Ricky Gervais Writes ‘The Office,’ But Is It Any Different?

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Photo: NBC

The British were coming! The British were coming! And this time we colonials were looking forward to it. Last night's episode of The Office — the American version, airing on NBC — was written by Ricky Gervais, the creator of the original, British version of the show, and his writing partner, Stephen Merchant. It was a big moment for TV-comedy geeks — but did it live up to the anticipation? New York's very own TV-comedy geeks, Adam Sternbergh and Emily Nussbaum, tuned in to find out.

Nussbaum: So, what'd you think?

Nussbaum: You're a huge Office fan, no?

Sternbergh: I am, it's true.

Sternbergh: Like most, I like the American one but revere the British one.

Sternbergh: So it was nice, for one night, to be able to put aside the international squabbling

Nussbaum: Yes, it's good to shut our ears to the war and enjoy one night of laughter.

Nussbaum: Oh, you mean because it was written by Ricky Gervais.

Sternbergh: Correct.

Sternbergh: Even though I know he's the exec producer of the U.S. one and a professed fan, I still like to think that the two casts hate each other and might one day have a rumble

Sternbergh: Gareth would definitely be an asset in that case

Nussbaum: Like in the Michael Jackson "Bad" video?

Sternbergh: Exactly. But with more neckties.

Nussbaum: So, did this episode have a distinctive Gervaisian flavor to you?

Sternbergh: Not to sound all TV critic-y about it, but I could sense the Gervaisian flavor immediately. For example, the joke about Toby being a convicted rapist.

Sternbergh: Which made me laugh out loud

Sternbergh: There's a similar joke in one of the best episodes of the U.K. Office.

Sternbergh: Also, this episode — the U.S. one penned by Gervais and Stephen Merchant — started out with the great joke about "Breasts."

Sternbergh: And the speech Michael gave about closing your eyes and picturing a convict seemed stolen right from Gervais's mouth.

Sternbergh: Which it was, I guess.

Nussbaum: Eh.

Nussbaum: I mean, I really did enjoy the episode — I think the show is great — but...

Nussbaum: it didn't, at least to me, have a strong savor of the British show, compared to previous ones I've watched.

Sternbergh: So help me God, you better not say that this is worse than Scrubs.

Sternbergh: Your damned, beloved Scrubs.

Nussbaum: No, no. This show is fantastic! All praise Office! Damn you to hell, Scrubs!

Nussbaum: My favorite element of this episode was...

Nussbaum: the completely insane "you choose a white man you trust, and I'll name a black man I TRUST EVEN MORE" dialogue.

Sternbergh: Any joke that involves Apollo Creed is a joke that's firing on all cylinders.

Sternbergh: To me, the big difference between the U.S. show and the U.K. show is that the U.S. one is more about buffoonery, and the U.K. one is more about painful awkwardness.

Sternbergh: Painful, painful awkwardness.

Nussbaum: I'm having trouble arguing my case, but this didn't seem that radically different to me from, say, the early U.S. episode where Michael outed Oscar.

Nussbaum: It had a very similar queasy parody of the whole way office dynamics operate, the pretending to be politically sensitive while being totally offensive.

Nussbaum: The same big confrontation scene with Michael acting like a transparent awkward loon.

Sternbergh: It's true that there's a certain repetitiveness to the episodes.

Nussbaum: I liked it, but it did start to feel like a shtick.

Sternbergh: But great shtick!

Nussbaum: And I basically didn't buy the premise: that Michael would do a "Scared Straight" parody and lock them in the conference room.

Sternbergh: I laughed aloud three times, which is three more times than I'll ever laugh at Scrubs.

Sternbergh: I agree about that scenario

Sternbergh: It went a bit too far

Sternbergh: But that's the difference between the two Offices

Sternbergh: The U.S. version is funny but rarely painful

Sternbergh: The other one was both. Brilliantly.

Nussbaum: You're just one of those people who think British people are automatically funnier, aren't you?

Nussbaum: It's your Canadian heritage.

Sternbergh: Actually, no.

Sternbergh: I'm normally partial to American comedy.

Sternbergh: Airplane over Monty Python, that sort of thing.

Sternbergh: But the BBC Office is something different — it's sublime.

Sternbergh: Not to get all gooey or anything.

Nussbaum: Yeah, I do agree.

Nussbaum: It's one of those shows it's hard to talk people into.

Nussbaum: Because it requires this strange emotional commitment.

Sternbergh: And I think Extras, Gervais's more recent series, is not nearly as good.

Sternbergh: And as far as I know, he's still British.

Nussbaum: I actually liked Extras, but it was definitely off in some way.

Sternbergh: At a certain point, it's obviously unfair — and kind of pointless — to compare the two series: the U.S. and U.K. Offices.

Sternbergh: The U.K. Office only ran twelve episodes, with a 90-minute, series finale. It was a perfect self-contained jewel of a show

Sternbergh: if jewel's can be self-contained

Nussbaum: Yeah, it was your favorite TV example, the show that never goes sour.

Nussbaum: Like Freaks and Geeks.

Nussbaum: Only the good shows die young.

Sternbergh: I'll give you that one.

Nussbaum: My favorite character on this is actually Angela.

Nussbaum: There wasn't an analogue for her on the British show, was there?

Sternbergh: Nope, not really.

Sternbergh: They've done a good job on the U.S. show of making the characters their own.

Nussbaum: That actress just kills me, with her completely repressive reaction to everything, and how angry she seems.

Sternbergh: The U.S. Office is also much more centrally focused on the romance between Jim and Pam.

Sternbergh: Which I think plays better to a U.S. audience.

Nussbaum: That's true.

Nussbaum: It's a softer subject than the total misery at the center of the British version.

Sternbergh: Agreed.

Nussbaum: Which was way more about the fact that Jim was going to be destroyed by his life, including but not limited to the Pam thing.

Nussbaum: He was going to turn into David.

Sternbergh: In conclusion, I would give this episode a big thumbs up.

Sternbergh: Except that "big thumbs up" is copyrighted.

Sternbergh: So I give it a hearty slap on the back.

Nussbaum: I ruffle its hair affectionately.

Sternbergh: And it kind of made me wish that Ricky G. and Stephen Merchant were writing the show every week.

Sternbergh: Or at least every other week.

Nussbaum: Again, I just didn't find it strikingly different — better or worse — than the regular show.

Nussbaum: Which either demonstrates that I am deaf to nuance or indicates that I have a searing critical ability to see through the hype.

Sternbergh: I vote deaf to nuance.

Sternbergh: Look, the international squabbling has started up again.