The rise and rise of awkward lols
Everyone agrees that Martin Scorsese’s collaboration with Robert De Niro is one of the great movie double acts. But when laurels are scattered in its general direction (Raging Bull! Taxi Driver! Goodfellas!), few are spared for their tale of a sociopathic failed standup, The King of Comedy. Yet, you could argue that said feature film, 35 years old this year, is the pair’s most influential match-up. From People Just Do Nothing to This Country, survey today’s entertainment landscape and everywhere you see comedy that mainlines awkward pauses and excruciating faux pas. Raging Bull got the Oscars, but The King of Comedy anticipated a movement – cringe comedy – that has come to dominate TV and movie screens everywhere.
Its high-water mark was in the early 2000s, with The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sacha Baron Cohen’s oeuvre cultivating a new taste for squirmy humour. “Oh, it was horrific,” says Ali G and Borat co-writer and co-producer Dan Mazer, shuddering to recall his experiences with Baron Cohen. “Sometimes I couldn’t watch and had to extricate myself. Latterly, I couldn’t be on set: the discomfort overwhelmed me.” Viewers will recognise the feeling, and watch-through-thefingers comedy has proliferated since. Nathan Fielder’s spoof business advice show Nathan for You or last year’s Palme d’Or-winning movie The Square are as toe-curling as anything Baron Cohen or Ricky Gervais made. The unforgiving gaze of cringe com is a key component in series as diverse as Fleabag, Catastrophe and Lisa Kudrow’s cult hit The Comeback. What distinguished those mockumentaries with Baron Cohen, says Mazer, was that awkwardness was a means to an end: “We wanted to highlight injustice or satirise things, and awkwardness was the best way to do that.”
It is no coincidence, says Ash Atalla – producer of The Office as well as newer cringe com hit People Just Do Nothing – that the genre’s early exponents worked in the faux-documentary format. Had The Office been a conventional sitcom, it wouldn’t have lingered so long on David Brent’s foot-in-mouth moments, or Tim’s fluffed passes at Dawn. “The essence of cringe comedy,” he says, “is that you don’t let your characters off the hook. In real life, and often in television, you
‘Traditional comedy didn’t show car-crash moments. That changed with The Office’
look away. But with the mockumentary style, if a character is under pressure, you keep the lens on them.” Reality TV was an influence, too. “We hadn’t seen people behave as themselves on camera before,” says Atalla. “People didn’t realise how they would be perceived.”
That developed an appetite for areas of human experience over which TV – comedy in particular – had hitherto drawn a veil. “It’s about what we demand from TV,” says Atalla, citing a wider impulse towards authenticity. “To get a character to walk into a room, say something funny, then walk out feels manufactured now. Traditional comedy didn’t show people being sad, it didn’t show those difficult, slow-motion car-crash moments. That all changed with The Office.” The intention wasn’t to make people cringe, he says, but to make space in comedy for experiences that hadn’t belonged there: “The by-product is that people will feel awkward watching it, because you feel you shouldn’t be.”
But why do we want to feel awkward – and why do we find it funny? In her new book Cringeworthy: How to Make the Most of Uncomfortable Situations, Melissa Dahl explores our experience of awkwardness, drawing on cringe comedy to do so. When we watch something embarrassing, she says, we feel – according to neurological research – that it is happening
to us. “Which is so tense and weird,” says Dahl, “that we laugh to release the tension.” She also has theories for the timing of cringe comedy’s rise. On the one hand, it’s because “the world is changing faster than ever” – and so are social mores – and therefore “there are more opportunities for all of us to put our foot in our mouth. These shows play out that social horror on screen.”
Then there is social media. Dahl’s theory of awkwardness, expounded in Cringeworthy, is that “we feel awkward when we are trying to present ourselves in a way that is incompatible with how we really are. And – because of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – we have never been so cognisant of our self-presentation as we are now.”
By that reckoning, cringe comedy is the ideal artform to help us navigate bewildering new interpersonal realities. Dan Mazer doesn’t necessarily agree; he wonders whether cringe com has already burned out. “Is it a thing any more? I think young people nowadays are more sensitive. Popular comedies now, like Girls or Atlanta, are all quite touchy-feely, kind, socially conscious.” However, both shows have also been described as cringe comedies: they may be touchy-feely, but squirming awkwardness is among the things they touch and feel.
Yet Mazer’s point may stand: the comedy of discomfort barely needs its own genre because it has colonised all the others. Thirty-five years on from The King of Comedy, “this is a type of comedy that will exist for ever,” reckons Atalla. “Of course, there’s still Mrs Brown’s Boys. But beyond that, there isn’t much room in the schedules for the escapist and silly. Catastrophe, People Just Do Nothing, Fleabag,” he says, reeling off the list. “Cringe comedy is where the momentum is.” People Just Do Nothing starts Mon, 10pm,
BBC Two; Nathan for You continues Thu, 11.30pm, Comedy Central
‘When we watch embarrassing TV, we laugh to relieve the tension’