“A play, film or TV show that is intended to be funny, usually with a happy ending.”
Above is the Oxford dictionary definition of ‘comedy’. Now comedy is an interesting concept because there is no singular way “to be funny”, in fact, there’s a multitude across the spectrum of humour. At either end of this spectrum are two juxtaposing approaches to comedy; the pessimism of British humour and the optimism of American humour. For decades now, people have clashed over which style is supposedly better, however, it’s very difficult to find easily comparable examples as they are so different. That was until Ricky Gervais’ and Steven Merchant’s hit mockumentary ‘The Office’ got remade for the American audience. Both shows were highly praised within a critical sense. The original was the first British comedy to win a golden globe for ‘Best Television series: Musical or Comedy’. Then its American counterpart was nominated for an incredible 42 Primetime Emmy Awards, and a subsequent five wins. Whilst both experienced similar successes, and ultimately portrayed the exact same office, they couldn’t be further apart from each other. They epitomize the contrasting styles of comedy and highlight two very different philosophies.
At a first glance, the similarities are crystal clear between both Wernham Hogg and Dunder Mifflin. Both shows spend their majority within the compounds of monotonous paper merchants, run by an out of touch, slightly crude manager. Each show utilizes an almost Shakespearian romance with Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis) and Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). It’s a relationship that grows as each episode passes, yet leaves the viewer screaming at their screen for one of them to confess their true feelings. The premise of the two shows is effectively the same as well. We, the viewer, follow a documentary crew filming the day to day life of the employees as well as the horrifically funny antics of both David Brent (Ricky Gervais) and Michael Scott (Steve Carell). Yet, the fan bases of their favorite version often struggle to find the appeal behind its counterpart. So why then are two shows that are fundamentally the same so very different?
In order to answer this question, we must dissect the comedic philosophies not only at the heart of the shows but at the core of their respective cultures. A quote from Ricky Gervais perfectly emphasizes the philosophical differences between the two comedy styles.
“I would say that Americans are more ‘down the line’. They don’t hide their hopes and fears. They applaud ambitions and openly reward success. Brits are more comfortable with life’s losers”
US comedy constructs a tone of hope, unity and ambition. Such optimism is created because the ‘American Dream’ is embedded so heavily within the country’s culture and thus, its comedy. An Americanized philosophy is one in which the glass is seen as half full and that anyone could one day become the president. It’s this optimism that shines through within not just the US Office but various other American comedies. Whereas, across the pond, comedy takes up a totally contrasting stance. There is no ‘British Dream’, people simply accept mediocrity and take life at face value, embracing all its hopelessness. As a result of this philosophy that classic British pessimism is born. UK comedy shows generally have dark and depressing tones, in which we laugh at the constant failures of one of life’s losers. These ideologies can be seen explicitly when observing the characters of the two comedic styles. We laugh with the wisecracking American comedy actor. For example, Chandler (Matthew Perry) from ‘Friends’ may start out as somewhat of an outsider, however, by the show’s finale he has won. He has married his best friend, he has a good-paying job, and a family within American suburbia. On the contrary, we laugh at the pathetic UK comedy actor. Simon (Joe Thomas) from the ‘Inbetweeners’ begins the show as a hopeless romantic like Chandler, but he never develops from such an identity. By the show’s crescendo, he is still considered uncool, he fails to court his love interest and his car ends up rusting away in a lake. When we watch the two versions of the Office, we can clearly see these differing ideologies emphasized within the comedic and stylistic approach.
From the opening credits of each show, these antithetical tones are set up beautifully. The intro to the UK version utilizes these slow pan shots of the dull and depressing architecture of Slough. As a viewer, we instantly feel the shows pessimistic nature. Supporting this tone is Stereophonics’ rock ballad ‘Handbags and Gladrags’. It’s desperately slow piano chords and monotonous trumpets perfectly capture the feeling of trudging to work in the morning, wanting desperately to go anywhere else. Everything about the UK versions’ introduction evokes the miserable realism of the work that the show explores. Yet, its transatlantic cousin creates a much more positive feel with its introduction, displaying a tone that embraces the camaraderie and familial characteristics of the office. We are still presented with those uninteresting city shots, this time of Scranton, however, they are inter-spliced with focus shots on specific characters. By utilizing these shots of the characters, it stresses to the viewer the unity and compassion within the Office. Additionally, its theme music is packed with upbeat trumpets and drums, which create this extremely positive aura around the workplace, and thus, mimic the shows optimistic feel. From these introductory compilations, we are instantly told what to expect; one show that highlights the hopelessness of work and one that embraces its opportunities.
