Stephen Merchant

(Excerpt from Stephen Merchant interview)

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 wasn’t 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 show’s 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 didn’t 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 it’s 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.

When you consider some of the great comedians, such as Charlie Chaplin or Woody Allen or the Marx Brothers, they all went through a lengthy process in developing their comic personas, either onstage or elsewhere. Even the animated Homer Simpson character took some time to fully develop. But the David Brent character seemed to emerge fully formed from the beginning—an amazing feat.

In a weird way, Ricky’s lack of formal training and his lack of ambition are why that character is so strong. He doesn’t have any of the pretensions or the tricks that a lot of actors have. Ricky just approaches acting from what seems the most real. What would this character say? How would he act? It’s almost as though Ricky had been storing all this up for years—just taking in observations by osmosis while he was working in offices, and it just seeped into him. He seemed to know exactly how this character would think about everything, and that was remarkable.

But actually, the David Brent character did evolve slightly from when he was first created. The original was a little bit more vindictive and spiteful than he would ultimately become. In the pilot, the character is a little bit malicious. In one scene, he turned on Dawn, the receptionist. She made a comment about his drinking, and he launches into her. That was something we eventually toned down. We wanted people to fall in love with David Brent in a strange way and to realize he’s not such a terrible person. He’s just mixed-up, and he’s trying too hard.

Hollywood always talks about “likeability.” This character has to be likeable, that character has to be likeable. But the David Brent character is not likeable in the traditional Hollywood sense.

I’ve never really understood that idea of likeability. When the executives did the preview tests on the American version, audiences were given a knob to turn. “Do you like this character? Do you dislike this character?” The problem with doing something like this is that audiences aren’t supposed to really like Brent at first. I mean, of course you’re going to turn the knobs to the DISLIKE section! If you give someone a knob, they’ll turn it. But is that representative of how you watch TV? Or anything? It’s crazy. If you go to a movie, say a new Jack Nicholson film, do you always like Jack Nicholson? Well, no. Sometimes he’s a villain. He kills people. Should you then cut him out of the movie? Everyone knows and understands that he’s part of the dramatic dynamic.

When we first showed The Office to test audiences in Britain, we received one of the lowest scores ever—the only show that beat ours was one that featured women’s lawn bowling. That’s why you can’t judge these focus groups. It’s madness, because you need time for characters to crawl under your skin and for worlds to sink into your subconscious and get into your blood. I think that’s what the best sitcoms are about, such as Cheers, Seinfeld, Roseanne, and all those shows—they’re about creating an environment in which you want to return and poke around for another half-hour.

I think that especially holds true for comedy. Two-dimensional characters aren’t necessarily as funny as three-dimensional, fully-formed characters, who may not be as endearing at first glance.

It really frustrates me. I always think of some of my favorite movie comedies, such as The King of Comedy. The Rupert Pupkin character is in so many ways dislikeable, and yet he remains completely endearing and compelling to watch. That movie will never be a popular mainstream film, but for the kind of movie it tried to be, it succeeded magnificently…

Design by Todd Jackson