It’s not often a writer is praised for the words he didn’t write. But Stephen Merchant has proven that silence—usually anathema to humor—can be a comedy art form in itself. Nowhere was this more apparent than in The Office, the BBC sitcom that Merchant co-created with longtime writing partner Ricky Gervais.
A faux documentary about the employees of a London-area paper-supply merchant called Wernham Hogg, the world of this office was as naturalistic as it was realistic: no punch lines, no laugh track, no contrived plots neatly wrapped up within thirty minutes. Merchant and Gervais didn’t want conventional funny—they wanted funny that seemed as if it were ripped from the real world. And the real world, as we all know, is most often uncomfortable, awkward, mortifying.
The show’s funniest moments—which, not coincidentally, were also the most painful—were usually marked by their wordlessness. One could fill novels with what was left unspoken. Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), the sales rep with a crush on the engaged receptionist, Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis), relayed comic sonnets with only a furrowed brow or a mournful stare at the woman he loved but could never have. Wernham Hogg’s general manager, David Brent, was a man-child whose ambitions were grossly larger than his talents. Invariably, he would utter something foolish—or unfunny. After a pregnant pause, one could see the flash of panic in Brent’s eyes, the nervous twitch of his nose as he sought to put a positive spin on his own stupidity. Every silence was an emotional gulf that the most carefully chosen words could not begin to bridge.
Two seasons of six episodes each (as is the British standard), a two-part Christmas special, and countless awards and critical raves later, Merchant and Gervais ended The Office. But a few years later (July 2005 in the U.K. and September 2005 in the U.S.), they returned with their next show, Extras, which focused on a semi-talented, little-employed actor named Andy Millman (Gervais), striving for his big break in the movie industry.
As with The Office, Extras continued to explore some of Merchant and Gervais’s favorite themes: failed ambition, meritless self-regard, the unrelenting desperation of everyday life. This time, Merchant stepped in front of the camera with a major recurring role, but not as the hero. Rather, he became Darren Lamb, an incompetent talent agent who is not nearly as successful as he wishes to be, a man with huge dreams who is forced to earn extra cash as an employee at the Carphone Warehouse.
Another lost soul, yearning to become someone—anyone.
Tell me how The Office began.
I first met Ricky in 1997 at this radio station where we both worked in London called Xfm. Ricky would perform his obnoxious office character as a sort of party piece—really only for me, because it didn’t have a name yet. I don’t think he did it for anyone else. It was just something he did to amuse the two of us in the office as we worked. It was kind of an observation of the types of people we had both worked with in the past.
Then I left Xfm and joined the BBC. While there, I was asked to make a training film. I said to Ricky, “Listen, we should film that character of yours.” We shot a short film in documentary style, because that was the quickest way to do it. We didn’t have to worry about lighting and all those technical matters. It was just necessity; we only had one day to shoot it. We shot it fast with only one cameraman.
When we edited the tape, I was just knocked out by Ricky’s performance, especially for someone who had never acted before and who had no intention of doing anything like that. His performance seemed amazingly rare and rich.
So that tape started getting passed around the BBC and the other TV channels, and buzz started to build. We shot an official pilot for BBC in 2001, but it never actually aired.
How did that pilot differ from the final version that we’re all familiar with?
It all just felt a bit too prompted, and it didn’t feel like it had a documentary feel. In a documentary, there’s no real narrative. Usually in a documentary, a narrative is just created unofficially. That’s what we wanted to get back to. We wanted audiences to completely accept this world as being a real office and a real environment.
We kind of panicked. We thought, We’ve blown this, and now we’re done. But luckily, the pilot was never broadcast. So we went back to the drawing board and tried to eliminate those transparent elements of storytelling.
I can’t imagine The Office being done in any other format but documentary.
In retrospect, no. The show just wasn’t funny if we were approaching it as a sitcom. It’s only amusing if you think of it as a real place being filmed by a documentary crew. The documentary seemed so vital at that point, because it seemed like all the jokes were dependent on the way that the character David Brent wanted to portray himself versus the way he was being portrayed by the documentary crew.
Another thing we did was remove the voice-over track with documentary-style narration. This helped, because in the end it meant there wasn¹t an explicit editorial voice. This allowed David Brent to just dig his own grave.
It sounds as if you had the luxury of not being bothered by executives. You could spend the necessary time discovering what did or did not work for the show¹s best interests.
It’s sort of a constant source of amazement that we didn’t get interference from executives. It felt at the time that we were battling for everything, but I think that was because we were new to the whole thing and we had no experience with the horror stories that other people would tell us later.
In retrospect, it was a fairly easy ride. I think the BBC felt that we were acting sensibly, we weren’t being silly and we weren’t being egomaniacs. We reassured them in that respect—that there was very little that could go wrong. We were very low-budget. They didn¹t have to pay big star fees.
They had nothing to lose.
Exactly. The show went on the air in the middle of the summer, which is not a big TV time. Really, it kind of snuck out, and there was not a huge kind of fanfare, and not many people really got with it.
Weirdly, the day after the first episode aired, I heard two women talking on the train. One of them said, “Hey, did you see that documentary last night about an office? It was hilarious. There’s this crazy boss who runs the place, and he’s hysterical.” The other woman said, “That wasn’t a documentary. That was a sitcom.” And then the first woman said, “Oh. Then it wasn’t very funny.”
I thought, That’s strange—you just said you laughed. I think it took people a while to acclimate to it. And eventually they did. People tuned into it, and off it went.
I wonder if it’s easier to pull off a new show like The Office in Britain, as opposed to America. It seems that British TV comedy writers are allowed to take more chances than your typical American sitcom writer.
Rob Long, an American writer who wrote for Cheers and who wrote the book Conversations With My Agent (Dutton Adult, 1997), once said that America is kind of like a factory machine—your product goes in one end, and if it comes out as you intended it¹s only by sheer good fortune and luck.
I have to say that it is a little bit different in England. I think generally, particularly on channels like BBC2, which is slightly more fringy and more akin to the cable networks in America, you are given enough freedom to do what you want as a writer. At the very least, they give you enough rope to hang yourself.
What kind of audience were you hoping for at first? Were you ever going for the masses?
There’s nothing wrong with a huge audience. But in reaching for that huge audience, you could possibly compromise your material or maybe try to second-guess what an audience wants. We genuinely thought that The Office was funny and that it was truthful, and maybe there would be a million and a half like-minded people who thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. And if that happened, then we’d think, Oh, well, we had fun and that was good. And that would be that.
So when the success started to snowball, it just seemed very bizarre. It became like Godzilla, and it rampaged off through the world.