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.

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil