It’s fair to say that most sitcoms will never be successful away from their own domestic audiences, but in the 10 years since the Office conquered the British workplace, and the world, Tom Leach explores how it taped in to the common European psyche?
Humour is an art that has transcended eras, but unlike many aspects of other forms of culture, comedy often fails to translate between different societies. The list of comedies that have taken one nation by storm but made no impact outside its domestic borders are endless; Icelandic comedy show Næturvaktin for instance was maybe as popular as actually possible in its native country; a subsequent film was seen by 20% of the population and the lead star later became mayor of Reykjavík, but the show saw almost no coverage in the rest of Europe.
The British sitcom the Office celebrated its tenth anniversary last weekend, and in the decade since it was first aired in the UK, it has undergone an incredible journey, in which the style and formula has not only proven to be immensely popular, but has had a massive impact on comedy throughout Europe. To date it has been shown in 88 different countries with eight remakes of the programme.
The most successful remake of the Office is the German ‘Stromberg’, which has long surpassed the British Office in terms of episodes as it enters its fifth season, and has become one of the most watched television shows in the German speaking world. Likewise, throughout Europe idiot bosses, awkward situations and workplace pranks have swept television sets, leaving a rarely unified European citizenry collectively laughing and cringing; with remakes in France, Russia, Israel (If you accept the UEFA classification of Russia and Israel as European) and a Swedish version in production.
It is easy to understand why many comedies cannot be translated between European cultures; puns and plays on language are the bread and butter for many sitcoms, as are topical and cultural references which may not be understood abroad. Frequently comedies’ success derives from understanding its own society; this may explain why sitcoms based on uniquely British culture, like Vicar of Dibley, Blackadder and Dad’s Army, have only enjoyed domestic success. Of course remakes of the Office have had to have been tweaked for new audiences; the French ‘le Bureau’ had pranks involving cheese rather than jelly, but the basic programme has remained unchanged, which begs the question, what is it about the Office that has meant it’s succeeded throughout Europe when other comedies have failed?
The Office encapsulates many aspects of everyday life that the modern European faces. For starters, more and more of the European population work in an office; moreover characters like the office suck up and annoying boss are pretty universal. Likewise, the whole of Europe can appreciate timeless cultural and literary themes such as a man being in love with a woman who is already taken (or vice versa).
Another factor behind the Office’s success has to be the excellent style that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were able to create. The distressingly real representation of the mundane nature of everyday life is truly brilliant and revolutionary. The actual atmosphere is as, if not more, important than the actual writing, character creation or even concept of the Office.
But the most important factor behind the Office’s success is the idea of the incompetent boss; who is much more than a comedy character, but represents frustration with social mobility, the lack of meritocracy, and the pursuit of money that has forced you into accepting an inept authority; this basic frustration is felt by every European at some point.
If therefore having a terrible boss truly is a basic unifier for the European citizenry; then perhaps having Tony Blair as the EU President may not have been the worst thing after all.