clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Psychology of Cringe Comedy: Why We Love to Watch What Hurts Us

From ‘Da Ali G Show’ to viral TikTok videos, cringe comedy persists within pop culture. And oftentimes, the genre’s appeal is as much about the way we perceive ourselves as the comics we watch performing it.

Ringer illustration

On Friday, Nathan Fielder will bring a close to the first season of his mind-boggling, skin-crawling HBO series, The Rehearsal. No matter how you feel about the show, one thing that can’t be denied is that it’s pushing the boundaries of cringe comedy. So in its honor, The Ringer hereby dubs today Cringe Comedy Day. Join us—if you can stop clenching your teeth and covering your eyes—as we celebrate and explore everything the niche genre has to offer.

Comedy is best enjoyed as a communal experience—or at least, it usually is. When screening Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal for a couple of friends, I observed a more mixed response to the so-called “docu-comedy” series, which airs on HBO. Two of us snorted and wheezed as Fielder wore dumb outfits or repeated the phrase “cheap chick in the city” ad nauseam. But one member of our viewing party simply could not cope. Somewhere between the reveal that Fielder infiltrated a subject’s apartment without consent and the first scene starring a woman unaware she’s being filmed, this friend had had enough. “Why do you like this? he wailed. The cry was part question, part anguished lament.

Such confusion is common in the face of Fielder’s work, often curdling into outright hostility from frustrated viewers. But it’s also endemic to the art form Fielder takes to new, brain-bending extremes: cringe comedy. A counterintuitive blend of stress and relief, cringe comedy long predates The Rehearsal, and will survive long after. But the show’s run provides an opportunity to evaluate its ironic appeal. If laughter is meant to cure what ails us, what happens when what ails us is also what makes us laugh?

The question feels especially relevant in light of cringe’s ever-increasing influence. As a subjective mode of comedy, it’s impossible to pinpoint the origins of cringe humor. (Surely some prehistoric human made a fool of themselves in front of another.) But in film and TV, the 21st century saw an undeniable uptick in projects as uncomfortable to watch as they were enjoyable. Sacha Baron Cohen’s groundbreaking Da Ali G Show premiered on Britain’s Channel 4 just three months into the new millennium; Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and the original version of The Office, cocreated by and starring Ricky Gervais, followed soon after. Da Ali G Show spun off into massively successful films like Borat and Brüno. The Comeback, a collaboration between Friends Lisa Kudrow and Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King, was short-lived at the time, but had enough cult enthusiasts to support a follow-up season nine years later.

The early aughts may have felt like a high-water mark for cringe, but the field has only expanded since. There’s Fielder, who started as a correspondent on Canada’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes before debuting his namesake Nathan for You in 2013, plus performers like Joe Pera and Conner O’Malley, who make discomfort the foundation of their work. (O’Malley has written for How to With John Wilson, which Fielder produces.) Cringe has also followed comedy into newer mediums like TikTok. What was Couch Guy, the video of a long-distance couple’s seemingly stilted reunion that went viral last year, if not cringe humor in short, shareable form?

To understand the lasting appeal of cringe comedy, it helps to have a working definition. It’s tempting to chalk the genre entirely up to the eye of the beholder—that, like another polarizing piece of entertainment, you know it when you see it. But the essence of cringe comedy is right there in the name: it’s anything that makes you laugh and also wince, two kinds of involuntary physical response in one potent package.

Psychologically, cringe comedy relies on the observer’s sense of vicarious embarrassment, connecting to someone’s predicament enough to feel on their behalf. It’s a negative feeling rooted in what’s typically seen as a positive attribute: empathy. “You’re really suffering with the other person,” says Sören Krach, a professor of psychiatry at Germany’s Lübeck University who coauthored a recent paper on cringe comedy. “You’re empathically sharing this awkward state, and it’s not really pleasant.” A key precursor to cringe is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and feel their pain—almost literally. In prior research, Krach and his collaborators found that vicarious embarrassment activates the same parts of the brain associated with seeing others in physical distress. In this respect, cringe is different from schadenfreude. The cringer identifies with suffering; they don’t experience joy at the sufferer’s expense. (Though, on a show like Succession, it’s possible to experience both.)

Cringe comedy, then, relies on proximity. The viewer has to see themselves enough in someone’s plight to respond to it, a quality that may explain the form’s relatively recent popularity. Older instances of cringe are easy to find: improv legends Mike Nichols and Elaine May, for example, frequently performed a signature piece called “Pirandello,” in which a staged confrontation between siblings gradually transforms into what appeared to be an actual argument between Nichols and May. (There’s also the career of Andy Kaufman, whose characters were so complete they were sometimes mistaken for real people.) But shifts in technology have made it increasingly easy to blur the line that separates reality and fiction, and then share that hybrid with a wider audience.

