What is it that makes a truly transcendent piece of art? The impossibility of ever finding an answer to this question is the twin horror and lure of all criticism. Only the creator knows, I suppose. Except hearing writers, painters and musicians analyse their own work can have a strangely deadening effect – how stultifying to find that a writer doesn’t share your understanding of their work. What moves or thrills us might remain a mystery. And perhaps the most futile question of all is why some things make us laugh.
None of this bodes well for the second series of BBC Radio 4’s What’s Funny About…, in which comedy producers Peter Fincham and Jon Plowman speak to comedy writers about the TV shows that made their career. The new series opens with a dissection of The Office with its co-creator Ricky Gervais. The presenters declare that the show is “by any metric you’d care to measure it, quite simply the most influential sitcom of the 21st century”, a statement hard to disagree with: its cringe-inducing mockumentary style provided a template for countless comedies in the US and the UK. David Brent is one of those rare characters that has taken on legendary status in popular culture. But why?
Gervais offers many explanations for The Office’s success, but none pins down the show’s grim magic. The camerawork, it’s true, was a key component. “If The Office was shot in ‘eye of God’, it would be an OK sitcom,” Gervais says. “As soon as you realise he’s playing up for the camera… it brings it to life.” Brent, he says, is “sincere – the fact that he tries too hard is funny”. But this doesn’t, for me, explain Brent’s excruciating brand of attention-seeking. Nor does the idea that he simply wants to be famous, or that in much great comedy, “men are boys and women are adults”. It becomes clear during the show that The Office really was drawn from life, with dialogue lifted from Gervais’s time in real offices. The ridiculous, painfully observed slice of humanity his show captures is lost in his straightforward answers. At least it’s still there on screen.
What’s Funny About… The Office?
11:30am, 22 September
BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor