Since it first appeared in 2001, British television series The Office has delighted millions across the world, including idiot bosses who think it is about other people.
There are nine versions of the series in seven languages, including its most famous adaptation, the American version. In a few days the Indian adaptation of The Office, in Hindi, will release on Hotstar, and I have finally found the opportunity to pay my respects to a rare British work that is at once celebrated and actually good.
In the original version, a small-town regional manager of a paper company, David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais, who is also the co-creator of the series, takes us through his life. He is a very familiar man. He is the middle-aged manager, who has no capacity to be with his own thoughts; who likes to talk and pronounce some words in festive ways to appear entertaining; who likes to think of himself as mad; who hedges the risk of speaking his mind by couching it as a joke; who laughs at his own jokes until laughter itself assumes the form of sorrow; who requires the comfort of a sidekick and who desperately wants to be liked by attractive people. David is an amiable lonely man, and loneliness is never about scarcity of people but a result of wishing for the company of those who do not want to be with you.
The Office achieves the highest level of humour in moments that are hilarious because they are very true, and at once, sad for the same reason. Once, he pranks his secretary by telling her that she is fired, and he is genuinely surprised when she breaks down. When she realizes it was a prank, she conveys to him the very substance of what he really is: “You’re a sad little man.”
There is a streak of evil in this man-child, precisely because he is a man-child. He reminds us of the possibility that the evil in all humans is only a residue of qualities that children needed to survive childhood.
The American version of David Brent is Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell. David Brent is an authentic provincial male manager, hence a despicable character, while Michael Scott is primarily stupid, which makes him more endearing.
Like in any quality work of humour, a part of the brilliance of The Office is its exploitation of the prevailing cowardice of political correctness. In one scene, Michael Scott is flirting with an “Asian” waitress and he discreetly marks her arm with a felt-pen to distinguish her from another “Asian” waitress. In another scene that is intended to be comic, an Indian employee named Kelly is caught sabotaging the internal assessments of two salesmen in her office and, to defend herself, she tells Michael she was raped by them. Michael tells her: “You cannot say ‘I was raped’ and expect all of your problems to go away, Kelly. Not again. Don’t keep doing that.” And, Michael’s sidekick Dwight, who is carrying on a secret affair with the fiancée of a colleague, often smiles at us to make fun of the cuckold, making us all complicit.
Humour, when it works, is always a reward for risk.
The Office takes great risks; as a result it fails, too. For instance, when Dwight reveals that he hires illegal migrants to work on his farm, he says that when it is time to pay them he makes his cousin pose as an immigration and naturalization officer, who takes them away in a van, drops them in a small town and tells them it is Canada. This moment fails because we are on the side of the impoverished labourers and the scene is not brilliant enough to override its cruelty.
The victories and failures of humour say a lot about its audiences. In the scenes that work, we are all complicit. People discreetly accept that they, too, cannot tell two “Chinese” waitresses apart; and that they do believe women play victims to get out of situations; and that they find something comical about unfaithfulness. But the exploitation of migrants by Dwight is not as funny because most people, even when no one is looking, will not make an impoverished migrant do hard manual labour with the intention of not paying him.
For many years after I watched the British original, I refused to watch the American version because I had somehow got the impression that American adaptation was more farcical. But very recently, I decided to take a chance, and I found that it had preserved the complex hilarious sorrow of the original.
In a scene I have mentioned earlier, after Kelly is caught sabotaging two of her colleagues, she reveals that she did it because they had not attended her party and she was hurt. Michael himself is a man who is always reaching out, always trying to get people to attend his parties and is always spurned. He is a man who survives life by not seeing his circumstances. But sometimes he does see clearly. So, in one of the most tender moments in the series, he tells her: “I have an enormous amount of trouble trying to get people to come to my place. And I hate it. I can’t tell you how much leftover guacamole I have ended up eating over the years. I don’t even know why I make it in such great quantities.”
But now and then, Michael does find companionship. He even finds love. “Chemistry”, The Office teaches us, is often a convenient union of two equal handicaps. In some cases, we are rewarded with love when we are misunderstood by gorgeous people. Sometimes we get lucky, and all our guacamole gets eaten.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’