David Brent was born in 1997, when Gervais and Merchant were killing time at XFM. Back then he was known only as "Seedy Boss," a scurvy womanizer prone to fits of rage. Gervais and Merchant made a demo, seen on the DVD's making-of documentary, that was eventually bought by the BBC and turned into The Office. But the writing partners found it necessary to temper David for the series; otherwise he would have been so unlikable viewers wouldn't have tolerated him for an episode.
"Originally, it was more about his dark side," Gervais says. "Like, he was lecherous, and he lost his temper. And I was worried about that, because if you've got a sitcom and you've got any investment in this character, he can't actually be a nasty piece of work. You've actually got to love to hate him, and that means having a bit of affection for him. So I think now what you've got is a man who's a prat and not very good at his job and wanting to be loved and a bit of a loser, but I like him now. I think he's all right. He's just a bit wounded, but he's all right."
The wisdom of David Brent: "I haven't got a sign on the door that says white people only. I don't care if you're black, brown or yellow. You know, Orientals make very good workers." Awesome.
The first season, for all its brilliance, was observational--a satire on the workplace, populated by delusional fools and daydreamers who've found themselves stuck in a mundane nightmare. The second season ups the ante, turning the archetypes into full-blown characters; we learn in the second episode, for instance, that Dawn was an illustrator who has sadly relinquished any hope of returning to her chosen profession. But it's David who suffers the most: He discovers that not only isn't he respected by his co-workers, including the new crew from the shuttered Swindon office, he isn't even liked.
They prefer newcomer Neil (Patrick Baladi), once David's counterpart and now his boss. He's everything David is not: handsome, clever, stylish, popular. This realization ultimately sends David into a total meltdown, which in part involves a dance number in which he resembles "a crab having an allergic reaction," Gervais says, adding that of all the scenes on all the shows, it's still the one that makes him laugh.
Introducing the Swindon staff--which includes a black man, a woman in a wheelchair and a girl for whom Tim has the hots--was Gervais and Merchant's way of underscoring how ridiculous David really is. The first season, he just looked like Lord of the Fools, overseer of people who deserved such a delusional man. Now, among the normal and hard-working Swindon staff, he's revealed for what he is--to us and, worse, to himself. The caricature gains character when it happens; the man you liked to see fail becomes the man you want to see succeed. Suddenly, The Officefeels less mock and more doc--even more real, even more uncomfortable, if such things are possible.
"It's almost like an experimental world now: Let's see how these people cope when you put them into an office," Gervais says. "We knew that Brent wasn't really this person. He spoke a PC sort of language, but we knew he was lying to himself. It's all these things we could put into practice now. He'd been there for seven years or 12 years or whatever, and everyone, he thought, loved him. Now let's see how people don't play the game, the people that don't know they have to go, 'Yes, you're the funniest man in the world.' Neil's younger, better-looking, better at his job, actually funny, and the worst one is, more popular. Brent would forgive him all the others if people just said, 'You know you're funnier than Neil, aren't you?' But there's a double-edged sword: Neil's right, but at the back of your mind, you believe Brent really does care more. By the end, I think you'll like David Brent more than Neil. That's what I hope anyway."
Sadly, The Officeis about to shutter: Gervais is currently editing the final two episodes, which will debut in England in December and in the United States next year. It is time to say goodbye to David Brent just as we get to really know him; better that, Gervais says, than he wear out his welcome, like too many other sitcom creations. (There will be a U.S. version, headed by King of the Hill's co-creator Greg Daniels, though it seems quite pointless. Like the American Coupling.) Still, you get the sense that Gervais will still think of David--still wonder what he's up to, whether he's made something of himself.
Gervais talks about how he used to have a nice, cushy job not far from where he lived. All his mates worked there; they all loved having a laugh at the bar after work. He's not David Brent, no, but Ricky Gervais certainly knew him. That's why he invented David--so he wouldn't become him.
"That's what's dangerous," he says. "It's OK for a couple of years to have a lovely, cozy job, but you don't want to wake up at 60 and go, 'Aw, fuck, I was gonna write a book. Shit, I forgot. I was drinkin' in a bar with all my mates, but they wrote books. Fuck.'" He laughs. "That's the terrible thing."