The awkward language of David Brent and The Office
‘David, some words would be useful here’: a sentence of exasperation from Neil Godwin, David Brent’s nemesis in the mockumentary The Office, as he witnesses Brent’s bungling management metaphors and haplessly incomprehensible hand-gestures.
As we know, David Brent actually has a lot of words, and most of them lead to podiacide, otherwise known as shooting yourself in the foot. His response to Godwin in the same scene is a classic example: ‘there is the emotion-as-good in-business-syndrome, sure, notwithstanding the cruel-to-be-kind scenario’. Total flim-flam of course – but then again, as Brent insists, the rest of us are only looking at one piece of the jigsaw – none of us is looking ‘at the whole pie’.
Thirteen years after the last episode of The Office, Brent is back, in a new film Life On the Road, re-emerging from redundancy – and the release of an excruciating cover of ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ – and living his dream in the music world. His creator and actor Ricky Gervais has promised that the film will peel back the layers of ‘this extraordinary ordinary man’.
Extraordinary-ordinary would be a good way of describing Brent’s way with words. His language may be all bluster and bravado, but it’s a bluster most of us have encountered in real life, and this recognition is a key ingredient in the comedy’s success. This goes particularly for the Offlish (office English) Brent bandies about, for which he takes familiar jargon and adds a surreally naff touch. So, for example, he urges his team to ‘set out to leave the first vapour trail in the blue-sky scenario’. On another occasion he asks the team ‘Is your work done? Are all pigs fed, watered and ready to fly?’.
We’ve all had our share of blue-sky thinking, and feeding the pigs is not a million miles away from putting lipstick on one: the managerial metaphor for futile attempts to dress up a bad situation. Equally, it’s not too hard to imagine Donald Trump declaring, like Brent, that his office is ‘one big organism, one big animal. The guys upstairs on the phones, they’re like the mouth. The guys down here, the hands’. This is the familiar, vanilla soft-serve of business speak, taken to another and hilarious level.
David Brent in the OED?
Brent even gets a mention in the Oxford English Dictionary – not as a nickname for someone with a total lack of self-awareness, but rather in an example of the word ‘postfix’. An article in the Birmingham Evening Mail describes someone with ‘a touch of the David Brent, with ‘yeah?’ postfixed to every other statement’. ‘Yeah’ is just one of Brent’s many conversational tics, one he thinks will make him one of the guys, but that in fact continually illustrates his confusion of respect with popularity. Others he throws in to sound clever: like the aforementioned ‘vis-à-vis’, or ‘aka’, thrown in willy-nilly in an attempt to inflate both his sentence and himself. Sometimes both formulations appear in the same sentence: in one of my favourite lines from the first series, Brent tells an employee that, should they come to him with the desire to better themselves, he ‘can make that dream come true, too, a.k.a. for you’. ‘The point is’, he goes on, ‘you talk the talk, you do not walk the walk – vis-à-vis, you have not yet passed your forklift driver’s test’. The thuds that follow Brent’s attempts at sublimity are always inevitable.
On top of such convoluted bigging-up we have Brent’s strangulated syntax, where he gets lost in his message and never comes out again. His age comes out as ’39-umph’ (Michael Scott, Brent’s counterpart in the US version of The Office, declares ‘I’m not superstitious. I’m just a little… stitious’), while his philosophy he describes as: ‘Trust, encouragement, reward, loyalty… satisfaction…. Trust people and they’ll be true to you. Treat them greatly … and they will show themselves to be great’.
Brent the poet…
Just occasionally, Brent manages a message that is almost poetic. ‘Statistics’, he declares, ‘are like a lamp-post to a drunken man – more for leaning on than illumination’: wise words that would strike home in any business seminar. Again, the line between the fictional office and the real one is paper-thin, and again it works both ways: Steve Job’s announcement that ‘I would trade all my technology for an afternoon with Socrates’ might easily find home in Brent’s pen-clipping, tie-fiddling patter.
That said, Brent doesn’t belong up there with the literary masters, even if he thinks he does. His taking to task of Sir John Betjeman for the poem Slough is possibly the ultimate proof of his (somehow likeable) self-delusion. He trudges through the poem before puncturing every line with a little piece of Brent wisdom: “ ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, it isn’t fit for humans now.’ Right, I don’t think you solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place, he’s embarrassed himself there….’And talks of sports and makes of cars, and various bogus Tudor bars, and daren’t look up and see the stars, but belch instead.’ What’s he on about? What, has he never burped?”.
In the end, Brent concludes, for all that he was made a knight of the realm, Betjeman is totally ‘overrated’. Mangled metaphors and flying pigs aside, that is surely something The Office will never be.