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The British Sense of Humour by Mark Duguid
Introduction Class Sex Violence Work The Family
Politics and Society Fools and Losers Madness & Surrealism Race    
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Still from The Office

The Office (BBC, 2001-02)

Whether we like it or not, most of us will spend the greater part of our lives in some kind of work. Even if we love our jobs - some people actually do - the chances are we will all experience our share of the demands and stresses of work, from irritating colleagues to bullying bosses and frustrating customers. And humour, of course, is the great de-stresser.

Brothers John and Roy Boulting's film I'm All Right, Jack (1959) makes fun of the unscrupulous bosses, idle workers and posturing trade unionists of a typical British factory. More than a decade later, Carry On at Your Convenience (1971) - set, predictably, in a lavatory factory - picked similar targets. Workplace settings were common in Carry On films, with hospitals a particular favourite. Sexy nurses, pompous but incompetent doctors and overbearing matrons are the stock characters of the series' several hospital episodes.

The main joke of hit 1960s sitcom The Worker was that the title character, played by Charlie Drake, did whatever he could to avoid working at all. Workers v. bosses was also the theme of the popular On the Buses in the 1970s. The large, old-fashioned department store of Are You Being Served?, drew laughs from goings on in the lingerie department and the camp assistant of 'gentlemen's fashions'. The altogether more glamorous end of the fashion industry is the haunt of Patsy and Edina of Absolutely Fabulous, which mocks the shallow, self-obsessed world of professional style-setters.

But no British comedy has analysed the workplace as cynically as The Office, set in a Slough paper merchants. Manager David Brent is a grotesque but immediately recognisable type: vain, self-important and thoroughly insensitive, given to reciting meaningless jargon borrowed from half-understood 'management science' textbooks. The Office's supporting characters are a grim mixture of the deluded (like Brent's protégé Gareth) and the lost (star-crossed almost-lovers Tim and Dawn), who are as likely to make us weep with despair as with laughter.

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