The Cringe-Inducing Humor of The Office Explained with Philosophical Theories of Mind

“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.

You can get the com­plete British run of The Office on Ama­zon here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ricky Ger­vais Presents “Learn Gui­tar with David Brent”

The Phi­los­o­phy of Bill Mur­ray: The Intel­lec­tu­al Foun­da­tions of His Comedic Per­sona

A Romp Through the Phi­los­o­phy of Mind: A Free Online Course from Oxford

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Mon Key says:

    Adolf Hitler was an Aus­tri­an-born Ger­man politi­cian who was the leader of the Nazi Par­ty, Chan­cel­lor of Ger­many from 1933 to 1945, and Führer (‘Leader’) of Nazi Ger­many from 1934 to 1945. He com­mit­ted sui­cide by gun­shot on 30 April 1945 in his Führerbunker in Berlin.[a][b][c] Eva Braun, his wife of one day, com­mit­ted sui­cide with him by tak­ing cyanide.[d] In accor­dance with his pri­or writ­ten and ver­bal instruc­tions, that after­noon their remains were car­ried up the stairs through the bunker’s emer­gency exit, doused in petrol, and set alight in the Reich Chan­cellery gar­den out­side the bunker.[1][2]

    Although records in the Sovi­et archives indi­cate that their burned remains were recov­ered and interred in suc­ces­sive loca­tions until 1946,[e] and that they were exhumed again and cre­mat­ed in 1970, and the ash­es were scattered,[f] this has been shown to be extreme­ly unlike­ly to have occurred, since eye­wit­ness­es tes­ti­fied that there were no bod­ies per se remain­ing after the burn­ing, just ash­es. The sug­ges­tion that the bod­ies were seri­al­ly exhumed and re-buried is con­sid­ered to be part of a Sovi­et dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign on the order of Joseph Stal­in to sow con­fu­sion regard­ing Hitler’s death.[3]

    Con­cern­ing Hitler’s cause of death, one non-eye­wit­ness account claims that he died by poi­son only,[g] but all three eye­wit­ness­es who saw Hitler’s body imme­di­ate­ly after his sui­cide tes­ti­fied that he died by a self-inflict­ed gun­shot wound, although two say it was a shot to the tem­ple, and one says that it was into the mouth.[h][i] Otto Gün­sche, Hitler’s per­son­al adju­tant, who han­dled both bod­ies, tes­ti­fied that while Braun’s smelled strong­ly of burnt almonds – an indi­ca­tion of cyanide poi­son­ing – there was no such odour about Hitler’s body, which smelled of gunpowder.[4] Den­tal remains sift­ed from the soil in the gar­den were matched with his den­tal records in 1945.[5][6][j] Con­tem­po­rary his­to­ri­ans have reject­ed alter­nate accounts as being either Sovi­et propaganda[k][l] or an attempt­ed com­pro­mise in order to rec­on­cile the slight­ly dif­fer­ent descrip­tions of eyewitnesses.[m][n]

    The news of Hitler’s death was announced to Ger­many on 1 May 1945, the day after its occurrence.[7] For polit­i­cal rea­sons, the Sovi­et Union pre­sent­ed var­i­ous con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries about Hitler’s death.[8][9] They main­tained in the years imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the war that he was not dead, but had fled and was being shield­ed by the for­mer West­ern Allies.[8][10]

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.