The 2013 animated series Servant x Service, while being a short sketch-based series like many comedy animé, stands out in its focus on office life and government and perhaps more importantly its adult, rather than school-age, cast. It is not a strictly political comedy from its first episode – it does not set out to make jokes about ongoing events or satirise real political figures (as perhaps a programme like Yes Minister or The Thick of It does) but instead bases its humour on the stereotypes surrounding the public perception of government. As a result it is a very relatable comedy; whereas Majestic Prince was a character comedy set in a sci-fi backdrop, Servant x Service is set within a workplace and field that most viewers will be familiar with.
Perhaps its closest parallel outside of animé is a workplace comedy like The Office or Parks & Recreation, where the setting is an exaggerated one based around the urban myths and stereotypes about office-work. The focus is thus on unrealistic caricatures of credible figures one might encounter in an office or public-facing civil service job. Servant… begins by establishing its central cast – the protagonists Hasebe and Lucy gain the most coverage and are presented as the most important characters at this point. While it is ultimately set up as a kind of ensemble comedy – with other members of staff playing roles in the humour – having a central pair of characters gives the potential for a unifying thread among individual sketches. Arguably the role of an introductory episode in such an archetypal comedy is to establish the comedic traits of the cast and present the unifying factor which keeps them interacting against their wills – for example, Red Dwarf’s opening episode spends much of its running time establishing its protagonists of Rimmer and Lister in a more “normal” situation, and then presents the events which force them together for the rest of the series.
In the case of Servant x Service, the premise needs far less setting up – it is an office environment (so by definition the characters are forced together in a need to co-operate) and what needs introducing is their motivations for working and the root of the comedy. This is done in simple fashion; Hasebe is a flirtatious idler while Lucy has a ridiculous story about trying to find the registrar responsible for her absurd number of middle names. With this basis established, the episode can move on to its sketches – which are quite low-key. While the series is not overtly political, it does touch on topical issues such as the public’s perception of civil servants (the workers at the welfare office where Servant… is set are called tax thieves by one angry visitor) and the stigma attached to needing to make use of the welfare state (as one woman keeps self-consciously stressing she is not a benefit claimant). These sequences are ultimately a backdrop to the character humour (the jokes are more about how the uncertain Lucy and disinterested Hasebe resolve the complaints rather than the causes of the complaints themselves) but ground Servant… in a believable world. It is a similar comedic device to the mecha-anime homages in Majestic Prince – specialised jokes for audiences familiar with the genre (in this case, anyone who has worked in the public sector or understands the popular perception of it).
It can be said much comedy relies to an extent on establishing a recognisable situation and then exploring where it can go wrong – a good example of this is Parks & Recreation, each episode of which has its bumbling characters rapidly drive an easily-resolved situation from bad to worse by handling it in ridiculous fashion. Here comparing the two series – Parks and Servant… is interesting. Both have as their lead a professional and enthusiastic woman in a dysfunctional office – although they handle this setup quite differently. Lucy in Servant is enthusiastic but fearful of making a mistake – she understands the poor reputation civil servants have and works to do the best she can. The humour around her enthusiasm comes from facing off Hasebe’s unprofessional advances and the way in which she impresses the other workers (for whom work is simply a matter of course) with her drive to succeed – it is the example of a hard-worker among slackers and those disillusioned with full time work. Lucy is thus a character relatable to a young audience just entering the world of work – the naïve and idealistic employee. The protagonist of Parks, Leslie Knope, is almost the complete opposite – she is a senior employee with some responsibilities already whose enthusiasm is not backed up with tact or talent. Parks & Recreation is in this way a farce, a comedy in which the characters are out of their depth and the humour comes from seeing how they can escape their predicaments. The audience laughs as much at the characters, with their idiosyncrasies and quirks (such as the absurdly macho Ron Swanson), than at their escapades and the story relies on a completely dysfunctional department rather than an outside perspective on the mundanity of office life.
It is too early to say whether Servant x Service will become a farce in this way, or if the characters will gain similar kinds of defining factors beyond the mostly archetypal personality traits on display so far – the situations in the first episode are silly and exaggerated, but remain focused on quite intimate interpersonal relationships. The visitors to the department are not being laughed at – whereas Parks swings at all aspects of small-town American life and first-world society more widely, mocking the absurdities of religion, the tabloid news, industrial lobbyists and so on, Servant seems to present the outside world as something sometimes frustrating but ultimately to be respected – the work Lucy and Hasebe do is valuable and the people they encounter are being helped. In this way it is quite a pleasant, if perhaps unambitious, comedy.