Jan. 5, 2006 — -- 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.
Both Gervais and Merchant grew up in comfortable middle class homes with stable families. Unlike many of their comedic forebears, they had no childhood trauma to mine for comedy, and so they were forced to look elsewhere.
"If you don't come from such an extraordinary background where you have to deal with, you know, racial prejudices and so on, what do, as Ricky says, a couple, white middle class from a fairly cozy background, draw on?" Merchant says.
"People in a fairly cozy middle class life -- but in relationships they didn't really want to be in, they settled for second best, they didn't pursue their dreams…those are very real things to a lot of people. And for us, that's as dramatic as Tony Soprano having to dispose of a body."
That philosophy has translated well across national boundaries and turned Gervais and Merchant into a wild global success.
The British version of "The Office" quickly garnered a cult following, critics around the world fell in love with it and the show eventually picked up numerous awards, including two Golden Globes.
Though Gervais and Merchant insisted that their show not continue beyond its limited run of 12 episodes and a Christmas special on BBC2, they have aggressively franchised their creation. Not just the United States but Canada, France, and Germany now each have their own "Office."
"They're thinking of going to Guatemala," Gervais quips.
Maybe not Guatemala yet, but definitely Hollywood. The success of "The Office" has helped Gervais land roles in major network shows and movies. In what he says is his greatest honor to date, Gervais received a personal invitation to write an episode and voice a character on "The Simpsons," Fox's long-running animated satire.
Just as impressive are the things Gervais has turned down: "The Da Vinci Code," "Mission Impossible III," and "Pirates of the Caribbean," to name a few.
Instead, he and Merchant holed up to focus on their most recent foray into off-beat comedy. The second season of "Extras," a show about struggling actors, arrives on American shores next month on HBO.
Gervais says it is a more traditional comedy than "The Office," but, like that show, its focus is human relationships.
The popularity of "The Office" has created an all-star list of Hollywood celebrities itching to guest star on "Extras." Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller, and Robert DeNiro have each appeared -- all in the name of self-mockery.
Back in the United Kingdom, Gervais and Merchant's latest vehicle for their comedy doesn't involve any television network at all. They have gone back to their roots of radio in a podcast, available for download from the Web site of the British newspaper, Guardian, and from Web sites like www.audible.com.
In each show, Merchant and Gervais are joined by Karl Pilkington, a nondescript bloke from northern England. "I always think of him as a kind of real-life Homer Simpson," Merchant says.
Gervais and Merchant don't mince words about the quality of their co-host. "What's the PC word? Stupid, I think," Gervais says, but they admit he's indispensable.
Their swift and hilarious dismantlings of Pilkington have proven hugely successful for the Ricky Gervais Show: The podcast has been downloaded over 2 million times, enough to land them in the Guinness Book of World Records.
"It's great," Gervais says. "But then again, in the Guinness Book of Records, there's people who walk the furthest with a milk bottle on [their] head."