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Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Exploring the International Franchises of The Office

What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

Michael Scott is gone and nothing, aside from a failed movie career or star-studded series finale, is going to bring him back. Mourners could seek comfort in the bosom of David Brent, or conjure up the ghost of the world’s greatest boss with TBS re-runs. Or, you can strap on your comedy tourist pants, look to the horizon and forge into the international waters of The Office remakes.

Despite an inauspicious beginning on the BBC, The Office has since blossomed into a profitable international franchise. The show certainly struck a chord with American audiences and though “UK vs. US” inspires tireless debating (for the record, I’m Team Wernham Hogg), it’s not a stretch to believe the tonality of the UK Office would translate for an American audience. But is passive aggression in the workplace universal? Does the sociopath boss archetype always translate?

To certain degrees, yes. Initially, The Office was only available in syndication to the world audience, and to date has been sold as such to over 80 countries. This proved a boon for the original series in the United States, where Gervais took home Golden Globes for best comedy actor and best comedy TV series. In less anglophilically-inclined countries, the show sometimes flat out bombed. Not to say that the show can’t and doesn’t succeed as a relic of its culture, but people tend to connect more to characters that are cut from the same cloth. Russians want to see a Muscovite David Brent/Michael Scott. They want to hear this boss unwittingly spew the racial slurs special to Russian life. Luckily, Russia has optioned The Office franchise so this dream might actually come true.

After the American Office, BBC and Merchant/Gervais continued selling licenses to The Office format. Each remake is required to follow the first three episode of the original UK series, with minor cultural adjustments of course. After that, the producers have some artistic license to make The Office their own. Most countries with offices presumably have office culture, making the loose framework of The Office a flexible fit for vastly different cultures.

So fasten your seat belts, travelers, and get ready for The Office: World Tour.

First Stop: France
Title: Le Bureau
Year: 2006
Office: Cogirep
Regional Manager: Gilles Triquet

Le Bureau was the first non-English adaptation bowing shortly after the American outing. Despite a glowing reception from the critical mass of France, the show only ran for one season. A roundup of critical reactions in the Guardian relays how critics  “embraced this 'spineless, misogynistic, racist, irritating cynic' declaring him the perfect embodiment of a French beauf — a vulgar, chauvinistic Mr. Average who tries too hard.” Sounds true to form.

For the most part the French version did not stray far from its British predecessor, following the story arc of each episode almost to a tee. The story lines were similar, but Le Bureau was decidedly French. According to the same article, the bored, midlife male in France was already a common trope when Le Bureau entered the scene. Gilles Triquet may not be a borderline alcoholic in this version, but his life still stinks of sadness and self-destruction. There are cheese jokes, a West African cleaning woman who seems to be the only one actually working and the Jim/Pam characters are stunning and nubile up-and-comers. This is France, after all.

While the first season of the show already encapsulated the hypocrisy of the everyday office, writers had plans to tackle deeper currents in the France like labor strikes.

It appears Canal Plus, the company that produced Le Bureau, has since taken the show down from its website. However, it was released on DVD the same year it aired and there are many clips available online (sans subtitles). Here’s one of the boss Gilles Triquet, known to sport yellow dress shirts and an odd strip of facial hair on his chin, “entertaining” his employees:

Next Stop: Germany
Title: Stromberg
Year: 2004 -
Office: Capitol-Versicherung AG
Regional Manager: Bernd Stromberg

At first, those sneaky Germans tried to circumvent the franchise system with their new sitcom Stromberg. It clearly borrowed heavily from the UK Office but producers initially claimed it was an original idea conceived for Prosieben channel upon which it still airs. Then the BBC threatened to sue. Oops. Now, and you can see this for yourself in the first video clip above of International Office intros, Stromberg credits Gervais and Merchant with an “inspired by” credit. Score one for copyright, am I right intellectual property rights champions?

After its litigious start, Stromberg has gone on to garner a popularity level closer to the flagship US adaptation than its international counterparts.  But in this version, there are definitely some major differences from The Office we know and love. For starters, the wacky boss is married, but worry not, it’s definitely not a happy union and in some ways this makes the character darker. His wife’s father has Alzheimer’s and she often brings him to the office much to the chagrin of the bossman. And, sacrilege of sacrilege the Jim/Pam equivalents (Ulf and Tanja, respectively)  are already a couple — openly fooling around even. Also, Capitol-Versicherung AG ditches the notion of a paper business for the even drabber insurance industry.

