The Comedy of Cringe


The trouble with reality TV is that it’s unreliable. The only way to guarantee a regular flow of money shots—those embarrassing, undignified moments most people would rather keep private—is to script them. Hence the mini-genre of pseudo-reality TV, otherwise known as the mockumentary.

A wincingly funny British mockumentary, The Office takes place at a paper-supply company in an industrial park in Slough, England. This famously dreary British town was immortalized by the late poet laureate John Betjeman’s couplet, “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough/It isn’t fit for humans now.” If Slough could take fleshly form, it might resemble regional manager David Brent, as played by Ricky Gervais (who also co-writes and directs the series with Stephen Merchant). Beady-eyed and schlumpy, Brent is a noxious but totally riveting concoction.

Gervais has said that the series (hugely successful in the U.K.) was influenced more by American comedy like Spinal Tap and The Larry Sanders Show than by British programs. Right now its closest American counterpart is probably Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show whose humor similarly depends on awkwardness and mortification. As in Larry Sanders and Curb Your Enthusiasm, there’s no laugh track on The Office. The deliberately flat camerawork simulates the visual grammar of the documentary: fly-on-the-wall shots are juxtaposed with one-on-one confessional interviews in which Brent and other characters speak directly to the viewer. Gervais protests his American allegiances too strongly, though. The true ancestry of the show is a particular strain of British humor pioneered by Mike Leigh in early TV plays like Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May—what you might call the Comedy of Cringe. Leigh’s aesthetic (ensemble improvisation, low-key production values, acute class consciousness) imprinted itself on a generation of British TV writers, most recently Steve Coogan. Best known in America for his starring role in the movie 24 Hour Party People, Coogan is legendary in the U.K. for his TV character Alan Partridge, a truly appalling talk-show host fallen on hard times.

In Dave Brent, Gervais has created a compulsively watchable monster to rival Partridge—pompous, petty, delusional, and narcissistic. Brent oozes synthetic charm like cheap aftershave; he is the maestro of the inept metaphor, the inappropriate gesture, and the tactless remark. Although he’s constantly spewing corporate rhetoric (investment in people, teamwork), Brent loves to imagine himself as an anti-corporate rebel. Brent’s largest self-deception is his belief that he’s a model and thoroughly modern employer: “I suppose I’ve created an atmosphere where I’m a friend first and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third,” he tells the camera. Brent talks about his staff as a family, but can’t bring himself to be the dad. Instead, he’s more like some buffoonish uncle with his corny jokes, contrived informality, and constant goofing around—demonstrating his Michael Jackson moonwalk or bragging about his previous night’s boozing (“El vino did flow”).

Brent is at his most repugnant when he deals with his boss, a posh Kristin Scott-Thomas look-alike. It’s eerie how he fluctuates between craven and condescending in the blink of an eye—one second he’s flouting her authority, the next he retreats into servile mode like a kicked dog. “We call her Camilla Parker-Bowles,” he confides. “Not to her face . . . Uh, not that I’m scared of her.” The company’s workers constantly jostle to maintain their position in the pecking order. Who has the right to bully who—that’s The Office‘s running theme.

Unlike in your average sitcom, there’s no sense of great camaraderie here—The Office is populated by employees forced together by the vagaries of the economy. But the series pivots around a few ingenious pairings. The first is Brent and his second-in-command Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), the weasel-faced ex-soldier who resembles a saucer-eyed waif in a Keane painting. Although Gareth idolizes his boss, Brent is constantly putting him in his place, insisting that he’s “assistant to the regional manager” not “assistant regional manager.” Both men buy into the corporate bullshit, whereas the series’ other central couple—sales rep Tim (Martin Freeman) and receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis)—can only cope with the job by maintaining an ironic distance, trading sarcastic glances across the room, snickering like teenagers at the back of the class. Along with their sense of absurdity, Tim and Dawn are united by a slow-burning, endlessly frustrated flirtation.

Tim’s a definite office type—the guy who’s way too smart for his job but lacks the drive to get a life. At 30, he lives with his mom, who probably still picks out his lackluster clothes. He’s puffy-eyed and sweet-looking, but his signature mannerism—frenzied head-scratching at moments of supreme awkwardness—suggests someone literally chafing in his role. Meanwhile, Dawn exudes a peachy Englishness à la Princess Di; she is the undercherished angel of the office who’s watching her dreams slip away from her. Both see in each other the potential to escape.

Although you’ll never forget that The Office is fake, one aspect of the show feels very real: It captures the blend of frustration and tedium that makes up the bulk of most people’s lives. The frustration of not getting what you want. The tedium of working in the kind of place people end up after surrendering their real dreams (Brent turns out to be a failed singer-songwriter), or where, like Tim, they bide their time until gathering up the courage to do something else (if they ever do). But you sense that if any of these characters’ wishes were ever fulfilled—if Tim and Dawn get together like Daphne and Niles in Frasier—the fragile tension that fuels the show would utterly collapse.

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.

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.