"The Office" and Modern Comedy

The pioneer of TV mockumentaries exits just as movie mockumentary king Christopher Guest brings his latest take on the form to television.

By Jere Hester
|  Saturday, May 11, 2013  |  Updated 12:06 AM EDT
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The most compelling aspect of this final season of "The Office" has been the latest breakout character, one that's been a constant, but near-invisible presence from the start: the documentary crew (Did you think we meant Creed?). 

The appearance of Brian, the soundman with a crush on Pam, and the Dunder Mifflin crew’s realization that their last eight years of antics soon will air on PBS, have added an intriguing new layer as the paper company comedy turns its final page. But the breaking of what we'll call the third-and-a-half wall also underscores the legacy of "The Office" – both UK and US versions – as the mockumentary that changed TV comedy.
 
It's fitting that as "The Office" prepares to close, Christopher Guest, the king of big-screen mockumentaries, brings his latest take on the form to HBO Sunday with the debut of “Family Tree,” a series starring Chris O’Dowd as a man whose search for his lineage takes him from the UK to the US.
 
The roots of “Family Tree” and “The Office” can be traced to a TV movie with origins on both sides of the Atlantic: Eric Idle's brilliant "All You Need is Cash." The 1978 Beatles spoof brought together some of the 1970’s greatest comedic talents – Monty Python's Idle and members of the original "Saturday Night Live" cast – to lovingly lampoon the greatest group of the 1960s (and of all time, for that matter).
 
Idle's pioneering parody paved the way for Rob Reiner, Guest and friends to turn up the volume to 11 just six years later with "This is Spinal Tap" – leading to "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show," and, our enduring favorite, "A Mighty Wind.” Guest’s work helped inspire Ricky Gervais, who has cited him as a major influence, and Stephen Merchant to create “The Office " in 2001.
 
Nobody has quite matched Guest’s mockumentary efforts on big screen (though credit is due to Albert Brooks for 1979’s “Real Life”). But Gervais and Merchant helped make satirical documentary-style comedies fit on the small screen. Without the incarnations of “The Office,” we wouldn’t have the two other best current big network sitcoms: “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation.” We’d also likely be subject to more comedies with annoying laugh tracks.
 
The mockumentary shows owe a debt, in an odd way, to the rise of Reality TV – particularly “The Real World,” which got audiences accustomed to characters analyzing the action after it’s happened. That presaged, in a sense, our social media-driven world in which everything – including musings about the TV shows we’re watching at any given moment – is subject to instant, publically expressed opinion.
 
Characters commenting on shows in progress also has ties to the early days of television – most notably in George Burns serving as an on-screen comic narrator who stepped in and out of the action on “Burns and Allen.” Garry Shandling borrowed the gimmick and added a patina of irony for his underappreciated gem, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” television’s first modern meta comedy.
 
Shandling’s run on Showtime ended 23 years ago this month. “The Office,” completes its ninth and final season May 16 – just four days after the debut of “Family Tree,” which features Guest regulars Michael McKean, Fred Willard, Ed Begley Jr. and Bob Balaban.
 
As the mockumentary genre comes full circle, check out a clip of “Family Tree”:

  

 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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