How David Brent Has Become The Catchphrase Character Ricky Gervais Hated
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom Extras ridicules the lowest common denominator comedy of mass audiences, in character Andy Millman’s sitcom When the Whistle Blows. The main character of the show within a show, Ray Stokes, has a single catchphrase upon which the show’s success is built, “Are you havin’ a laff?”. Caricatures of “stupid fans” sit in the live studio audience, wearing t-shirts with catchphrases of other, real shows (Little Britain, Catherine Tate) to evoke the “low” culture that Millman’s project has sunk to, through collaborative rewrites and creative dilution.
Gervais’ resurrection of The Office’s comedic icon David Brent in Life On The Road, fifteen years after the original show, we see exactly the same David Brent as seen in the original, two-part Christmas Special epilogue — a sales rep selling cleaning products, trying to make it in the music industry, without companionship or popularity. Despite the purity, the complexity, the darkness of The Office, in this film Brent repeats many of his famous lines from the original — “guilty!”, “shoot”, “young, free and single!” — cementing their status as catchphrases, perfect for billboards, game shows and quiz answers.
Many of the jokes in the film are literally the same as in the original series — Brent selling tampons, telling racist jokes before chastisement by a female boss, romantic encounters with fat women. Elsewhere, the delivery of the “isn’t this awkward!?” joke-making is much more obvious, accessible, with long reaction shots of bystanders, head in their hands at Brent’s antics. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted how crazy he is,” says one fellow member of his band Foregone Conclusion, as another character explains “why he’s so awkward”, as if we needed telling.
The chasm with the original series’ style, humour and tempo is staggering. Part of the ingenuity of the original show, according to Todd Van Der Werff, is that there is no laughter track, and thus no pressure valve for the audience to release their discomfort in the face of all the ridiculous lines and behaviors of, e.g., Brent. However, it also relied on the editing and shooting being understated and vérité, to simulate the viewer being a fly on the wall, actually witnessing these incredibly uncomfortable scenes.
Life On The Road gives you that pressure valve however, in more and more “lol wut?” facial expressions of confused colleagues, who openly take the piss of him in a way Tim Canterbury never would have done. Moreover, no documentary crew would believably have four or five camera angles across a single office space, as in the film, with slick, quick editing whose sole purpose is not documenting reality, but entertainment. Where Gervais and Merchant actively took colour out of the original images in editing, to maintain an unglamourous, dreary portrait of middle England, such story-telling is incredibly strained given the big-budget, beautifully-coloured panoramic and drone shots in the film.
Gervais thought he could lose everything around Brent — his environment, his staff, his writers, his novelty — and through repeating the same jokes, he could stay as funny, complex or as relevant. Where Millman’s integrity in Extras is lost through collaboration with other writers, Gervais loses such a purism through the lack of such a collaboration, namely with Stephen Merchant, his former co-writer and co-director, whose contribution was often under-valued, until Gervais started working independently.
In an interview with the BBC, Gervais argues that “he [Brent] hasn’t changed a lot, what’s changed is the world around him” — specifically that fame, the driving force of Brent’s performativity, “has changed”. The idea is that it’s a harsher world, more dog eat dog, less amenable to Brent’s fame-chasing — or so we’re told, but not shown, by characters in the film. The original series contained just as much, if not more nasty, public vilification — nutella-smeared underwear being thrown at Brent in nightclubs, for one — so it’s hard to see any substantial environmental novelty that is supposed to prop up the film’s premise.
This curious commodification of Brent, by its founder a decade later, is a very precarious thing for the many thousands who have found joy, taken solace or gained an escapism in the Office within their own social circles, work spaces and family homes for many years. It is precarious for the many thousands of people who have used Brent as a bonding mechanism with a co-worker, a stranger or a soon-to-be friend in a student union bar or smoking area over a shared appreciation of unlikely punchlines of “And that’s Crufts…” or “Not a trick is it, knowledge?”. Despite the show’s success, such a bonding experience felt strangely intimate because it retained some degree of outsider status, with the sheer desperation of a Brent line, untraceable to the outsider, unmistakeable to the knowing, serving as an escapism away from small talk towards the potency of a dark, shared joy found in the show.
