It took me an embarrassingly long time to start watching The IT Crowd. I didn’t even know it was a thing until 2008, when it began airing on IFC two full years after it premiered in the U.K. I was burned-out on workplace sitcoms, and smug in my pop culture-fed belief that live studio audiences were for squares. “But it’s about nerds!” the furious Internet shouted at me. “Yeah?” I shot back to the box that holds the Internet. “Well, we already have The Big Bang Theory.” And so I went about my business, squirreling deeper and deeper into my snobbery, letting The IT Crowd sit hopelessly in my Netflix queue for months.
In short, I was an idiot.
Written and often directed by Father Ted’s Graham Linehan, The IT Crowd was a relentlessly funny and self-aware take on the workplace sitcom. Linehan took particular pleasure in throwing utterly typical situations at his characters, only to have them veer sharply in ridiculous directions thanks to an escalating series of absurdist running jokes. As fans were mourning the end of Arrested Development, they should have known that there was another hilarious, densely scripted show happening in the U.K. (The IT Crowd premièred a week before Arrested Development’s finale).
As for the laughter between the jokes, Linehan has said in interviews that he preferred having the pressure of having to entertain a studio audience, both from a writing and an acting standpoint. Which brings us to the other crucial reason The IT Crowd works: its stellar cast. It’s not hard to imagine a parallel universe where Linehan tried to sell his brand of humor with less committed actors, but I try not to, because that parallel universe sounds terrible. Luckily, Linehan always had Richard Ayoade on board, since he wrote the socially awkward character Moss specifically for the actor. In turn, Ayoade gave Moss a refreshing undercurrent of sweetness and joy that was the perfect complement to Chris O’Dowd’s misanthropic turn as his friend and fellow IT nerd, Roy. Katherine Parkinson rounded out the main trio as their ineffective boss Jen, who quickly reveals herself to be just as maladjusted and weird as her employees (which suits Parkinson nicely). The three of them clicked almost immediately, bouncing off each other in a way that solidifies the show’s particular, cartoonish tone. Linehan eventually filled out the cast with Matt Berry and Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh, cementing The IT Crowd’s place in British television lore.
So when I finally did watch The IT Crowd, it was all at once and at breakneck speed (I think I tried to stop once, but who really needs to shower, anyway?). Sure, there are dips along the way, and the show took some less successful risks as it grew older, but it was never less than entertaining. The IT Crowd, along with Archer, is now my go-to show for when I need something to literally make me laugh out loud.
“Yesterday’s Jam” (season one, episode one; originally aired 2/3/2006)
Going back to the pilot for the first time in a long while, I realized just how little plot it actually covers. The only real thing of consequence that happens is Jen bluffing her way into the position of IT manager, followed by Roy and Moss finding out that she knows nothing about computers. Watching a pilot after you’ve seen the entire series is usually a hilarious exercise of seeing how differently it started or how much the characters have changed, as most pilots are burdened with the task of explaining exactly where we are in whose story for what purpose. But The IT Crowd is essentially a live-action cartoon; storylines that extended beyond an episode were the exceptions rather than the rule. If you take the Jen, Roy, or Moss from the pilot and stack them up against the versions that exist in the final season, there isn’t much of a difference. (More on that as we get further into the series.)
So Linehan has plenty of room in “Yesterday’s Jam” to include scenes that establish the characters and their dynamics with each other. We meet Jen first as she tries to convince Reynholm Industries boss Denholm Reynholm that she knows things about “the whole computer thing,” ranging from “sending emails, receiving emails, deleting emails” to “using mices” and “double-clicking.” She gets the job (as she must, because otherwise there’d be no show), and gets busy feeling awesome for herself. This ends the second she boards the elevator and presses the “B” button, which might as well say, “this way lies madness/lots of maladjusted nerds.”
Meanwhile, said nerds Moss and Roy are doing their daily routine of indulging the technologically inept people upstairs, starting with the show’s most famous line, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” But this instance of the joke might be my favorite. Having Roy and Moss take calls simultaneously while switching off lines is the perfect way to introduce us to their characters. Roy, sick to death of being treated like a “drudgeon,” treats his caller with contempt. “I’m sorry, are you from the past?” he spits at the phone, as if no one has ever been more stupid than the woman on the end of this line. He ends up screaming at her and slamming the phone down, exasperated—but also more than a little proud of himself. He really does think he’s better than everyone, even as he puts deodorant on his shirt and incurs a major head wound while trying to casually lean. It’s really just impressive how O’Dowd taps into the typical nerd character’s tricky combination of self-righteousness, petulance, and insecurity without making him seem totally annoying. On the opposite side of the room is Moss, Roy’s perpetually cheery other half who talks to everyone like they know and give a care what he’s talking about, when in reality, they absolutely do not. Even as Moss discovers the depths of Jen’s ineptitude, he can’t work up too much ire about it, because he just wants to know why she faked a call for 30 seconds while he could see the phone’s unplugged cord.