One way in which the UK version utilizes comedy to emphasize its pessimistic philosophy is through using cringe humour. You don’t need to be an expert TV critic to notice the painstakingly awkward sequences and conversations that David Brent finds himself in, as they are deliberately thrust into our faces. Brent and Gareth are completely incapable of reading people’s body language. They are both so focused on their own performance and identity that they have become blind to other peoples, resulting in them acting in totally unacceptable ways. The pinnacle of this cringe comedy comes within season one when David Brent interviews a woman to be his personal assistant. Before she has even entered the shot the cringe begins as Brent pathetically rubs the after-shave sample from a magazine on himself, in a frantic attempt to appear trendy and sophisticated. It’s his constant efforts to be someone we know he is not that make scenes with him so cringe-worthy. Brent dominates most conversations he’s in with constant dialogue, making him seem both intrusive and desperate. He asks the interviewee to describe herself, to which she states that she went travelling last year. Before she even finishes saying where she went “exploring” Brent buts in with the utterance, “Exploring yourself”, to once again try to relate another human being. There’s an almost deafening silence before she bluntly replies “no Asia”; once again Brent’s attempts to make himself seem interesting painfully blow up in his face. Towards the end of the scene, Brent gives the interviewee the job and he offers his hand out for what seems to be a professional handshake. Of course, it’s not. With all the grace of Bambi on ice, he takes hold of her hand and tries to pull her in for a kiss. Any little respect we had for him as a boss is destroyed as we are left again in a sea of horrifically cringey silence. It’s this cringe comedy that helps to mirror the more depressing tones in UK humour. Through making the audience cringe, it frames Brent as one of life’s losers and results in us laughing at his failures within the workplace and his social circles.
How then does the US Office utilize a different style of humour to mirror its optimism? The greatest difference comes within the David Brent, Michael Scott debate. At the end of the day Brent is unlikeable as a boss, however, Michael Scott, despite many shortcomings, is a boss we would want to have. Because of this, we find ourselves laughing alongside Michael Scott. The US version, therefore, seems to utilize a comedy, which benefits the characters, whilst the UK style uses one which criticizes the characters. Comedy legend, Stephen Fry, epitomizes this when he said that within UK humour “Who you ARE is funny”, whereas in American humour “What you DO is funny”. Therefore, this results in less character-driven comedy, instead of creating jokes structured around actions/set pieces. In turn, it creates more moments in which we laugh with what the character has done. One of the greatest examples has to be Jim’s seemingly endless pranks that he carries out on Dwight (Rainn Wilson). Jim’s practical jokes stretch from the extreme such as literally impersonating Dwight, to simply moving Dwight’s desk into the bathroom. Now whilst these pranks are clearly one-sided, the humour is not. We laugh with Jim’s quick wit and creativity, and then, despite Dwight’s misfortune we don’t laugh at his failure, we laugh with his hilarious reaction and comical one-liners. There aren’t really any losers within its humour (except maybe Toby), thus, creating a much more optimistic style of comedy. Furthermore, its incorporation of the slapstick creates entertaining comedic situations, in which we laugh at the events we see not the person. Because the US Office embraces the wacky and wonderful, it means its characters are larger than life, and thus, justify it’s over the top humour, such as Jim’s pranks. Such slapstick humour is demonstrated wonderfully within a scene when the office workers are taught CPR. It wonderfully pushes the boundaries of what could happen within the workplace, and its absurdity is what makes us laugh, yet, it doesn’t feel out of place within the show due to the characters many unique and whacky traits, that are ultimately the essence of its slapstick comedy. So much happens within this three-minute scene, from Michael debating what a good quality of life is, to Creed’s random and oblivious statement of “You were in the parking lot earlier”. However, the main attraction is when Michael begins to perform CPR to the beat of ‘Staying Alive’. Instead of simply pumping to the beat in his head, he begins to sing aloud, causing Andy, (Ed Helms), to break out into the first verse. Before you know it, the whole demonstration is derailed into a maniacal rendition of the Bee Gees classic disco track. The show uses the unexpected so well. As a viewer, we never know what to expect as so many different personalities are thrown into the same room. It feels as if almost any scenario could unfold; keeping us on our toes and keeping the humour fresh and exciting. Most importantly, however, we aren’t laughing at individual failure, the humour comes from the outrageous scene we are witnessing.
Despite the two shows taking up polarizing aesthetics and comedic styles, one attribute bridges them; their focus on working people. Throughout the entirety of the two shows, you learn next to nothing about the actual business details of Dunder Mifflin and Wernham Hogg. But you learn everything about the people. Over the years of filming, we see the ins and outs of office life; the hirings, the firings, the tears, the fights, the laughs, and the love. We witness the lives of these people through the intimate lens of the mockumentary. Despite everything that Brent, Michael, Dwight, Tim etc. go through, they still see the good within the workplace, and we see the good within them. Tim puts it perfectly when he says that the people you work with are essentially random people you have been thrown in with, yet “you spend more time with them than your friends or family”. That’s what these shows do brilliantly, they highlight the family aspects of work; and by the season’s finale as a viewer, we feel part of that family. We shouldn’t dread going to work, we should embrace it. It’s a place where you can make someone laugh. It’s a place where you can make a new friend. It’s a place where you can meet your lifelong partner. Yet it’s such an ordinary place. Ultimately, though as we are shown, “there’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things”.