By Stephen Nurse, Darren Richman and Sam Tyack
An unofficial guide to the much-loved TV show.
The Cultural Impact and Legacy of The Office
It shouldn’t have worked. When The Office first aired on a Monday evening in July of 2001, nothing suggested an epochal event was in the offing. The first-time writer/directors, who had met at the London alternative radio station XFM, had no real experience to speak of. Stephen Merchant was the gangly, analytical half of the partnership who’d grown up wanting to emulate local hero John Cleese, another tall man from the West Country behind a beloved sitcom. Ricky Gervais, the show’s lead, was a failed pop star who’d spent years in middle management as the assistant events manager for the University of London Union. Not for nothing do they tell you to write what you know.
The cultural impact and legacy of The Office simply cannot be overstated. From its influence on the genre of sitcoms or the “Mockumentary”, to social nomenclature such as describing someone as being “a bit Brent” and even the personalities forged by endless quotes along with mannerisms used by its fans. You can tell immediately if you will get on with someone if they react to a quote with a retort born from the show. This is especially useful in social occasions such as weddings or parties when faced with the unenviable task of actually having to speak to strangers. Almost used as a feeler to discern if this person might be worth speaking to, the following topics are often offered in an attempt to find common ground.
- “What team do you support?”
- “How do you know X?”
- “Will there ever be a boy born, who can swim faster than a shark?”
The first two questions could result in a mutual understanding that there is a need to just get through this occasion, and you may well struggle through some awkward chats about why your team are better than their team or isn’t the groom a bit of a prick. But a correct answer to the 3rdquestion will guarantee you have made an actual friend that may even last longer than a disappointing 3 course meal or watching Aunt Pauline dancing to the birdie song.
It is more in the more niche and subtle nods to the show in which you truly discover if someone is on your wavelength. It could be as simple as a delicately, but perfectly timed “uh?” or the sarcastic use of “ooh nooo” when asked a question. Receiving a familiar or even better, a more obscure phrase, can result in the sort of quote rallying that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer would be proud of.
There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to repurposing lines from the show in inventive ways, such as a recent image of Gareth Southgate watching his England side triumph in a Euro 2020 match accompanied by the words, “Gareth, ultimate fantasy? Two midfielders, probably. Sitters. I’m just watching.” That is a pun deserving its own 20th anniversary retrospective when the time comes.
The Office is often credited for kick-starting the mockumentary genre in the lean years following This is Spinal Tap in 1984, but one senses that is simply because history is written by the winners. People Like Us, Human Remains and Marion and Geoff all preceded Gervais and Merchant, and there was a genuine feeling that this spoof documentary centred around a paper company, parodying docusoaps like Driving School and Airport (a show referenced in the finale of The Office), was slightly late to the party now that those shows were going out of fashion. By this point, even Maureen had passed her driving test.
The Office is clearly used as the template for shows such as People Just Do Nothing and This Country among several others. Both PJDN and This Country feature leads that are almost a mirror in terms of their idiosyncrasies and delivery of the dialogue. Indeed, in an interview with the Independent in 2021 Allan Mustafa, the actor behind People Just do nothing’s lead character MC Grindah said:
“The Office was our thing, as a group of mates and it became a language in which we communicate with each other. I had to check myself loads of times, or people behind the camera would be like, ‘bit too Brent there.’ I couldn’t help it. I was so obsessed with it.”
The legacy of The Office is everywhere. The US version spawned shows like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation while the likes of This Country and People Just Do Nothing closer to home have taken the spirit of the original and brilliantly explored very different aspects of English culture. Its enduring influence is with us in myriad subtler ways too, most notably in the way we speak (in a way).
Ricky Gervais’ genius portrayal of a socially awkward and hilariously self-unaware narcissist paved the way for dozens of imitation characters to hit our screens. The anguishing pauses and knowing acknowledgements to the camera when David Brent has committed yet another social faux pas has become a trademark of the show which has been used as a vehicle to carry many a sitcom persona such as MC Grindah in the subsequent years.
A combination of word-of-mouth, repeats and the burgeoning advent of the DVD market saw The Office grow into a phenomenon in the 14-month gap between its first and second series. Gervais went on record claiming he hoped it might be 10 people’s favourite show rather than a hundred people’s tenth favourite show, citing The League of Gentlemen as the kind of cult favourite he’d like to emulate. He needn’t have worried – occasionally, as with The Beatles, pasta and Seinfeld, the masses get something exactly right.
In addition to its inarguable imprint left on the cultural landscape, the longevity of the show and its ability to transcend generations make it the most influential sitcom of all time. The Office is as popular with those in their early 20’s as it is to those well into their 60’s and beyond. The show may seem dated now in terms of the technology, cultural references and indeed some of the social sensibilities when compared to today, but it also manages to be entirely in the zeitgeist as it plays with the same dynamics that millions of us face every day.
A massive cohort of people spend the same 8 hours a day on the same bit of carpet with, for all intents and purposes, strangers that have been thrown together to often perform dreary, monotonous tasks day after day. This is where The Office strikes a chord as much now as it did with those 20 plus years ago. Many of us have a boss, and all know someone that displays the traits of someone featured in the show. Whether it be a monotone bore such as Keith, or the arse kissing lapdog that is Gareth, these dynamics will outlast us all and the relationships between co-workers will always be relatable, however flat our computer screens get.
The wheel was not reinvented overnight. There was a 1999 Comedy Lab pilot for Channel 4 in which Gervais played a David Bowie-obsessed manager of a video rental company. There were shades of The Office but it was too broad – when it failed to be picked up for a full series the writers could hardly have believed that they would be working with the Thin White Duke himself within a decade.
Whilst the episodes in Series 1 & 2 are masterpieces in themselves, the Christmas specials are really where their lasting impact can be felt with regards to longevity of terrestrial TV screen time real estate. Just like it isn’t Christmas until you’ve seen Die Hard (A controversial choice for many), Elf or It’s a wonderful life, it isn’t Christmas for an enormous amount of people before they’ve watched The Office Christmas specials and the heart-warming finale. Something that many fans of The Office will tell you is the most perfect ending to a show of all time.
Occasionally with art, everything comes together and perfectly captures a moment. Gervais will continue to plug every new project like Noel Gallagher, claiming it’s the best thing he’s ever done. He’d be better off taking a leaf out of Joseph Heller’s book. The author of ‘Catch-22’ was frequently asked why he’d never written another book as good as his debut and, like Brent when asked if he’d rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss, his answer was always the same: “Who has?”.
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