David Brent and The British “Office”: The Sadness Beneath The Laughs
January 28, 2013
I just finished the British “Office,” more than a decade after it aired. As others have said, it might be the smartest, funniest sitcom in TV history.
Its brilliance lies in its honesty, yet ridiculousness, in its poignant capturing of the alienation we all feel – from the work and colleagues we’re supposed to care about, to the feelings and realities of our own lives, which we’re supposed to know – but don’t.
Most of the show’s jokes target boss and protagonist David Brent, masterfully played by Ricky Gervais. Beneath the epic laughs at David Brent, though, lies a tragedy just as great, and which appears to have gone unnoticed amidst all of the buzz that the show has generated over the last decade – hundreds of millions of viewers have seen the British Office or its remakes in America, Chile, France, Germany, Sweden, Israel, and coming soon, China.
This post sheds a light on that tragedy – of the boy that Brent once was, the pain he felt but no one cared or knew to see, and how that shaped the man he became.
Brent sits in the pantheon of comedy’s greatest characters, and it’s his desperation to be liked that fuels the humor. Everything he does is “as if” – as if he were that kind of guy whom others so admire.
He’s an athlete (“squash,” nonchalant face),
and even a singer songwriter – so eager to prove it, that he always choosing the wrong time for song, such as Dawn’s brief split with Lee.
He’s even fashionable (but doesn’t care too much about it):
The most blatant example of Brent’s “as if” syndrome takes place when an industry publication comes to interview him, and he’s incapable of having a normal conversation. Instead of answering the writer’s questions, he replies with snippets of how he hopes the article will read.
The writer: “Would you like to tell me about your individual outlook on management?”
Brent leans back and puts his feet on the desk: “Sure. Put…‘David Brent is refreshingly laid back for a man with such responsibility.’”
Frustrated, the writer asks him to answer in his own words.
Brent proceeds: “Right. ‘Brent mused, and then replied…’”
She cuts him off, and they haggle for a moment over getting Brent to simply answer her questions.
“Well, your question, I suppose,” he continues, “was, ‘Is it difficult to remain authoritative and yet so popular’?”
* * *
I’ll bet that most people watching The Office simply laugh at Brent, gleeful to find insecurity laid so brilliantly bare.
He reminds us of friends or colleagues, or with a shudder, the less secure parts of ourselves.
On a countdown show about Britain’s greatest comedies, the actor John O’Farrell observes that Brent was
“a brilliant example of how stupid men think they’re great. And in every office in the country, there’s a stupid man who thinks he’s great.”
I bet most people would describe Brent that way. But I can’t reduce his issues to stupidity. He has some intelligence. He’s risen to regional manager; he suffers fools in his office; there’s even a certain cleverness in some of his schemes, such as tricking Dawn, no fool mind you, into believing she’s been fired.
Far more than intelligence, desperation is Brent’s problem. So massive is his desperation that he can allow no obstacle to block him from winning others’ esteem. All needs succumb to that one.
After a colleague’s dance performance at an office party earns a rousing reception, Brent challenges him to a dance-off, then goes so overboard that his coworkers stop humming the beat that allows his dance to happen in the first place. They just stand in shock. Brent picks up the tune himself (while dancing!), to ensure he gets his shot at glory.
A tragedy begins to reveal itself: why is Brent this desperate for love?
Why is he so willing to risk humiliation for it? And why does he take this failing gamble, at every chance he gets?
A clear logic emerges in his character, pointing to a specific type of experience in early life, when our characters and selves are at their most formative.
Alison Gopnik is a preeminent developmental psychologist at UC Berkeley, and she writes about this logic in her latest book The Philosophical Baby:
“Most psychologists think that babies…develop ‘internal working models’ of how other people will respond to them. These models…are theories of love… They are casual maps of care…based on the evidence babies have about the people around them.”
These models appear to remain with us for the rest of our lives – it’s hard to understate how much they shape us.
Deborah Blum touches on this in her beautiful biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest researchers on love and attachment, Harry Harlow:
“In essence, Harry said, one good relationship opens the way to the next… our ability to make…later relationships may well depend on what each child gets from his or her parents. We learn about love and connection starting in the first microseconds of our lives. For better or worse, those lessons last us a lifetime… if we don’t have a secure attachment as a child, we may struggle throughout our lives to feel secure…”
David Brent never learned to love. He never learned that he was lovable.
He learned that love was for others, and to get it, he would have to be “others.”
Watching him plead for the esteem of his coworkers or the viewers of the BBC documentary being filmed about his office, I started to imagine what kind of environment he grew up in.
What could have shaped him to be this way? What kind of parents did he learn this version of “love” from?
I think I get a sense from words on this topic by neuroscientist Bruce Perry, chief of child psychiatry at Baylor University:
“You smile at your mother. She doesn’t smile back. You want to be hugged. She’s busy; she pushes you away. You ask a question and she doesn’t look at you when she answers.”
As French victimologist Marie-France Hirigoyen writes in her book Stalking The Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity,
“The details, taken separately, seem harmless, but added together, they show a destructive process… Abusive remarks and allusions create an environment of negative conditioning… Children who are victims of such abuse don’t complain about their mistreatment; on the contrary, they endlessly seek approval, which is unforthcoming, from the rejecting parent. They create a negative self-image (I am a nothing), which they accept…”
David Brent’s behavior suggests a broken internal working model of love. It suggests that when he was a boy, nothing could earn his young, vulnerable, and dependent self the respect and love that he needed to grow into a secure adult. Embedded in him was sense that something profoundly more, and unobtainable, was needed.
