A middle-aged white man, the boss of a small company, smiles broadly at a room of employees as he launches into an elaborate setup for an insulting and infuriating joke that many on his team find offensive. He builds up to the big finish, pauses after the punch line and -- silence.
A lead character with no comic timing may not seem very funny, but this is a typical scene from NBC's breakout comedy hit of the last two years, "The Office." This American hit television show was not created in the Hollywood hills, or anywhere in America, for that matter. The inspiration was a British series that aired originally on a fringe BBC channel.
The show's creators, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, recently sat down with ABC to talk about their own office misadventures, their philosophy of comedy and the bright future they might owe to their not-so-bright colleague.
"The Office" has spread not just to America, but to a total of five countries around the world, each with its own version of the show. It seems that Merchant and Gervais have tapped into some universal truths about the modern workplace.
The American boss who turns private embarrassments into public events, Michael Scott, is played by Steve Carell, a breakout star himself.
But the inspiration for Carell's character is perhaps even more unbearable. The character David Brent was the brainchild of Gervais and Merchant, and was played by Gervais in the BBC version of the show.
Gervais and Merchant were working together at a radio station in London when Merchant asked Gervais to perform in a short film he was making. In one feverish moment, David Brent was born.
"He just stood in front of the camera and performed this character, and it just came out of the box fully formed," Merchant recalls.
"He's not malicious. He's free falling," Gervais says of his character. "His worst crime is, I suppose, mistaking respect for popularity."
"The Office," in its original British incarnation, is set at a paper supply company in a city west of London. Brent's hilarious faux pas are the show's bread and butter, punctuated by static shots of workers silently typing or the unattended copy machine churning out papers. The boredom of the setting is fastidiously reinforced.
An environment that's tedious for its own sake seems an unlikely setting for drama or comedy, but Gervais and Merchant say the familiar setting is the show's strength. They created "The Office," they say, out of their frustration that most TV comedies had no connection to reality.
"We didn't want everyone talking like, you know, Joey and Chandler. 'Cause, you know, as great as 'Friends' is, it's not real life," Gervais says.
Instead, by setting the show in an inherently undramatic environment, the challenge became extreme precision.
"Could we pinpoint life in an office so accurately that people were just amused by just minor details?" Merchant says. "No big plots, no big dramas, just the silly things about arguing over a stapler, or your chair."
"It wasn't really about selling paper, it was about relationships," Gervais says. "Because in comedy and drama, the most important single element is empathy."
The show's setting is not only familiar to the audience, but to its creators, as well.