Table of Contents
1.Why Cringe, Why Now?
A (Limited) History and Working Definition of theCringe
1.1.The Comeback:A Comedy Without the Laughs
1.2.Post-Fordist Cringing inThe Comeback
2.Architectures of Cringe Comedy
2.1 Mockumentary and Viewer Engagement
2.2 Embarrassing Realities, Everyday Stagnations
2.3 Complex Comedy, Discomfort Humor
3.Stalling vs. Moving: Flexible Affect at Work inThe Comeback
3.1 Optimization of Emotional Performances
3.2 Working Under the Enthusiastic Imperative
3.3 Gendered cringing
“Sure, we are in potentially traumatic times, but they areexcitingtimes“ David Brent (The Office,“The Merger”)
This thesis examines the relatively recent and increasingly popular phenomenon ofcringe comedy.The characteristic feature of cringe comedy is the exposure of the viewer to prolonged states of social discomfort in the form of vicarious embarrassment, framed in a faux-realist aesthetic. Appearing increasingly since the turn of the millennium, cringe comedies employ the prolonged suspension of discomfort, deviating from the traditional sitcom. Since academic research on the topic has been limited, I have incorporated theoretical perspectives on comedy, embarrassment and shame, television and cultural history, insights from the fields of humor research, affect theory, the sociology of emotions and psychology as well as cultural and media studies. Drawing upon these sources, I attempt to situate cringe comedy within the late capitalist comedic landscape, and analyze it as an aesthetic bound to the post-Fordist traits of hyperflexibility, hyperperformance and the increasingly blurred lines between work and play.
The common experiential thread shared by cringe comedy shows is the endurance - on the part of the viewer - of a kind of voluntary shame stasis, provoked by repeated social faux pas, mixed with desperation and failure, and rarely ending in a comforting comedic resolution. These moments provide an interesting diversion from the usual hyperflexible performances of the late capitalist stage. In allowing for prolonged and awkward gaps, refusing to quickly fill them with socially scripted comfort, and delaying or altogether avoiding a return to a smooth equilibrium, cringe comedy grants us time to question the current methods of managing affective imbalance. In the words of Elspeth Probyn, the benefit of shame (as performed and triggered in these comedies) could be the introduction of “acute sensitivity“ (2) towards ourselves and others. While I reference numerous cringe comedy shows, my main analysis centers on the 2005/2014 HBO seriesThe Comeback.
Chapter 1 provides a working definition and historical context for the phenomenon of recent cringe performances. Chapter 2 embeds the cringe in its aesthetic context and explores its formal roots in television, comedy, and humor theory. Chapter 3 aims to analyze performances of cringeworthiness through the focal point of the performances of affective labor required of contemporary workers.
1. Why Cringe, Why Now?
A (Limited) History and Working Definition of the Cringe
Having grown steadily in popularity since the early 2000s, cringe comedy is an aesthetic perhaps best represented by the ubiquitous exclamation: awkward! Ricky Gervais, Larry David and Sacha Baron Cohen are some of the pioneers of the burgeoning genre which - like their respective works The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, andBorat -is often associated with the mockumentary or faux-realist aesthetic. While categorized as comedy, cringe’s defining trait is an extreme indulgence in excruciating set pieces, its protagonists trapped inside socially discomforting situations, which are left narratively unresolved more often than not. Gervais’s influential creationTheOffice(UK), the point of origin for the current wave of cringe comedy, has been sold to no less than 80 broadcasters globally. It has been adapted so far in France, Germany, the USA, Canada and Chile among others1, highlighting (and supporting) a worldwide appetite for this form of comedy.
Cringe comedy can be defined as the embodied experience of third party social discomfort - from the viewer’s perspective, but also as part of the performance. This discomfort is often caused by the protagonists’ failure to communicate or fully inhabit their desired self-image - an incongruence that is clearly apparent to the viewer, and often to other characters within the show. It goes beyond the German Schadenfreude, as rather than delighting in the misfortune of others, cringe viewers are trapped within the characters’ dilemmawiththem. The German equivalent to cringing,fremdschämen(translatable as vicariously experiencing shame on behalf of somebody else), more accurately describes this distinctly role-taking and empathetic experience.
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Figure 1 Google Trends search interest of the word 'cringing' since 2004
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Figure 2: Regional Interest of search term ’cringing’
The recent popularity of the term ‘cringing’ becomes apparent when searching for a definition, with increasing search interest over the past decade 2, while usage of ‘cringe’ can be tracked down to the 13th century. The OED defines the verb to “cringe at something“ as:
To contract the muscles of the body, usually involuntarily; to shrink into a bent or crooked position; to cower. Also (of a part of the body): to flinch; to contract [...]
To experience an involuntary inward shiver of embarrassment, awkwardness, disgust, etc.; to wince or shrink inwardly; (hence) to feel extremely embarrassed or uncomfortable. [...]
