. This is entirely intentional, as they were deliberately typecast. ('It was a case of: "You know those type of people that...."') [...]

Mustn't grumble. That's an order, by the way - the great unwritten rule of office life. Criticise the job too much and, by implication, you criticise your colleagues as well. Complaint may be expressed only in coded form, via the strained jocularity of the novelty sign or the humorous email circular with its jokey complaints about the drinks machine that's never fixed or the ever-diminishing lunch 'hour'. Timid, cringing, and, let's face it, pathetic.

There's nothing wrong with having a laugh, but this isn't really a laugh at all. 'It's stifling, that feeling of claustrophobia and falseness', muses Gervais. 'When they start teaching people how to enjoy life, there's something a little bit odd about that.' And official fun invariably has a coercive element, as Brent's laugh-a-minute tyranny shows. It reminds everyone who's in charge. Jokes are barbed with references to lateness, or light-hearted threats of the sack. It can go further, with the management-led pillorying of those deemed not to be pulling their weight through 'Wally of the Week' boards, dunce's hats and 'humorous' forfeits.

Joking can be a serious matter. In one episode of The Office, a full-scale investigation is launched when a pornographic picture featuring David Brent is emailed around the office. No wonder he is careful to point out that his officially sanctioned material is kosher. ('"Does my bum look big in this?"' he chuckles, reading a cartoon on the wall: 'It's OK, it's not sexist - it's the bloke saying it.') Politically correct codes of conduct keep everyone walking on eggshells: anyone could take offence at anything, and someone usually does. And when they do, there's no sorting it out between yourselves: it's straight off to personnel for an official warning.


Seemingly reliable folks who've seen it swear it's funny.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2004 3:49 PM
Comments

The Office is funny--in a very dry, droll, English way--in small doses. Unlike say, the early seasons of Cheers, Cosby, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, etc., I wouldn't want to sit through multiple episodes of it. (I've tried, when my PVR recorded several episodes of the show off of BBC America.)

James Lileks had a very perceptive review of it last year.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at April 23, 2004 4:12 PM

I enjoy it very much. The way there is no laugh track and jokes just fall where they may -- there is an air of realness, authenticity to the show. The mindnumbing nothingness that is office work, the stilted conversations with colleagues, the quietness punctuated by beeps and buzzings and the occassional blowhard who won't shut up... seems real to me, at least as far as what I've experienced in my few short years in cubicle land.

Posted by: Scof at April 23, 2004 4:34 PM

Not just funny. Hillariously funny. Great British humor that you need not have lived in the UK to appreciate. Rent Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD. Season 3 to start soon. (Not political, but if I were to guess a bit South Park/Simpsons in its politically incorrect humor.)

Posted by: MG at April 23, 2004 7:29 PM

The Office is utterly brilliant. This is far and away one of the funniest and most cleverly crafted things the human race has ever created.

What's most effective about it is it's humanity, human fear, love, cowardice, cruelty, decency, all unfolding like subltle and dangerous currents beneath the surface of a seemingly smooth and placid river. I would give anything to be able to write something as good. There is no easy way to charactarise the Office, certainly you don't get a feeling for it by just listing a few of its 'humourous senarios' like that article did. It's in the characters, its in who they are.

It is funny, but if it was just funny it wouldn't be The Office.

Gervais is a genius and I don't use that word lightly, you need to go get this on DVD right now.

Posted by: Amos at April 23, 2004 10:12 PM

Season 1 is amazing. One of the funniest things I've ever seen. Season 2 was forced. I didn't think there was going to be a season 3. I'll be interested to see it.

I highly recommend getting the dvd and watching all of it and then the documentary about it. They even have an option for subtitles!

Posted by: NKR at April 24, 2004 12:55 AM

I'm more of a fan of British humor than most, but The Office didn't do it for me, for whatever reason. On the other hand, a similar show called People Like Us, a satire on documentary/reality TV shows, totally cracked me up:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/guide/articles/p/peoplelikeus_66602770.shtml

Posted by: PapayaSF at April 24, 2004 1:27 AM

Fun yet uncomfortable viewing.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at April 24, 2004 9:22 AM

Where is the Office showing? I don't get cable, so if it is not being picked up by the local PBS station, I won't see it.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 24, 2004 10:42 AM

Robert,

I believe that in the States, it's only on BBC America.

Ed

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