Brent is back and why that matters

APRIL 9TH, 2016 — POST 096

The first trailer for Ricky Gervais’ next movie David Brent: Life On The Road went live this week. Reprising his role from the BBC-aired sitcom Gervais co-wrote and co-directed with Stephen Merchant, this is the first time since The Office that David Brent has graced our screens in a meaningful way (the webseries Learn Guitar with David Brent being little more than a bit of fun). The trailer for David Brent: Life On The Road has Brent’s story picking back up after a (presumably failed) attempt at a music career and his return to the world of cubicles and crassness as a sales rep for some drab company. So far, it appears like the movie isn’t interested in callbacks and repeated jokes, an obvious trap for movies with a heritage such as this. Instead, Brent returns with a triumphant “He’s back!” like an obnoxious uncle who’s presence at a family do makes you wish disease would just claim him already.

It’s easy to forget just how long it’s been since The Office first aired. In the trailer, Brent makes reference to it as “two thousand and…”, trailing off with a cheeky smirk. The first season aired almost fifteen years ago now in July of 2001. But there are real reasons why it doesn’t feel like nearly so long ago. The U.S. remake of The Office only finally wrapped up in 2013 after an 8-year run. More than lauching the careers of a class of actors, Steve Carrell the most notable of which, The Office (U.S.) changed the audience’s expectations of comedy. These expectations, forged by decades of multicam sitcoms like I Love Lucy, Fawlty Towers, Happy Days, Are You Being Served?, Cheers, and Seinfeld (to name the just a few of the true monuments).

Fans of scripted comedy would be quick to point to cringe as The Office’s (UK) greatest legacy. Movies like Superbad, Bridesmaids, and last year’s Trainwreck certainly have taken up this mantle and brought what could be called “squirmcore” to the mass market. Keener surveyors of comedy will be quick to point out that another, and perhaps even squirmcorier, series predates The Office (UK) by a year. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm so successfully broke from the multicam format for HBO in 2000 and quickly cemented itself as utterly obsessed with those moments of cringe that surrounded the series’ protagonist, a fictionalised Larry David. However, I would argue that cringe was only a secondary product of The Office (UK). Gervais’ and Merchant’s true innovation, and what made The Office (UK) the most influential sitcom of this millennium so far, is that it is a UK series built unlike any UK series. The series’ long-reaching success comes from two guys from the UK trying to make a U.S. series.

There are two words that crystalise the comedic divide between the UK and U.S. that is wider than the Atlantic: respectively, Cruelty and Heart. Fawlty Towers still stands as the most instructive example of this in UK televisual history. Cruelty spouts forth from the mouths and open hands of the characters. The protagonist Basil is subjected to as much cruelty as he is able to dish out, usually with Manuel as his catharsis’ target. The end of each episode might as well conclude with a mass shooting and suicide given the fever pitch to which Basil is worked up. The closest thing to a happy ending in the 12-episode series, Basil finding some money at the end of Communication Problems, is quickly shattered along with the vase Basil drops from his hand. By comparison, the conventional U.S. sitcom (literally you can take any, except for Seinfeld), is structured to preserve the happy ending. And not just one in which characters are victorious. The U.S. sitcom, from Fresh Prince of Bel Air, to Friends, to Taxi, concludes with a healthy dose of Heart™. Through the comedy of the rest of the episode, the characters learn some lesson about the integrity of the familial unit, the importance of friendship, the embrace of otherness, or really any weighty ideal the creators want. To reiterate succinctly: the UK sitcom baptises by fire, the U.S. baptises by love.

The Office (UK) baptised with both. If you go back and watch Training, the fourth episode of the first season and one which Gervais and Merchant have admitted in interviews is the one of which they are most proud, you can clearly see both Cruelty and Heart stride forward in locked step. Brent, the embodiment of Cruelty, takes the opportunity of a staff training day to flex his muscles as “a chilled-out entertainer” by consistently undercutting the external trainer with a cocky pettiness of in-the-know cool. With each of Brent’s tone-deaf missteps, the emotional centre of the series, the relationship between Tim and Dawn, shifts toward a miniature climax. Dawn spends most of the episode sobbing from a fight with her boyfriend, one which Tim believes ended their relationship. Finally mustering the courage to act on his feelings towards her and ask her out, he is shut down by brute facts: it was just a fight. The ensuing back-pedal is brutal not from the perspective of Cruelty, but from the fact that Dawn at that exact moment realises she wishes it wasn’t just a fight as much as Tim does. But she can’t bring herself to tell him that. The kernel of Heart, that truthfulness and courage are inextricably linked to happiness, is evident from its negative. And just as Tim scampers out of the room, Brent commands Garreth to “pass the guitar” so he can do his best 80s singer-songwriter impression.

The intricate dance of Cruelty and Heart in The Office (UK) allowed it to sneak in under the radars of audiences on either side of the Atlantic. The Brits saw Cruelty and happened to be warmed by Heart where the Yanks saw Heart in constant conflict with Cruelty. The series met expectations to then exceed and change them, altering the face of Anglophonic comedy.

With Stephen Merchant absent from the production of David Brent: Life On The Road, I know its important to temper my expectations. If the pair’s post-Office solo work — Derek for Gervais and Hello Ladies for Merchant — is any indication, they certainly bring the best out of each other (there is even a case to be made that either party embodies Heart and Cruelty respectively). However David Brent: Life On The Road turns out, I know that comedy is different now in virtue of its eponymous hero.

That wounded cunt.

Read yesterday’s