“It’s a good cause [Comic Relief]…..I just don’t want to have to join in with someone else’s idea of wackiness. It’s the wackiness I can’t stand.”
Tim Canterbury, Episode 5, Series 2, The Office
After 10 years of saying he would never bring back The Office or David Brent, Ricky Gervais did ten minutes of Brent, and a video for his character’s political reggae song ‘Equality Street’, for BBC’s Comic Relief on 15th March. The laugh, the look-to-the-camera, the attempt to be 15 years younger – the Brentisms were all there for everyone to enjoy.
There was a huge amount to hold sacred in The Office and David Brent, mainly because we were originally left with only twelve episodes and a special. A friend described to me how the ending’s strength owed a lot to the viewer being able to make up their own mind about what would follow, just as with The Sopranos. Would Tim and Dawn stay at Wernham Hogg? Would Gareth continue to be the boss? Part of us really believed Brent had found a long-term partner in Carol, his Christmas party date; he wanted to try her Thai food, and she laughed when his jokes weren’t funny.
Now we’re told exactly where he is and what he’s doing. But Brent would not have lost weight and got into shape, or got a tan, as Gervais has. If you’re going to do one of the greatest characters in television, do him properly. And as we are treated to the full meaning of his song ‘The Serpent That Guards The Gates Of Hell’, we learn Brent had a fiancée who cheated on him, and we’re suddenly meant to believe that Brent had been through a failed engagement pre-Office, which doesn’t really fit with what we had previously seen of him.
Gervais had been developing his ‘Seedy Boss’ character since the mid-1990s, and with Stephen Merchant he spent years writing and perfecting the character into the finished article of David Brent. They spent three years casting the supporting characters, just to surround him with the perfect team. This ten-minute sketch, on the other hand, was clearly hashed together at the last minute in no time at all, with what seems like no contribution from Merchant, whose input to both The Office and Extras should never be underestimated.
And all for Comic Relief, an institution that does great charity work but, in comedic terms, is an expert in the lowest common denominator. It has Michael MacIntyre observing us into oblivion, and lauds James Corden as a comedy icon. Nick Grimshaw getting into a bathtub full of beans is surely the best indicator of the level at which the organisation aims. Why is Gervais even associating with this institution, let alone in the form of his best and most prized creation?
Of course the new segment had lots of funny moments – Brent is the funniest character in British comedy after all. But none of the jokes were new: shouting ‘Charlie’ to the pensioner in the pub and getting no reply just as he shouted ‘Taffy’ to Glyn in the warehouse; shouting outdated, awkward show catchphrases such as “Feck” and ‘Arse’ (Father Ted) just as he did The Muppets’ catchphrases to Dawn; getting out the car and trying to look sophisticated as he holds cleaning products, just as he did in the Christmas Special.
He even reused “sue me”. All these things together have brought Brent closer and closer to a catchphrase character the like of which Gervais demonized in his Extras’ creation, Ray ‘Are You Havin’ A Laugh?’ Stokes. How could you improve on The Office’s reputation? Certainly not by making the same jokes again, ten years on, all for the enjoyment of the BBC1 Friday night crowd.
Brent was funny because of his relation to the other Office characters, and, even when he had been fired in the specials, he spent much of it in the office (tragically), his natural comic environment. The monstrosity of the character Brent put on for the cameras was painstakingly obvious, but the characters (Tim, Dawn etc) couldn’t say so because he was their boss and they had to respect him – they could only let the camera know what they really thought with a simple look of bemusement.
But the studio manager in the new sketch is making explicit Brent’s buffoonery by calling him the “middle aged man in a polyester suit”. He says “horrendous, absolutely horrendous’” to end the sketch, which The Office, written properly (with Merchant), would have left obvious but unsaid. Lower levels of subtlety and sophistication were required, as heaven forbid the Comic Relief crowd might be at risk of not understanding the joke.
The YouTube video of the sketch ends with “Click To Subscribe For More Ricky Gervais”, making clear his quest for as much exposure and as many hits as possible. Gervais asked Twitter whether they’d want a series of free YouTube sing-a-long tutorials with Brent, going through his favourite songs. Of course, the overwhelming response was positive, and now Gervais has agreed to do them, with ‘Freelove Freeway’ the subject of Episode One. The Brent character is dying a death of a thousand YouTube hits, reduced to nothing but a meme, to stand alongside the Sneezing Panda and Charlie Bit My Finger, ruined by over-use.
Gervais realizes each project he does is popular, and this self-awareness doesn’t help – his first two presentations of the Golden Globes were hilarious, but the third time he just knew he was funny. Unlike Daniel Kitson or Stewart Lee, he doesn’t curb this popularity to retain a cult following and a critically pure status, but he pushes for more exposure, more hits, until we are all retweeting him in unison.
A parody Chris Finch twitter account last week tweeted to Gervais “Brent you fat bastard it’s yer good friend Chris Finch” to which Gervais replied “I thought I told you to fuck off”. In sending that line to his four millions followers, ripe for trending and being made into a hashtag, Gervais is trivialising one of the greatest lines in television.
The YouTube videos will bring us to a sadder and sadder saturation of Brent, just as with the animated shows of Gervais, Merchant and Karl Pilkington’s podcasts and audiobooks for Channel 4. We didn’t need a cartoon monkey on a screen to find Karl Pilkington’s Monkey News funny. And we don’t need Brent saying “Guilty, sue me” again, ten years on, to laugh at it. It was Comic Relief wackiness, and as with a lot of things, this is an issue on which we should stand with Tim Canterbury.