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.

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  • 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]

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