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Jokes in shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm were at first lost on many people, or the awkwardness was too much.
Cringe comedy is a highly successful genre in film and TV, yet some people either don't get it or actively dislike it. What is less clear is how cringe comedy works and why some people enjoy the secondhand embarrassment or find it excruciating or boring.
Cringe is present in certain elements of slapstick humour, in that we laugh at someone’s humiliation or misfortune. But there's something noticeably different between laughing at Mr Bean and the cringe comedy of today.
Cringe comedy gives a feeling of embarrassment when watching someone behave in an embarrassing way.
The difference between slapstick and cringe is that slapstick feels more detached, where we laugh at someone. Cringe comedy feels personal, as if we live through their embarrassment.
Humans are wired to function in societies. We are highly sensitive to emotions like shame, embarrassment, and cringe.
Cringe comedy seems to exploit that awareness. We may enjoy it because it simulate unusual social situations and we witness the consequences without having to experience them. In this way, cringe comedy may strengthen a kind of defence mechanism against the cringe of our own lives. Those who experience greater degrees of cringe are more empathetic.
There’s a difference between experiencing cringe and finding it funny.
We laugh at moral or social violations which offer no real hurt and are not happening to us. Cringe humor has to relate to our everyday lives in some way.
When we laugh at cringe comedy, we reestablish ourselves on the right side of social norms or taboos. We know the rule and know when someone has broken them, and then we laugh to relieve our own sense of social anxiety.
Cringe tell us that there might be more than one thing going on. Sometimes, we empathise with the events, such as watching a mild social faux pas - someone wearing the wrong clothes to a party.
However, cringe comedy should be separated from contemptuous cringe, which involves an emotional distancing from the person you're cringing at. You perceive the person as embarrassing themselves, but instead of feeling embarrassment on their behalf, you feel annoyance and disgust at them.
Empathetic cringe, where we relate to the situation, could be viewed as us mocking ourselves.
A contemptuous cringe has a darker side. The producer or comedian may manufacture or invent contempt. For example, when we are invited to laugh at the weakness is "Screeching Feminists" are we saying that feminism is shameful?
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