The golden rule of fiction, be it comedy or serious drama, is ‘write what you know’.
That’s how Matt Groening made one of the greatest ever sitcoms, The Simpsons, with lead characters named after his father, mother and sisters.
And Groening isn’t the only one to write from experience, with Ricky Gervais sharing the secrets of how some of the major characters from his own greatest hit, The Office, came into being.
The show celebrated its 16th birthday over the weekend, and Gervais explained some of the background to a sitcom which – for all of the one-off moments of brilliance in Extras – remains his most celebrated work.
The Office obviously wouldn’t be the programme it is without David Brent, and it makes sense that the Wernham Hogg boss has his roots in not one but multiple real-life figures from Gervais’ past.
“I had David Brent as a character from about 1995 I’d say, and he is based on people I’d met throughout my adult life,” he explains.
“The very first scene of the series, where he is talking to the forklift truck driver, is based on an interview I had at a temp agency when I was 17, in the school holidays. He was in his mid 30s wearing a bad suit.
“His opening sentence was, ‘I don’t give shitty jobs’; I just looked at him and nodded. He said, ‘If a good guy comes to me,’ (he pointed at me to let me know he already knew I was a good guy), ‘and says I wanna work hard because I wanna better myself, then I will make that happen.’
“He phoned his friend and at one point said, ‘Yes of course he’s 18’; then he winked at me and did the Pinocchio nose mime. (It was nothing to do with fork lift truck driving but it was for work in a warehouse). I never saw him again, but I used to do impressions of him as I told the anecdote over the years. He was the very first Brent I can remember. There have been many since.”
Gervais acknowledged that the cast of the show represented ‘a dysfunctional family’, noting that “men as boys and women as adults was a recurring theme”, and arguably none of the adults was more childish than Gareth Keenan.
“Gareth is even more of a fool than Brent in many ways. And even more immature. There’s a very good reason for that. He’s based on the kid I went to school with,” he says.
“I talk about him in most of my stand-up shows. He’s the one who put a crab in a pint of beer on holiday, because I told him, as a joke, ‘When a crab is drunk, it walks forwards.’”
And as for Tim, the character who Gervais considers ‘the lone voice of sanity’?
“Tim is based on a guy I used to work with, mixed with Norm from Cheers, a little Chandler from Friends, and a touch of Oliver Hardy,” he explains.
“Stan and Ollie [Laurel and Hardy] feature in all my work really. The blind leading the blind. Both thinking they’re with an idiot. Both right. Both struggling. And both needing each other to survive. Beautifully precarious.”
The Office has – with the exception of a Comic Relief special in 2013 – been off the air for more than 13 years. There are no apparent plans for a return, though Gervais’ David Brent character returned in the film David Brent: Life on the Road last year.
To read Gervais’ full explanation of the inspiration for his characters, as well as some other reflections on the show, visit his Facebook page.