Alex Casey finds a role model in a 40-year-old bearded man from Slough. //
I still remember the first time I watched The Office. This was a time before Ricky Gervais got bronzed and ripped and spent 99% of his time yelling about how God doesn’t exist. This was a time before Stephen Merchant starred in The Rock’s Tooth Fairy film. I was 11 years old, and it aired on TV One on a Thursday night. My comedy shaman father forced me to stay up and watch it with him – mostly so somebody could hold the aerial straight. The static fuzz faded and I saw Gareth’s stapler in the jelly. I was confused, but I was laughing. My small 11-year-old brain had never seen anything like it before, aside from maybe my very high-rotation VHS copy of Best in Show. Who’s to say if I thought it was real or not? I probably did. I only just found out The Trip isn’t real at age 23 so my chances aren’t looking too hot. Real or not, I knew immediately that it was important.
For any of you who have just been trapped under Dwayne the Rock Johnson for the past 14 years, The Office is a mockumentary-style sitcom following daily life at Wernham Hogg, a paper company poorly managed under the misguided efforts of David Brent. The audience watches with hands over eyes as he constantly struggles to find the balance between boss, friend and entertainer. Laughing at him that night digging out the jellified stapler, David Brent had laid down a chill, let’s-get-to-know-each-other type of vibe in my early pre-teens, but I had no idea just how far our relationship would go.
I came back to The Office at the start of high school, when my friend Geraldine and I watched the entire show back-to-back at her bach in Whangapoua one grey rainy Easter. We learnt the David Brent dance meticulously, performing it up and down the length of beach like crazed crabs and collapsing on the dunes in hysterics. We took pictures of ourselves posing like David Brent on a countertop. We played the music video for ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ again and again, tears streaming down our face every time he releases that goddamn dove. I have distinct memories of lying on our beds playing the ‘Brave New World’ game where we would choose our favourite people to start a new planet with. The top of my list: Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. It was an odd pairing, and would make for an appalling New World – but just goes to show that we were completely obsessed. As an early teen, David Brent was an icon of silliness, absurdity and pure joy. But I still wasn’t really seeing the whole pie. I was, quite frankly, looking at the pie through a keyhole.
As I grew a little older, The Office grew with me, burrowing itself deeper and deeper into my intrinsic make-up. My buddies and I would spend weekends with the curtains firmly closed, watching all of the special features and learning our favourite scenes off by heart. My skin crawls now to see the striking, almost pitch-perfect similarities between Brent’s poem ‘Excalibur’ and a poem I wrote when my Bebo ‘other half’ got a new girlfriend. That’s where our connection came from. I also rediscovered a song that I had written with my childhood friends called ‘Can’t You See? The World’s A Part of Me’ that could have been lifted straight from the ‘Training Day’ episode boardroom. There’s no logic to music, it’s art.
Despite the differences in geography, age and gender, the character of David Brent spoke so strongly to me. Perhaps it was the out-of-place awkwardness of being a teenager, the struggle to make new friends and be funny – but still have respect (but not too much respect). It took me adulthood to realise that this balancing act was not just a high school pressure. People talked of The Office as being excruciating, but I found it alleviating. It was the first time I had ever seen a character that seemed to struggle with human interaction as much as I did. Bear in mind that my teenagehood was just before Lena Dunham, Tina Fey and Zooey Deschenal burst onto to scene, giving young women a chance to revel in their weirdness. We had to look hard for it, and apparently the best thing I had was a 40-year-old bearded man from Slough wearing Sergio Georgini.
I got to know David Brent even better when I went to university, where he was placed among geniuses. Einstein. Newtown. Brent. Among many things, David Brent was discussed in documentary class as a prime example of what happens when a subject knows (or doesn’t know) that they are being watched. In this self-awareness we see painful representations of everyday failures – the small lies that we tell, the gross misjudging of ‘vibes’, the ringing silence of a joke fallen flat. He’s for anyone that has ever blown into a beer bottle to fill an awkward silence, or pretended to know a little too much about Dostoevsky. Gervais was an under-the-radar Michelangelo, carving his David not out of marble but of the solid fears, anxieties and embarrassments that come with being human. David Brent speaks to us all because he is so severely flawed. He has blind spots that, however amplified and caricatured, exist in all of us. And the fun part is, like him – we’ll never be able to see these flaws for what they actually are. C’est la vie.
Part of the genius of The Office (and Brent) is the eerily prophetic commentary on self-surveillance. David Brent self-consciously sneaking glances at the camera is more relevant today than ever before. In this bonkers social media climate with the Tinder and the Yahoo, we are all constantly under strict scrutiny by not only everyone around us, but primarily ourselves. We have been granted an element of control over our own image that has never existed before, and we’ve gone absolutely nuts on it. We proudly pin our tweets like David Brent pins Des’ree lyrics to his wall. We take cringey filtered selfies like David Brent once had taken of himself on a conference room table. We untag and alter our Facebook lives like David massages his age and interests on his dating profile. We are basically the constant online equivalent of “going home to get the guitar”. We exaggerate our good sides and glance nervously at the camera about the rest, desperately hoping we can untag and delete.
You don’t have to look very hard to see David Brent’s online incarnations – just have a cruise around the internet during election-time. Prime examples of people, just like Brent, trying to toe the line between relatability, authority and entertainment. And often failing miserably.
The reason David Brent as a character is so important is because he exists in everyone. We are all a bit David Brent. The beautiful thing is that if you don’t think you are, you might just be the biggest David Brent of all. And if you want even more of him in your life then I can make that dream come true to, a.k.a, for you. Gervais himself has recently made the most David-Brent-esque move of all time in announcing that he will reboot the character for a feature film in 2015. I’m nervous. This is no foregone conclusion, but I find it hard to see a difference between Brent desperately clinging onto bad impressions of Basil Fawlty and Gervais himself clinging onto Brent as a comedy character 14 years down the line.
political & climate reportersFind Out More
My biggest fear is that Brent will become a ghost of catchphrases and stick-on goatee beards, and David Brent D’Movie might just do this to him. Either way, there is no denying that David Brent will go down as one of the greatest comedy characters of all-time. May he live on forever in the small cough after a bombed joke, the blood of a desperately re-opened piercing and the lone ‘shamone’ after the chorus in a Pink song. Thank you David for the opportunity, thank you for the wisdom, thank you for the laughs.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.