It’s no surprise that these basement scenes are the pilot’s best. O’Dowd and Ayoade have an easy chemistry as longtime friends, and Parkinson give Jen just enough desperate weirdness to let us understand how the three characters will get along. The episode ends with them sitting around the basement, dejected that an attempt to socialize with the upstairs went so horribly wrong, and it seems just about right.
“Calamity Jen” (season one, episode two; originally aired 2/3/2006)
Now that we know where everything stands, “Calamity Jen” takes it all to the extreme, with commercial parodies and voiceovers and fires and yet another head wound. It sets the precedent for what would become The IT Crowd’s preferred structure of vaguely ridiculous events leading to a collision of callbacks and slapstick that would make Basil Fawlty proud. It all starts with a commercial that wouldn’t be out of place on Saturday Night Live for a new, “better looking” emergency-services squad, with a new number that’s so long even the perfectly bland, catchy jingle doesn’t help. Moss insists it’s easy (just remember that extra three!), but he gets caught in his own delusion when he accidentally sets a fire and can’t figure out how to contact the proper authorities. The fire starts thanks to Moss testing out his homemade stress test (obviously), but then he just calmly watches the blaze merrily crackling away without a single discernible ounce of stress.
I’ll level with you guys: There’s no way for me to fully convey how hilarious this scene is. Linehan’s script is relentless here, piling joke after turn after joke as Moss putters around the office, barely batting an eye when even his fire extinguisher catches fire (“Made in Britain,” amirite?). Ayoade actually gets a little less screentime in the pilot than the others, but he crushes this solo act, using Moss’ childlike acceptance of whatever he stumbles into to make an already ridiculous situation even more absurd. By the time Roy and Jen join in, it’s a frantic free for all, and it’s The IT Crowd at its best.
But hilarity notwithstanding, “Calamity Jen” is most significant for its namesake. Jen falls hard for a pair of red “kind of tarty” shoes that are two sizes too small, and comes into the office trying to talk herself out of them, out loud, with zero success. While there are hints of Jen’s peculiarity in the pilot, Linehan and Parkinson crank it up to 11 in “Calamity Jen,” as she hobbles around in the shoes with less joy than grim determination. Yes, this means an awful lot of bellowing, mangled foot prosthetics, and a weirdly racist visit from some Japanese businessmen, but Parkinson commits herself to it completely. She uses her physicality more than anyone else on this show, and so the shoes give her an excuse to give us a straight-up sampler platter of funny walks and screams and rants that will become Jen’s signature. Even though “Calamity Jen” apparently aired the same night as the pilot, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it took place weeks after Jen first joined Reynholm Industries. As she screams at Roy to stuff her broken feet back into her tiny shoes while Moss insists his email to the fire department will get there any second now, they’re suddenly a team. A team of co-dependent, socially inept reality-rejecters, but a team nonetheless.
“Yesterday's Jam”: B+
“Calamity Jen”: A-
- I knew I’d love the show when Roy and Moss were trying to come up with the best derogatory term for how the upstairs people think of them. “Yes! They throw us away like yesterday’s jam!… though that doesn’t really work as a thing, because jam lasts for ages.”
- These first two episodes also highlight the season’s weakest element: shouting, would-be motivational-speaker boss Denholm. I know Christopher Morris is a Linehan favorite, but neither he nor the character really gel with the rest of the show, making the upstairs scenes far less appealing than the downstairs. Still, his “stress test” for Jen is hilarious, especially how he somehow manages to ask, “Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?” the same way with the same eyebrow raise every time.
- I wasn’t around for it at the time, but I’m guessing Roy/Jen ’shippers came into being as soon as Roy led a babbling Jen away by the shoulders and cooed, “Okay, crazy lady, let’s just go over here…” Or maybe it was when they both ended up passed out on the floor, writhing in pain. Peas in a pod, those two!
- That said, I also love how Roy tries to hit on Jen in his own terrible, ill-advised way, but immediately drops it when he finds out she’s his new boss. In a second, she goes from “attractive woman” to “annoying obstacle to his preferred lifestyle of shooting the shit and pissing people off.”
- Moss’ “slightly larger glasses” gag is even more hilarious now, if only because they’re supposed to be comically giant and are pretty much just 2013 appropriate.
- For posterity’s sake: “I have a lot of experience with the whole… computer thing. You know, emails. Sending emails. Receiving emails. Deleting emails. I could go on.” “Do.” “…the web. Using mouse. Mices. Using mices. Clicking. Double-clicking. The computer screen, of course. The keyboard. The bit that goes on the floor down there...”
- “Yes, I believe it was Tolstoy who said, oh! We have a visit-or!”
- “You stole it?! But that’s stealing!”
- “I’ll just… put this here with the rest of the fire…”