The Comedy of Cringe

Laughs and Humiliation, Courtesy of the BBC

The Office presents the workplace as ever decreasing circles of monotony and futility, spiced with the occasional degradation—a world in which the only thing worse than having a job is the prospect of losing it through layoffs. This pervasive anxiety is occasionally disrupted by sudden explosions of sheer nastiness: ritual humiliation, pranks that turn vicious. I'm not sure why this Comedy of Cringe is so pleasurable to watch; The Office's U.K. fans celebrate its excruciating discomfort. Its highest accolade might be "I had to watch that episode from behind the sofa, looking through my fingers!" But it's the details that make the show so funny, not to mention the awesome veracity of the acting. It's one thing to play "real life," quite another to portray real people made ever so slightly inhibited and self-conscious because cameras have invaded their work space—and this gambit pushes them to exquisite levels of emotional subtlety. As the six-episode series proceeds, the characters begin to feel less like silly caricatures and more like genuine, recognizable people.

Mike Leigh meets Spinal Tap: Gervais (left, with inflatable penis) and Crook.
photo: Annie Chia
Mike Leigh meets Spinal Tap: Gervais (left, with inflatable penis) and Crook.

Seinfeld was famously about nothing—the nothing of privileged city dwellers who bummed around the Upper West Side all day long. Ditto for Curb Your Enthusiasm and Larry Sanders, transferred to the West Coast. But The Office is about the nothing of ordinary folks, life in the slow lane. It's no less funny, but a lot more painful to behold.

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