In an excellent analysis by Slate back in 2006 writer Liesl Schillinger observed that unlike its world counterparts, the employees actually work all the time at Capitol-Versicherung AG. Given the orderly, efficient reputation of Germans, this makes more cultural sense than an office filled with slackers. Stromberg is the papa bear, and there is no line to blur: the workplace is the domestic space.

The fifth series began filming at the beginning of this year, and the official website for the show has lots of fun extras worth exploring if du sprichst Deutsch. The show also inspired a best-selling parody book entitled “Chef – Deutsch / Deutsch – Chef. Klartext am Arbeitsplatz” (Boss-German/German-Boss: Straight Talk at Work).

Clips of the show auf Deutsch are somewhat accessible on Youtube. Additionally, you can catch the “world’s worst boss” doing commercials. Here’s one “Stromberg” did for a German company called Energy World:

Next Stop: Montreal, Quebec (Canada, you guys)
Title: La Job
Year: 2006 – 2007
Office: Les Papiers Jennings
Regional Manager: David Gervais

La Job met a similar fate to its francophone counterpart Le Bureau in that it only ran one season. Supposedly, its entire 12 episodes were shot in 6 weeks for less than $200K each. The La Job team also produced minute-long internet shorts of David Gervais giving advice from his desk. That’s right, the boss character’s name was a pretty on-the-nose homage to its godfather.

Quebecois Gervais is also a failed comedian, and a failed rock and roller. In addition to similar character backgrounds, this adaptation was almost line-for-line with the 12 episodes of the British Office series. Inherently, a French-Canadian staff and cast the show gave a distinct cultural flavor to La Job despite following the original so closely. Unfortunately, It failed to resonate with the rest of Canada despite positive reviews and was not renewed.

Here’s the first few minutes of La Job’s pilot episode. Even if your French is a little rusty, this set-up should look quite familiar to any Office fan.

Next Stop: Chile
Title: La Ofis
Year: 2008 – 2009?
Office: Papeles Lozano
Regional Manager: Manuel Cerda

After purchasing a license in 2008, Canal-13 Chile became owners of the first Latin America Office franchise. The show aired in May of 2008, and as far as this writer can find was not picked up for a second season. Like many of its contemporaries, La Ofis stayed faithful to the arc of the UK original — but managed to be very much its own show. Instead of creating an amalgamation of Latin American cultures, the creators set the show in Santiago, Chile and the situations/characters reflect this intention.

One blogger fan proclaimed La Ofis to be so “Chilean.” She goes on to describe the show: “‘La Ofis’ is Chileno to the core. The chilenis (estai enoja'o? No poh, no 'toy enoja'o, cachai?), the references of places and things within Santiago (the boss' minion is also a volunteer fireman in Ñuñoa whose colleague hid his walkie-talkie in a completo during the first episode), and the way Manuel is constantly making racist jokes about the Peruvian office worker.”

Although there is not a whole lot of information available, at least in English, about this particular version, there are subtitled episodes available online. We can’t have it all, readers, but we can enjoy La Ofis much more when we have English subtitles. Take a look at the same first few minutes from the pilot episode:

There are most definitely cultural nuances that were lost on me a bit, but I still found it still deliciously offensive.

Last Stop: Israel
Title: HaMisrad – המשרד
Office: פייפר אופיס (“Paper Office”)
Year: 2010 -
Regional Manager: Avi Meshulam

Last year I attended a screening of the HaMisrad at an Israeli film festival, followed by a Q & A with writer/creator Uzi Weill. Unlike the US Office, which mines a roomful of talented writers for its episodes, Weill wrote all 15 episodes by himself. He claimed Gervais has gone on record to say the Israeli version is his favorite adaptation, though I have yet to find conclusive evidence to back this up. Fortunately for me, specially subtitled versions were created for this event, but there are no definitive plans to subtitle the show for the general public.

If anything, HaMisrad is the UK Office unleashed. Everyone wears their prejudices and opinions on their sleeves. Weill chose to remain faithful to the tone of the original Office even if the story arc ultimately diverged, because he respects the satire of Gervais/Merchant’s vehicle.  His words were not so kind for the American version.

Calling Israel a political hotbed would be a silly understatement, but HaMisrad bulldozes right through every hypocrisy and stereotype political unrest has to offer. And no one is off the hook.

