The genius of Gervais and Merchant owes more to American comedies of manners than to Fawlty Towers.
So now we know. Contrary to Jonathan Ross’s joke about Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant being ‘one-trick ponies’, their follow up to The Office – Extras, which came to an end on BBC2 last week – showed that their insightful comedy skills are no one-off. Once again, they traded in the comedy of social awkwardness with a rare degree of humanity and intelligence. At times it was done in excruciating, foot-chewing detail. At others, it was, well, very funny indeed.
Gervais played Andy Millman, the ex-bank worker turned actor (or ‘supporting artist’, to be more accurate) desperate for fame and, if nothing else, a grabbed line with a Hollywood A-list star. Together with close friend Maggie Jacobs, played to perfection by Ashley Jensen, Millman was seen hustling the likes of Ben Stiller, Ross Kemp and Samuel L Jackson for a speaking part. A mixture of his own gauche manner and Maggie’s hole-digging quips meant that things never quite happened.
At first it would be easy – and wrong – to paint Andy Millman as simply David Brent minus the beard. Instead, Millman was someone to laugh with rather than at. He was capable of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it putdowns that were bitingly funny. And unlike Brent, Millman was seemingly weighed down with a bitter sense of personal failure. He was also more likely to be irritated by, than irritating to, other people. So far, so different. But was Extras as consistently exceptional as The Office? Well, not quite.
The Office’s main strength was a large supporting cast that provided fertile ground for gags and observations. A bit-part character like Finchy, for instance, was as memorable as lead characters Brent and Gareth. In Extras, with much of the focus on Andy and Maggie, occasionally scenes passed by too easily. Some of the plot devices, such as Maggie’s endless racial gaffs in episode four, seemed over-egged and unconvincing. But these are minor glitches. At its best – namely the coruscating episode with Les Dennis – Extras reached the same rarefied plane as The Office.
If the real heart of The Office was the unrequited love between Tim and Dawn, in Extras the real story was the friendship, and the idiosyncrasies of friendship, between Andy and Maggie. Andy cannot tolerate other people’s quirks and eccentricities, but he does Maggie’s. This is because shared experiences forge strong bonds that might appear inexplicable to anybody else. There was a wonderful scene when Maggie phoned Andy and instead of formal introductions she launched straight into one of her off-beam questions. It’s exactly what close friends do, and it’s such pin-sharp detail that puts Gervais and Merchant so far ahead of the comedy game.
It’s worth noting just how three-dimensional their female characters are. Too often female leads are moulded around soap opera archetypes and wooden clichés. But both Dawn and Maggie showed their hopes and disappointments in a very individual display of frowns, grimaces and bit lips. Ashley Jensen’s Maggie in particular exuded that gnawing gloom of singledom in a far more convincing way than, say, the hysterical Bridget Jones. Gervais and Merchant may ostensibly be comedy writers, but they’re crafty at drama without the dramatics.
Hopefully, Extras will have shrugged off any inaccurate comparisons made between Gervais and Merchant’s work and other British sitcoms. The pair have always tub-thumped the best of American comedy and their work is clearly indebted to it. Mark Lawson once argued that reality TV is a good thing because without it we wouldn’t have The Office. That simply isn’t true. The Office’s documentary style was actually based on Rob Reiner’s immortal film This is Spinal Tap, a spoof ‘rockumentary’ on a fading Brit metal act. Elsewhere, the comedy of manners in The Office and Extras bears all the hallmarks of Larry David’s deathless 1990s comedy Seinfeld and more recently his Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s no surprise that Ben Stiller and Samuel L Jackson wanted in on Extras – they ‘got’ The Office because its style is notably American. What, if anything, has it got to do with Fawlty Towers?
For much of the British media, though, such facts are hard to stomach. American comedy has often been shunted around the network schedules with arrogant disregard. There’s almost a Colonel Blimp prejudice that Americans don’t understand comedy and, surely, that’s one thing we do better than the irony-free Yanks? Thankfully, Gervais and Merchant understand otherwise. It’s notable that while Gervais has flatly turned down domestic offers, he has agreed to star in Christopher Guest’s (Best in Show) next film and to write an episode for The Simpsons.
Of course, in the past decade British comedy has become rejuvenated and sometimes very good (look out for Peepshow on Channel 4 in the autumn). Yet the move away from sitcom banalities and clanking catchphrases towards a subtler but more shocking comedy brand was largely pioneered by Stateside comedians. Either way, such influence on British comedy can only be a good thing.
Contemporary comedy has become noteworthy because it often captures prevailing zeitgeists in a way that TV drama does not. More importantly, when TV producers deem that we are only worthy of reality TV gibbons or insulting ‘makeover’ programmes, it is heartening that the likes of Gervais and Merchant never underestimate the public’s intelligence. Extras or EastEnders? There is really no competition. These ‘one-trick ponies’ have plenty of kick to come.
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