That feeling can last, and define, a lifetime.
As Alice Miller – whose writing on these issues is exceptionally sensitive and perceptive – describes a grown-up woman who emerged from this type of childhood:
“she invariably attempted to assert [her] needs in situations where it was impossible to fulfill them.”
That’s David Brent.
I don’t get a sense of violence about Brent – I don’t think he was physically abused much, as so many others unfortunately suffer. But I do pick up an overwhelming emotional neglect in him.
We all know David Brents in our lives. As funny as they are on TV, they’re just as poisonous to run into in real life.
“David Brent doesn’t represent evil, or nastiness or even ignorance,” Gervais himself has written. But I disagree. Brent’s insecurities make him evil, nasty, and ignorant; they make him cruelly selfish, mean, unfair, and dishonest.
He treats Dawn like a doormat, praying it’ll make him seem important. That she feels humiliated isn’t something notices or cares about.
(here’s the full speech - genius!)
He talks incessantly over the words of a workshop trainer, so threatening does he find the man’s momentary authority over the office to his own.
At his most threatened, Brent leaps onto a moral high horse, giving righteous lashings to those around him.
You get a sense of Brent’s parents in how he treats Gareth, the insecure underling often found slavishly seeking his recognition, probably like Brent once did with his own parents. As Gareth’s boss, Brent undermines him with almost every comment (even when they happen to agree):
In Brent’s blindness to the feelings of those around him, his own past neglect reemerges subtly but powerfully. As Miller writes, one’s ability to feel empathy
“cannot develop in the absence of loving care. The child who grows up neglected, emotionally starved…will forfeit this capacity…
“The cruelty they experienced turn[s] them into emotional cripples, incapable of developing any empathy for the suffering of others…
“Character,” – which Brent has so little of – “depends crucially upon whether a person is given love, protection, tenderness, and understanding in the formative years or exposed to rejection, coldness, indifference, and cruelty…
“I never cease to be amazed by the precision with which people often reproduce their parents’ behavior.”
There are rare moments in the show when Brent stops acting “as if.” He relaxes into something more genuine. Tellingly and tragically, it’ when he finds the chance to revel in someone else’s humiliation.
(“Life! Life!” he shouts an intern whom he’s just beaten in a pub quiz by rigging the rules. For Brent, the groundless, unfair twisting of rules to humiliate a lowly intern probably WAS what his own life experiences had taught him “life” was about.)
Does David Brent mean to be evil? I don’t think so, and to Gervais’ credit, I think that’s what he means, even if he doens’t spell it out as clearly. I think Brent’s just too unconsciously preoccupied with love he needed but lacked in earlier life, to have any capacity to care for what others are feeling now. That poison your actions with evil, regardless of what you intend.
“My impression is rather that profound inner alienation was the only state he had ever experienced. Thus he was probably entirely unaware…that he was playing a role.” – Alice Miller
Why do I write this post? Because I sense that the reaction to Brent has been just to laugh and see him as “that guy,” the jerk whose stupidity we should mock.
But the issue isn’t his stupidity, and it isn’t “that guy” on TV – it’s desperation, and it’s us. There’s a bit of Brent in everyone.
I wish I didn’t find myself at the other end of Brentish pettiness from time to time. My heart sags when I see people stooping to his level of desperation. And I wish I didn’t have shades of him in me.
I wish millions of real children right now weren’t suffering like fictional Brent once did – ignored, alone, teary eyed, and stomachs aching, with no sense of how to handle their pain beyond willingly forgetting it, burying it in the depths of their psyches, and unwittingly planting the seeds for later-life behaviors that will alienate those around them. I wish these kids had a shoulder to cry on.
There’s a cycle in this suffering, and from our ignorance and denial, it perpetuates.
Don’t worry: noticing these dynamics doesn’t make “The Office” less funny – my mom had to ask me why I kept laughing hysterically as I watched and compiled the clips for this post.
But it might make us feel a little happier, a little bit more connected.
I don’t think Gervais understands Brent’s character in the depth and clarity I lay out in this post. Not consciously, at least. Unconsciously, he does. His instincts are unerring – only Gervais can imagine and play Brent like he can. But that doesn’t mean he can explain him as deeply. The fact that Gervais or Stephen Merchant might not have consciously set out to tell a backstory of childhood neglect doesn’t mean they aren’t doing so, anyway – that their comedic instincts aren’t tapping into a logic of tragedy of which they’re consciously only somewhat aware.
In a similar way, Roger Federer might be one of the last people you should ask to explain the grace and brilliance of what he does on a tennis court. That task was saved for David Foster Wallace. It’s at the unconscious level, though, where a Gervais, a Federer, and so many other elite performers “get it,” and in following these instincts, perform so brilliantly – Gervais’ comedic instincts tap into and reveal this deeper logic of childhood pain and neglect. A lot of artists function this way – they’re more instinctually brilliant and aware than they are consciously so – and in reading Gervais’ take on David Brent, I was struck by the limits of his awareness about what made Brent tick..