Beginning with The Office, some of the most classical examples of cringe are so-called mockumentaries, which use the style and tropes of nonfiction filmmaking to tell a crafted story. The handheld camerawork and talking-head interviews only amplify the already mundane horrors of a fluorescent-lit cubicle or a tyrannical boss like David Brent. (The early episodes of Parks and Recreation, in which Leslie Knope was more incompetent than inspirational, were so cringey the show simply pivoted to positivity rather than persist.) Curb Your Enthusiasm, while not a mockumentary, stars Seinfeld cocreator Larry David as Larry David, cocreator of Seinfeld, bulldozing boundaries in largely improvised scenes. Figures like David Brent and Larry David may not be ashamed of themselves, but their shows make it easy to be ashamed on their behalf.

With Da Ali G Show, Cohen—and later his disciple Fielder, who collaborated with Cohen on the 2018 satire Who Is America?—took cringe to new heights (or depths, depending on your point of view). Cohen’s work doesn’t make fiction look like reality; he brings fictional characters, from a Kazakh journalist to an Israeli spy, into the real world, requiring even less work on the viewer’s part to relate his encounters to their own experience. The giddy shock of watching Borat’s “daughter” Tutar bare her bloody crotch at a debutante ball is the same as watching Stephen Colbert’s Bill O’Reilly-ish pundit spar with a sitting U.S. Representative, or Fielder’s inscrutable stage persona ask a stranger to say she loves him. Our vicarious embarrassment isn’t on behalf of a made-up person we then assign authentic emotions; it’s felt for real people, requiring fewer steps to a more visceral payoff. The same setup that makes these stunts so effective is also what opens them up to ethical challenges, though their defenders argue cringe artists only call attention to the exploitation others perform unthinkingly.

Not coincidentally, then, cringe has risen alongside reality TV, an oxymoronic art that thrives on extreme behavior. (Franchises like 90 Day Fiancé are practically powered by cringe.) Mockumentaries echo the lo-fi aesthetic of reality, now instantly recognizable to a generation reared on Real Housewives; shows like Nathan for You adopt reality’s structure, poking at series like Bar Rescue even as their precedent makes it easier to lure unsuspecting subjects. Fielder’s next project—the upcoming Showtime comedy The Curse—may be scripted, but it’s no coincidence that it’s set within an HGTV show.

But how cringe works is only half of the equation. There’s also the question of why some people are actively drawn to cringe comedy, and what pleasure they derive alongside the pain. Author Melissa Dahl wrote an entire book, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, exploring her own response to social faux pas. (As part of her research, Dahl partook in the cringiest activity on Earth: an amateur improv class.) Dahl draws a distinction between cringe comedy, which is edited and presented to us as entertainment we can opt into, and everyday embarrassment. “It functions almost like a horror movie,” Dahl says. “You get to indulge in this fear, but then it’s OK. You aren’t actually experiencing it, but you have this simulation.”

Like horror movies, cringe comedy is a controlled way to expose yourself to what’s otherwise an unavoidable fact of life. Think of cringe as one more meta layer in The Rehearsal’s nesting doll: Just as Fielder’s volunteers are practicing for their actual lives, his fans are putting themselves through the emotional wringer in a more managed environment. And where a jump scare represents one kind of release, giving tension a physical outlet, laughter provides another. The feeling is cathartic, providing a closure that watching, say, a groomsman ramble on too long at a wedding toast typically does not.

For that catharsis, cringe’s adjacency to real life once again comes in handy. Cohen may adopt larger-than-life disguises, but many cringe comedians play, implicitly or explicitly, a version of themselves: David and Fielder, of course, but also Lena Dunham in her breakout performance as Hannah Horvath on Girls and Issa Rae as Issa on Insecure. (Rae’s first hit, the YouTube series Awkward Black Girl, advertised its cringe factor up front.) There’s always some layer of artifice involved, but it still takes bravery to debase oneself while barely in character—a trait audiences appreciate, if not always consciously.

“The thing that we admire in cringe comedy is this ability to put yourself or your persona out there,” says Jeremy Dauber, a professor at Columbia University who’s written on the history of Jewish comedy. (Many cringe comics, like many comics in general, are members of the tribe.) “[They’re] putting all these unattractive and messy human emotions on display.” That emotion might be the petty spite that torpedoes all of David’s onscreen relationships, or the neediness that leads Horvath to tolerate terrible sex with an ambivalent guy. We’re rarely willing to acknowledge these qualities in ourselves; there’s something freeing, yet terrifying, about artists who choose to put it all on the surface.

By projecting our anxiety onto someone else, cringe comedy can also make it easier to accept our own flaws. “You feel somehow revealed or detected by those situations,” Krach says. “It precisely hits on something in yourself.” Cringe often comes with a reassurance that we aren’t alone in our crippling insecurities, without the sometimes insurmountable hurdle of disclosing your own inner thoughts.

You can’t blame anyone who can’t handle cringe comedy. But its enduring—and increasing—allure isn’t as mysterious as it may first appear. “I came to appreciate them as little moments that wake you up out of life in a way,” Dahl says of her own experiences with cringe. Pleasant or not, cringe puts us in touch with a part of humanity we spend the rest of our lives trying to keep out of sight. No wonder we can’t help but flinch.