The Office: Who knew selling paper could be so funny?

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The offices of a paper merchant is hardly the go-to situation in which to set a comedy series – yet that’s exactly the scenario that inspired one of the most original and successful television comedies since the millennium. We look back at The Office twenty-one years on.

When Ricky Gervais and Steven Marchant created the Office TV series for the BBC, they created a workplace and group of characters that established a whole new language and style for the British sitcom. It was so successful that it spawned spin-offs in the USA and Canada – both highly successful shows in their own right.

How on earth, as the Guardian asks, did a sitcom that prioritised footage of
photocopiers over proper jokes remake comedy in its image?

A mockumentary in the offices of a paper company

Twenty years after it debuted, the influence of the comedy series about a regional paper merchant, its long-suffering employees and their incredibly unprofessional boss still resonates.

The mockumentary was already an established comedy format, seen in movies such as This Is Spinal Tap, Bob Roberts and Drop Dead Gorgeous. However, the Office brought the format to TV comedy in way that spurred a whole new generation of mockumentary style shows, including Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, What We Do in the Shadows and The Comeback.

The original UK version of the show centres on paper office boss, David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais, who cowrote the series with Steven Merchant. His delusions and his defensive behaviour are the heart of the show.

Why set The Office in a paper business?

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant told The Office Ladies podcast, “We wanted the whole thing to feel tired. The office should feel tired — the people, the clothes. We always were very excited when the plants that we had on the set were slightly dying. We liked that idea. It’s that British approach. You know, you reflect the weather by just making shows that are depressing.”

For the American version of the show, adapted by Greg Daniels, the fictional paper and office supply sales company had a name change; becoming Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc. located in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The Office became a global success

The original British version of The Office started in 2001 and ran for two short seasons. Each season had six episodes, and there was a two-part Christmas special to finish things off. The Office became the first ever British comedy to win a Golden Globe, and when it aired on BBC America, it gained a small but feverishly devoted audience.

Its success encouraged NBC to remake The Office for a US audience, with Steve Carell as the star. In the show’s second series it found its own success by leaning into a more sentimental tone, with Steve Carrell’s character more of a misguided buffoon than mean boss.

The US version ran for nine seasons and 201 episodes, ending in 2013, before finding a new lease of life on Netflix. The Office has also been adapted in Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, France, Germany, Israel and, most recently, in India.

As Steven Merchant said, “We kind of created this thing in the lab and it went off and rampaged around the world on its own without us. And the idea that this show is having this sort of whole second life and, you know, audiences finding it again, I just think it’s such a thrill and an honour to be to be associated with it. So thank you.”

What now?