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The British “mockumentary” The Office, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, is, as the genre dictates, a combination of a sitcom and a documentary. By parodying a documentary and thus blurring the distinction between the two genres, this new comic genre induces what Richard Kilborn has termed “knowing laughter”. While the characters in the later American version of the series are played with a “passivity, which mingles with rueful hopefulness” the characters in the British office are portrayed as juggling attitudes of resignation and self-loathing (Krocula, 161). Ricky Gervais portrays David Brent, the sleazy middle management director of a nondescript paper company. Brent is a sexist, racist, homophobe, who also considers himself a comedian and a rock star. The mock documentary genre allows David (and the other members of his office staff) to talk directly to the camera, giving him ample opportunity to explain his management philosophy and show his talent as a would-be comedian. Both make us cringe with embarrassment and laugh, often in spite of ourselves. Using elements developed in humour theory, this paper wishes to examine The Office through the specificities of the genre of the “mockumentary” so as to try and establish how the sitcom genre is achieved through the conventions of the documentary genre. It will then look into Kilborn’s concept of “knowing laughter” to try and determine how humor based on such obvious bad taste does indeed make us laugh and the ethical dimension of this laughter. Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan placed laughter in the sphere of human pleasures, but his definition of it as “an individual’s sudden joy in attaining imaginary power” was used in the Restoration to disqualify laughter. Hobbes describes laughter as a “distortion of the countenance” and sees it as an integral part of one’s drive to improve one’s position in society and thus become superior to other human beings. There is no doubt that Brent considers himself a superior human being and his humiliating humor is targeted at everyone, be they overweight or disabled, The only person who is off target is himself. I will examine the malaise, which is so characteristic of the series, and try and show how it is so finely orchestrated. The perception of difference in The Office is constantly magnified but never obviously abated. If it is clear that the show recognizes the Other it is not so clear the mock documentary genre is successful in aiding in the acceptance of the Other.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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