Cringe com­edy

The rise and rise of awk­ward lols

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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’

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