“I’m a friend first and a boss second,” says David Brent, middle manager at the Slough branch of paper company Wernham-Hogg. “Probably an entertainer third.” Those of us who’ve watched the original British run of The Office — and especially those of us who still watch it regularly — will remember that and many other of Brent’s pitiable declarations besides. As portrayed by the show’s co-creator Ricky Gervais, Brent constitutes both The Office’s comedic and emotional core, at once a fully realized character and someone we’ve all known in real life. His distinctive combination of social incompetence and an aggressive desperation to be liked provokes in us not just laughter but a more complex set of emotions as well, resulting in one expression above all others: the cringe.
“In David Brent, we have a character so invested in the performance of himself that he’s blocked his own access to others’ feelings.” So goes the analysis of Evan Puschak, a.k.a. the Nerdwriter, in his video interpreting the humor of The Office through philosophical theories of mind.
The elaborate friend-boss-entertainer song-and-dance Brent constantly puts on for his co-workers so occupies him that he lacks the ability or even the inclination to have any sense of what they’re thinking. “The irony is that Brent can’t see that a weak theory of mind always makes for a weak self-performance. You can’t brute force your preferred personality onto another’s consciousness: it takes two to build an identity.”
Central though Brent is to The Office, we laugh not just at what he says and does, but how the other characters (which Puschak places across a spectrum of ability to understand the minds of others) react — or fail to react — to what he says and does, how he reacts to their reactions, and so on. Mastery of the comedic effects of all this has kept the original Office effective more than fifteen years later, though its effect may not be entirely pleasurable: “A lot of people say that cringe humor like this is hard to watch,” says Puschak, “but in the same way that under our confidence, in theory of mind, lies an anxiety, I think that under our cringing there’s actually a deep feeling of relief.” When Brent and others fail to connect, their “body language speaks in a way that is totally transparent: in that moment the embarrassment is not only palpable, it’s palpably honest.” And it reminds us that — if we’re being honest — none of us are exactly mind-readers ourselves.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.