In one of the episodes I viewed, an Israeli-Palestinian conflict has broken out. The episode begins with coworkers crowded around the television watching the news. Throughout the episode, an Orthodox employee grows increasingly suspicious of her Arab coworker (who is also gay, but we’ll save that for another day). She complains to Israel’s answer to David Brent, Avi Meshulam, that Abed is speaking Arabic on the phone and therefore is most likely consorting with the “enemy.” In front of the whole office, Meshulam decides to ask Abed to cease-and-desist from speaking his native tongue in the workplace. It's a hilarious moment and a great duality of skewering both political correctness and exposing implicit racism. Of course, Abed was actually just making sales to some of their Arab-speaking partners ultimately causing Avi to eat a helping of crow. In the same episode, the “Tim/Dawn” team convinces the “Gareth” of the office that he has been called up by the Israeli reserves to fight in the conflict. What a goof!

There are also Russian and Romanian immigrants in the mix, as well an Ethiopian character making for more of a melting pot than you might expect in an Israeli office. But, the showmakers simply use the diversity to push the envelope even farther. On a visit to the set, the producer of Russia’s Office adaptation remarked how openly racist the show allowed itself to be. I have a feeling that was a compliment.

So, one last time for the cheap seats, here is the beginning of The Office pilot. This time, from Israel:

Future Tour Dates: Brazil, Russia, Sweden and China

Even though every remake has not met the same success as the American Office, the franchise shows no signs of stopping. There was a short-lived version in Brazil. Russia bought the rights to make their own version back in 2008, but no update is available. Sweden and China have more recently signed on to try their hand at the paper business.

Tour Post-Mortem:

In my opinion, the real secret ingredient for an Office adaptation to work at all is a burgeoning, if not already established middle class. Though there are tangential warehouse characters, The Office is all white collar doldrums and its characters have what the blogosphere would label “white people problems.” That is to say, the characters may feel disenfranchised in their work, but they possess at least some semblance of privilege.

Which explains why Beijing is the next stop for David Brent. Last August, Ricky Gervais announced he was headed to China to help launch the Chinese Office. China’s economy has expanded at a breakneck pace in recent years, and a middle class is indeed emerging in the Middle Kingdom’s big cities. Economists often speculate about how this developing socioeconomic group will shape China’s future — why not start with the sitcom?

For the most part dubbed English comedies simply don’t translate in China. When I lived in Beijing, Friends was quite popular among my Chinese peers primarily as a tool to study English and learn about American culture. The jokes were usually taken literally and weren’t effective. Chinese friends asked me if all American men were as promiscuous as Joey. Some claimed  Chandler was their favorite character, even thought they didn’t “get” his jokes. In this case, sarcasm was not cross-cultural. However, for a country that has cracked down mercilessly on free speech in the wake of the Middle East uprisings – it may be difficult to stay true to the politically incorrect spirit of The Office. Though the show is more cultural than political, comedy may have a hard time navigating around a national firewall.

I tend to get a little uppity and self-righteous when US studios buy the rights to perfectly wonderful foreign films and TV shows only to red, white and blue wash them for an American audience. But, maybe I’m misguided in my frustration. I mean it isn’t cultural imperialism after all. When producers remade Ugly Betty for ABC, they took a proven formula and injected the right cultural components to satisfy its intended audience. The same practice is proving successful (at least critically) for the UK Office. I guess people find their own country’s bullshit, the funniest kind of bullshit.

The Office isn’t just a TV show, it’s a cultural lens. Was that part of Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais’ original pitch to BBC?

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

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  • Felipe

    Hi Laura!
    Great article, I just want to say that there isn't a brazilian version of The Office. Is widely sugested on the internet that Os Aspones is the brazilian The Office, but as a brazilian who watched it, I garantee that the only thing this series has in common with the BBC show is that is set on an office. I suggest you to look for 'Os Aspones' on YouTube, even without knowing the language it would be obvious that it is not a The Office remake. The plot of Os Aspones is a government office that has no function, aspone means something like "aide of fucking nothing".

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/laura-turner-garrison/5500143 laura turner garrison

      @Felipe Hi Felipe! Thanks for the tip! An article on The Office referenced Os Aspones as the brazilian Office. I found it a bit odd there was little other info out there on the show – thanks for clearing the air!

  • Daniel Bell@twitter

    Great article. I am always interested in comedy across cultures. What are you researching next?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jose-Saez/1271854257 Jose Saez

    I've seen three versions: the UK one, the American, and our own, the chilean! I enjoyed the three of them and loved how each character was played in every version. I'd have loved to see another season of the chilean Office, but sadly it takes a certain IQ to enjoy it – it wasn't massive. And probably that's what i like about the show, it's not T&A comedy – it pricks you and criticizes you, it's humbling in a lot of ways.