Nerds united in hit sitcom

It may not be to everyone's taste, but The IT Crowd doesn't 'do' edgy. And that's precisely why James Rampton likes it

Douglas, the sublimely stupid managing director of Reynholm Industries, is, as always, utterly bored. Looking for something to fill a yawning gap in his day, he is rummaging around in his desk. "I don't think I've ever looked in this drawer," he says, pulling it open. "Wow, a gun!" Sticking the weapon into his mouth, he blithely continues: "I wonder if it's loaded?" At this moment of delicious daftness, Douglas is enveloped by a huge gale of laughter from the studio audience. Welcome to The IT Crowd, or, as it could be subtitled: "Confederacy of Dunces: The Sitcom".

Channel 4's hit comedy, which begins its third series on Friday, centres on four deliriously silly characters: the three idiotic, co-dependent employees of Reynholm Industries' in-house IT department, Roy (Chris O'Dowd), Moss (Richard Ayoade) and Jen (Katherine Parkinson), and their even more idiotic boss, Douglas (Matt Berry). Each week, their collective denseness lands them in ever more outlandish scrapes.

In the opening episode of the new series, for instance, Roy sets up a network of hidden cameras in Jen's flat to spy on her builder. Roy believes him to be a notorious figure off Builders from Hell who sneakily urinates in his clients' basins.

Meanwhile, as he fiddles with his new-found gun, Douglas contrives to shoot himself in the thigh. Although bleeding profusely, he manages to conduct a video conference with his boss, Mr Yamamoto, in which images of the Japanese tycoon get mixed up with footage of the urinating builder from hell in Jen's flat. Douglas then passes out, before later coming round with the words: "Must call Mark Thatcher." Did anyone say daft?

It's no surprise to learn that The IT Crowd is written and directed by Graham Linehan, who co-created perhaps our finest ever silly-com, Father Ted. The defiantly batty IT Crowd, which won the Rose d'Or and is very popular with teenagers, is a response to the prevailing fashion for sitcoms blacker than a raven's wing.

"It was definitely one of my intentions with The IT Crowd to react against dark comedy," says Linehan during a break from editing the new series. "I feel crusader-ish about it. In fact, I'm in danger of boring myself on this subject.

"I like a good dark comedy as much as the next person, but a lot of comedians have become enthralled by the idea of being the next Chris Morris and taking on outlaw status. They get too proud of their darkness. But it's no big deal. Anyone can do darkness. The real achievement is to get people to laugh. The world is dark enough already – there should be some people trying to make comedy to cheer people up."

The IT Crowd, produced by Ash Atalla (The Office), helps to brighten up its audience by liberal use of that most undervalued of comic tools, slapstick. Berry, who was nominated for the best-newcomer gong at last year's British Comedy Awards for his performance as Douglas, muses that "physical comedy works so well because it's immediate. You don't have to make a mental leap when you're watching it. It bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the funny bone – it's automatically amusing. The more slapstick there is, the happier I am."

O'Dowd, who is taking a leading role as one of the DJs on a pirate radio ship in Richard Curtis's new movie, The Boat That Rocked, chips in: "Physical comedy is very visual. That means The IT Crowd has done really well in countries where English is not the first language, such as Russia and the Czech Republic. Czech people come up to me in the street and say, 'Hello, Roy. Photo!' The comedy is joke-driven rather than character-driven, so audiences get it straight away. It has a larger-than-life, cartoony element that people instantly connect with."

That sense is enhanced by the fact that The IT Crowd is – again unfashionably – filmed in front of a studio audience, which encourages bigger performances. O'Dowd emphasises the heightened nature of the characters: "People see that Roy and Moss are the mischievous kids and that Jen is their naughty aunt. Graham says that Roy and Moss are versions of himself at 25 and 15. What on earth does that say about Graham?"

Linehan adds that "physical humour has been out of fashion for a while. But my philosophy has always been, 'Whatever everyone else is doing, do the opposite.' That way, it'll be fresh and there'll be a gap in the market. I've tried sometimes to write stuff that's not this crazy, but it just doesn't sit well with me.

"Slapstick is a timeless form of comedy; one of people's favourite scenes from Father Ted is where Mrs Doyle falls off the window ledge. It's part of a great British comic tradition; look at brilliant shows such as Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and The Young Ones. So I don't think I'm breaking any new ground with this. God forbid!"

In addition, The IT Crowd eschews the current comic trend of shocking its audience into laughter. The writer-director, who also worked on Black Books, Dylan Moran's immensely popular sitcom about a bookshop owner who hates his customers, observes that "it's the easiest thing in the world to make people laugh by grossing them out or shocking them. A lot of comedy writers are using shock tactics instead of a sense of humour.

"But my view is that if there were a little bit more censorship, writers would have to come up with cleverer ways of getting round it. Just because the censors allow you to make jokes about youngsters being murdered in children's homes, it doesn't necessarily mean that you should make them. Your first question should always be: 'Will that be funny?'" He adds quickly: "Please don't say I'm for censorship! I don't want to sound like a finger-wagging nanny."

The other element that marks The IT Crowd out from most sitcoms these days is its reluctance to resort to swearing as a way to get laughs. "I'm inspired by the challenge of not taking a short cut to a laugh simply by saying 'fuck'," says Linehan, who was also behind the surreal sketch-show Big Train. "I think there are better jokes buried beneath cynicism and nastiness. Writers are too ready to grab the easy laugh with cursing."

The IT Crowd also underlines the old adage that in British sitcoms, nothing succeeds like failure. Like the three characters from Sartre's Huis Clos doomed to live together in Hades for all eternity who conclude that "hell is other people", Jen, Roy and Moss are destined never to escape their dingy, neglected office at the bottom of the Reynholm Industries skyscraper.

"We love to laugh at other people failing," O'Dowd confirms. "There is nothing funny about people succeeding. If there's no conflict, there's no drama. That's why all the great British sitcoms are about losers. Look at Rigsby, Captain Mainwaring, Fawlty, Hancock or David Brent. They are all aspiring to do well, but are ultimately failures.

"Jen is the same. She thinks she's better than Roy and Moss and that she's doing them a favour by being with them, but she can never actually rise above them. In this series, Jen wins Employee of the Month and lords it over the other two. Roy says to her, 'It's strange you've won that title because to the casual observer, you do very little.' She replies, 'They must have seen greatness in me ...' Cut to Douglas blindly picking the name of the Employee of the Month out of a hat."

In The IT Crowd, Linehan also exhibits a rare ability to keep dreaming up unfeasibly daffy plots. That shows no sign of waning. According to the writer-director, "Raymond Chandler said that whenever one of his stories got boring, he'd just have someone come in and knock the hero on the head with the butt of a gun. I try to do the same by constantly introducing something really silly. Silliness works so well because you can just relax and enjoy the joke – you know the brain doesn't have to be engaged.

"I'd love just to get the actors to hit themselves on the head all day while I shout 'Harder!', but I can't really expect them to do that. So I always try to write something more imaginative. I hope we're more Marx Brothers than the Three Stooges."

The writer-director carries on that there is method in his madness. "It's possibly revealing that my favourite Coen Brothers film is Raising Arizona. It's totally slapstick and insane, a great goofy, screwball comedy. At the same time, it's full of thoughtful stuff about birth and death. I want to know that a comedy writer has some kind of brain. I like to think I have one. I can dress myself!"

Finally, why does Linehan think that, more than a decade after it first went out, Father Ted is still viewed so fondly? He pauses. "People just love daftness. If it's funny, people will forgive you anything. They'll even forgive you writing a sitcom about priests!"

Or people who work in IT.