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The catharsis of cringe

Social awkwardness is synonymous with cringe comedy, and it’s a double act we tend to either love or loathe. David Jesudason explores why, for him, watching cringe is at once exhilarating and soothing.

Words by David Jesudason|portraits by Camilla Greenwell

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Photographic triptych made up of 3 black and white portraits. The images are butted up next to each other with no border. The image on the left shows a young woman with long blond hair looking off to camera right watching something. Her hands are clasped to either side of her cheeks as if protecting herself from something she is about to see. The image in the centre show a man wearing a roll neck top also looking off to camera right watching something. His eyes are narrowed and his lips are pursed as if feeling unease at what he is watching. The image on the right shows a young man with his eyes closed tight and his left hand covering the left side of his face and eye. He is smiling a painful smile as if feeling very uncomfortable with whatever he is watching.
Anouk, David and Ruben watching their most cringe inducing comedy moments, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

The first time I felt my heart pounding when watching TV wasn’t during a blood-soaked horror movie or an adrenaline-packed action film. It was in the middle of an episode of ‘Frasier’, a genteel 1990s sitcom set in Seattle about a psychiatrist building a new life as a radio host.

The scene featured a long list of social faux pas made unwittingly by Frasier Crane, played by the actor Kelsey Grammer. As he bumbles through an ill-fated job interview, Frasier mistakes his would-be boss for the tea boy, then goes on to insult his wig, personal appearance and his ill mother. He also has his flies undone. Each ignominy seems more humiliating than the last and Frasier, erudite as ever, seems knowingly trapped in this claustrophobic situation by his nervous clumsiness.

An eminent psychiatrist flunking a job interview seemed a world away from my then life – I was a bored teenager living in a small market town – but it was the first of many examples of cringe comedy that I found both exhilarating and hilarious.

It was a light-bulb moment for me as a socially anxious telly addict. I realised I wasn’t alone. The episode did make me feel stressed, but the eventual release of tension and the loud laughter it spurred was cathartic.

Photographic triptych made up of 3 black and white portraits. The images are square and have a small border between them. Each image shows the same young man seated in the same position, pictured from the waist up. In each image his expression and body language changes from grimacing in one to clasping his hands to head in others. In all of them he seems uneasy and uncomfortable with whatever he is listing to or watching.
Ruben watching Chewing Gum, "Tracey Gets A Fancy New Job", Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Ruben watching ‘Chewing Gum’, the bit where Tracey gets a fancy new job. 

Although Frasier hailed from cosmopolitan Seattle, the situations he found himself in were universally recognisable and surprisingly helpful to me. I asked Sophie Scott, an expert in cognitive neuroscience and a stand-up comedian, why this might be the case.

“There’s a predictability to cringe comedy,” she explained, “because you know how these characters have been in the past, and so you've got a good idea what’s going to be happening with them. Often the situations involve someone going to do something wrong, or something sets the wheels in motion for some sort of social disaster.

“A lot of the social anxiety, or the cringeyness, is associated with that kind of set-up, and if you didn’t know the characters, you might not experience the terrible anticipation of it all going wrong.”

Scott also believes that the viewer is invested in all the scene’s characters because it’s often so mortifying to witness everyone’s reactions. “Everybody feels terrible, not just the person who’s the focus of it,” she adds.

Photographic triptych made up of 3 black and white portraits. The images are square and have a small border between them. Each image shows the same young woman seated in the same position, pictured from the waist up. She seems to be watching something off to camera right. In each image her expression and body language changes from mouth wide open in shock in one to clasping her hands to her face in others. In all of them she seems uneasy and uncomfortable with whatever she is listing to or watching.
Ocean watching The Boondocks, “Uncle Ruckus”, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Ocean watching ‘The Boondocks’, the best bits of Uncle Ruckus.

Universal anxieties

Not everyone finds cringe comedy to be a positive force in the way I do. I watched that job-interview episode of ‘Frasier’ with my partner recently and she asked me to turn it off as it made her feel too stressed.

And there are episodes that even I find too difficult to watch, like the opener from series seven, ‘Momma Mia’, which focuses on Frasier falling for a woman who looks just like his mother. This Oedipus-like nightmare gets worse when the cringe is ramped up by including flashbacks of Frasier’s mother played by the actor who is also his girlfriend.

Scott explains that sitcoms like ‘Frasier’ tap into universal social anxieties, and teenagers can find them especially intense. “My teenage son gets incredibly upset during certain television programmes, like ‘Peep Show’, where something’s going to go wrong,” she says. “He was almost overwhelmed with anxiety.”

Photographic triptych made up of 3 black and white portraits. The images are square and have a small border between them. Each image shows the same man seated in the same position, pictured from the waist up. In each image his expression and body language changes from grimacing in one to surprise and shock in others. In all of them he seems uneasy and uncomfortable with whatever he is listing to or watching.
David watching Peep Show, “Jeremy Eats a Dog”, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

David watching ‘Peep Show’, the scene where Jeremy eats a dog.

