It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since David Brent first blundered his way onto our screens in The Office – Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s cringe-fest which ran for two series on the BBC. That’s two decades of the stapler-in-jelly prank, Gareth Keenan’s various tales from the Territorial Army and family parties at which your dad has whipped out that infamous dance.
Often cited as one of the best British sitcoms of all time, The Office raked in audiences of up to seven million by the last Christmas special in 2003 and gave us the goatee-wearing gaffe machine that is David Brent: Slough’s king of crass one-liners.
However, The Office doesn’t just deserve credit for catapulting Gervais and Merchant to fame (as well as Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and countless other stars) or being the inspiration for its widely popular US remake – it’s also responsible for ushering in a whole new era of comedy, not just in Britain but worldwide.
Prior to 2001, the sitcom scene was populated by multi-camera comedies – Absolutely Fabulous, Only Fools and Horses, The Vicar of Dibley, Red Dwarf, Bottom, Birds of a Feather, the list is endless. These 30-minute outfits filmed in front of a live audience dominated the airwaves in the UK and even more so in the US, where the likes of Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier and Full House reigned supreme throughout the 90’s, airing to millions of fans each week.
Of course, there were a few stand-out sitcoms that switched things up; the surreal single-camera satire Spaced went onto become a cult classic, while comedies like Chris Morris’s Brass Eye, That Peter Kay Thing and Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff flirted with the mockumentary format as we approached the millennium. However, it wasn’t until The Office crashed onto BBC Two, with its hilariously awkward look at mundane working life, that the docu-comedy became a mainstream TV hit.
Viewers became a fly on the wall at fictional paper company Wernham Hogg, where Brent had somehow made it to general manager despite spending his working days distracting his unimpressed colleagues, cracking out his guitar and giving testimonials to camera, boasting about how fun a boss he was. While Gervais’s Brent was a wholly unlikeable character, with his inadvertently racism, sexism and embarrassing faux pas leaving fans cringing from behind a sofa cushion, he was the ideal mockumentary target – a clueless everyman who audiences recognised and had no problem laughing at, not with.
Bolstered by the performances of Mackenzie Crook and Ewen MacIntosh as office odd-bods Gareth and Keith Bishop, as well as the love triangle between Tim (Martin Freeman), Dawn (Lucy Davis) and her fiancé Lee (Joel Beckett), The Office became a surefire triumph and while it ended in 2003, somewhat prematurely in the eyes of many fans, it had already injected the TV scene with mockumentary fever.
In the US, The Office remake reached dizzying heights of success, running for nine seasons with Steve Carrell at the helm as Brent’s Pennsylvanian counterpart Michael Scott, and kicking off the docu-comedy boom across the pond. Next came political satire Parks and Recreation, produced by The US Office creator Greg Daniels and writer Michael Schur, followed by long-running family sitcom Modern Family and Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development. More recently, we’ve seen Netflix‘s American Vandal, Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous and What We Do in the Shadows – a spin-off of Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s mockumentary film of the same name – land on our screens.
Back in the UK, the laughter landscape became populated with mock documentary, reality TV-style satires. Gervais and Merchant moved on from The Office to give us Life’s Too Short and Derek, while Twenty Twelve burst onto the BBC ahead of the Olympics, followed by W1A. In recent years, shows like People Just Do Nothing, This Country and Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge have kept the cringe flag flying, with the former two receiving BAFTA awards and This Country even getting its own US remake.
As a result, laugh-track sitcoms are now somewhat of a dying breed. While some are still on the air – Not Going Out, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Upstart Crow to name a few – the more popular shows in recent years have been single-camera comedies, with elements of fourth-wall breaking. Word-of-mouth comedy-drama Fleabag is arguably one of the most popular and influential titles of the 2010s, while Motherland, Derry Girls, Stath Lets Flats and Ghosts are now the epitome of the modern-day sitcom.
It’s possible that some of our favourite mockumentaries and sitcoms wouldn’t exit today if The Office hadn’t introduced the inadvertently hilarious Slough branch of Wernham Hogg back in 2001, and while today marks the cult classic’s 20th birthday, it still stands up as one of the best British sitcoms of all time.