The jokes didn’t lend themselves to mass quoteability, and so “Brenting” retained its ability to bond two new people irreparably in a way that the ubiquity of, say, Anchorman’s jokes never would. Mainstream culture tended to caricature Brent (and by proxy, Gervais) as simply the “cringe” character that “said awkward things”, although awkward comedy, both good and bad, predates Gervais. However, as punchlines become catchphrases, this film will only encourage and cement such a reductive characterization of a more complicated personality.
For 15 years we have been living, comedically speaking, in a Brentian world. The influence of Brent the character on the subsequent cultural era rivals other watershed giants of comedy history’s career, of Laurel and Hardy, Monty Python and Jerry Seinfeld. For fifteen years, the comedy landscape has been awash with shows borne out of the characters and format of The Office — from Summer Heights High to People Just Do Nothing, to the online stars of High Renaissance Man and Hood Documentary. Brent’s children are everywhere.
The potency of his character lay not only in his self-delusion, but also in his environment, an office. It’s no coincidence that in the two-part Christmas special, when Brent no longer actually works in the office, Gervais and Merchant wrote him as still coming back to there as much as possible. This natural habitat made Brent an internationally exportable figure in the way another British cultural icon, Alan Partridge, never was. The two characters share a lot in common — ego, delusion, parochial struggle, desperation — and yet where Partridge’s lines went to his assistant or a hotel worker sniggering at him, Brent’s audience were co-workers, and by proxy most of the audience, who probably have had a boss, and whose boss probably exhibited Brentian behaviour. His buffoonery was that much more potent, desperate, and real.
Gervais and Merchant always said they would never bring the Office back, a guarantee crucial to its enduring legacy of exceptionalism in an era when even the only other few British shows that have anywhere near the level of acclaim, Peep Show and Thick of It, themselves ran until their quality significantly diminished from the immensely high standards they had set themselves.
So the question is, why? Why bring back a near-perfect standard from which you can only fall? After the Office and Extras, Gervais was comedy royalty, with the platform and the funding to do whatever he wanted, though few people ever found the pet projects that followed quite as funny as he did himself. And of course, Gervais’ latter-2000s sitcoms and stand-up tours were victim to the standard he had set himself. For someone who built a career making work that meticulously critiques fame, he undeniably likes the limelight himself, with endless social media presence, blogging, chat show appearances, and hosting of awards shows. Gervais likes popularity, and recognition. He likes retweets, and being on billboards.
Moreover, “being Brent” is a hobby many fans of the show have subsequently enjoyed in their own free time for fifteen years, so it is perhaps unfair to begrudge its owner for enjoying the same privilege. This is a film about Brent the singer, and Gervais happily admits he has always enjoyed performing, however ironic it is, ever since his failed, sincere eighties pop duo ‘Shona Dancing’.
And the premise of the film, revealed at the end, is the fundamental goodness of Brent, the pitiable but utterly human, desperate desire to be liked. This is a film that follows in the footsteps of Gervais’ Invention of Lying, Derek and Ghost Town, in its focus on kindness and empathy, not The Office, which was at essence a dark story. Since darkness left his work, he has made only emotionally warm work (if you ignore his constant vilification of fat women, which gets even more vicious and bemusing in Life On The Road) — and such stories of warmth and kindness garner a much different audience.
And if the film stood alone, the fact it is still quite a funny mockumentary, that there is still a enjoyably delusional person ridiculing himself for ninety minutes, would probably be received quite well. As it is, unfortunately Gervais’ description of Brent on the Graham Norton Show could apply just as well to himself: “It’s his dream come true…but basically he’s a man out of time, it’s funny, but it’s quite sad as well.”