Layers of masochistic enjoyment

Scott says cringe started in the UK with the radio sitcoms of Tony Hancock, which are often cited as the blueprint of all British character-based situation comedy. Hancock’s grumpy loser archetype’s DNA can be found in Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew and even ‘The Office’s David Brent.

If social awkwardness is synonymous with cringe comedy, then so is egotism. All cringe comedies have at least one character who is pompous and usually willing to overstep the boundaries of acceptability – think of David Brent telling racist jokes at a work gathering.

Older sitcoms like ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ and ‘Frasier’ may have had cringe-comedy elements, but they feel staged compared to mock documentaries, like ‘This is Spinal Tap’ and ‘The Office’. These want you to imagine that you’re gaining voyeuristic access to the characters and seeing the worst sides of them. To do so they eschew recorded audience laughter and let the camera linger longer than you would expect during certain scenes.

Photographic triptych made up of 3 black and white portraits. The images are square and have a small border between them. Each image shows the same woman seated in the same position, pictured from the waist up. She seems to be watching something off to camera right. In each image her expression and body language changes from mouth wide open in laughter in one to grimacing and eyes shut in others. In all of them she seems uneasy and uncomfortable with whatever she is listing to or watching.
Clare watching Fraiser, “Job Interview”, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Clare watching ‘Frasier’, the time Frasier goes for a job interview.

All cringe comedies have at least one character who is pompous and willing to overstep the boundaries of acceptability.

Ewen MacIntosh starred in ‘The Office’ as monotone-voiced accountant Keith. It was a performance inspired, he tells me, by Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, who memorably lacked self-awareness.

“People who liked ‘The Office’ would say they almost couldn’t watch it,” MacIntosh says. “They almost had to look away and couldn’t bear to see it play out. They had an almost masochistic enjoyment of it.

“People watching would think, ‘Imagine if I was there?’ and, ‘Thank God I’m not there!’ But also picture how horrible it would be if it was happening to them. But it’s not happening to them at all, which means there’s weird layers going on.”

Photographic triptych made up of 3 black and white portraits. The images are square and have a small border between them. Each image shows the same mother and son seated in the same position, pictured from the waist up. They seems to be watching something off to camera right. In each image their expressions and body language change from mouth wide open in shock in one to open laughter in others. In all of them they seem enthralled in whatever they are listing to or watching.
Nathan & Jemima watching Bridesmaids, “Best Friend Speech”, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Nathan and Jemima watching ‘Bridesmaids’, when Annie and Helen compete in the best friend speech.

The problem with toxic character traits

Cringe comedy often relies on humiliating a character with questionable traits and political views: imagine Basil Fawlty’s xenophobia or Alan Partridge’s sexism. The problem is the audience can find both the social disasters and the character’s opinions equally amusing.

"It’s hard to imagine somebody watching someone as dreadful as Partridge,” says Scott, “and his toxic views being validated.” But I can remember when Ali G was on TV and some people – depending on how old they were and what kind of background they were from – either laughing at him and thinking he was completely awful, or thinking he was fantastic.

“It’s this inherent ambiguity around comedy,” says Scott. “And if it wasn’t ambiguous, it probably wouldn't be funny.”

Photographic triptych made up of 3 black and white portraits. The images are square and have a small border between them. Each image shows the same young woman seated in the same position, pictured from the waist up. She seems to be watching something off to camera right. In each image her expression and body language changes from face turned slightly away in one to holding her hands to her face in others. In all of them she seems uneasy and uncomfortable with whatever she is listing to or watching.
Anouk watching The Office US, “Walking Phyllis Down the Aisle”, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Anouk watching ‘The Office’ (US), the scene where Phyllis is walked down the aisle.

This indeterminacy can lead to the comedy feeling shocking despite its humdrum setting. It also can be deeply problematic. When David Brent jokes about rape in ‘The Office’, is the viewer laughing at how pathetic he is or the shockingly inappropriate subject matter? Such ambiguity has seen scenes cut from comedies like ‘Fawlty Towers’.

‘Frasier’ features numerous homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic jokes. Cheap laughs like this will surely be binned when the show is revived in 2022. I’m not looking forward to the revival. The sitcom holds a special place in my heart, but with John Mahoney, the actor who played Frasier’s dad, now dead and other members of the cast reluctant to rejoin, it could become a comedy I find too cringeworthy to watch.

About the contributors

Photograph of David Jesudason

David Jesudason

Author

David Jesudason is a freelance journalist who covers race issues for BBC Culture, Pellicle and Vittles. David also writes ‘Episodes of My Life’, a weekly newsletter about the TV shows and films that changed his life.

Photograph of Camilla Greenwell

Camilla Greenwell

Photographer

Camilla Greenwell is a photographer specialising in dance, performance and portraiture. She regularly works with Sadler’s Wells, Barbican, Candoco, Rambert, The Place, the Guardian, the British Red Cross, Art on the Underground and Wellcome Collection.