But also To behave obsequiously or submissively; to show servile deferencetoa person.3
The distinctly physical nature of cringing is also what characterizes reactions to cringe comedy’s set pieces of social impasse. Viewers report thatThe Comeback, for example, is too “painful to watch” thanks to its “painfully honest”4 rendering of all-too-believable events. The shows’ willingness to embrace moments we actively avoid in real life is appreciated; however, those same viewers also question its categorization as comedy, due to the intensity of the discomfort they feel for the characters.
Use of the adjective ‘cringeworthy' has been documented since the 1970s, suggesting an increase of performances and productions that induce cringing, while also indicating the creation of a receptive relationship between a cringeworthy object and its beholder. According to the OED’s definition, something cringeworthy is:
Causing (or liable to cause) one to cringe with fear or (more usually) acute embarrassment, awkwardness, disgust, etc.;spec.designating or relating to an artistic production or performance which exhibits embarrassing incompetence, pretension, or sentimentality.5
One could therefore maintain that there are two kinds of cringe in cringe comedy: firstly, the cringe-inducing performance itself, and secondly, the viewer’s physical cringing at that performance; I will consider both but focus on the former.
The fact that this kind of cringing has grown in popularity over the last 15 years 6 is especially interesting because of the simultaneously growing use of social media, which has brought along its own etiquette of impression management and offers a multitude of failures thereof. A search on the Internet reveals an abundance of “cringeworthy” memes like awkward family photos, Facebook status messages, or cringe related material like FAIL blogs or videos7, which extensively mine these social media faux pas8.
Cringe - “comedy, you have to watch through the gaps of your fingers”9 - is associated with handheld cameras, interviews, and a general acknowledgement of the presence of a camera team - or more generally an acute awareness of the production aspect of the footage. It purports to document a real situation. Witnessing an embarrassing moment with the immediacy of documentary realism increases the viewers’ cringe response10, as within ‘reality’ there is no guarantee of a scripted resolution for any incongruent event. Cringe comedy characters often engage directly with the audience, for instance by making ‘eye contact’ via the camera, as if to acknowledge the shared experience of awkwardness.
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Figure 3 & 4: Tim fromThe Office(UK) faces the camera in disbelief at his coworker’s behavior
The format is perfectly at home in an age of ever-increasing awareness of constant surveillance - through camera phones, closed circuit television, reality shows, social media et al. - and brings with it the closely related idea of fame. The inevitability of observation brings a specific cultural self-consciousness of any state deviating from the ideal, and builds a curious niche between the performances required of us in both work and private spheres - if we can separate them.
Academic excursions into the field of cringe comedy have been limited as yet, however, the few contributions that exist have helped to open the discussion. Jason Middleton’s Documentary's Awkward Turn: Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorshipis most helpful as a first academic base of discourse on the rhetoric of the awkward. In his compilation of essays on awkward media products from the past 30 years, Middleton provides a compass for exploring an awkward tradition, specifically rooted in its relationships to the documentary mode and attempts at recording the “real“. In his analysis of numerous awkward cultural artifacts (including among others the work of Michael Moore, Sacha Baron Cohen and The Yes Men, as well as both UK and US versions ofThe Office), he identifies the key element and rhetorical effect of the awkward in its “disruption of the spectator’s experience“ (1) stirred by a cultural movement towards destabilizing an existing documentary tradition:
Awkward moments occur when an established mode of representation of reception is unexpectedly challenged, stalled, altered: when an interviewee suddenly confronts the interviewer, when a subject that had been comfortable on camera begins to feel trapped in the frame, when a film perceived as a documentary turns out to be a parodic mockumentary (4).
Middleton refers to Vivian Sobchak’s differentiation of the indexical and iconic/ symbolic modes in locating the “bodily reaction of the cringe as rooted in documentary consciousness”(150), reducing the comfortable distance of the audience from a fictional work and instead evoking a more-real-than-real uncomfortable closeness to events. Discussing phenomena as diverse as viral videos, comedies of deception or the awkwardness of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Middleton explores our critical gaze on the unmediated vs. the ‘social-media’-ted.
Brett Mills has discussed recent developments in the comedy genre, coining the term ‘comedy verité’ (78) to highlight the critical and reflexive nature of many recent ‘documentary aesthetic’ television comedies, countering long-held assumptions on the stagnating nature of television humor. Similarly, Tara Brabazón mentions the cringe (102) in her discussion ofThe Office (UK),as a characteristic of its hard-to- define humor.Craig Hight uses the word cringe comedy in relation toFawlty Towers.He has devoted a whole book to exploring the mockumentary as a “discourse” rather than genre, stressing its multilayered reading possibilities as a form of critical, reflexive fiction. He analyses a broad range of representative comedies that induce cringing through the focus of the mockumentary practice, concluding that its appeal lies in the complex viewing options of such media products:
The complexity of mockumentary discourse lies not just in its ability to play with documentary and reality-based modes of reading but with the ability of the more richly textured mockumentaries to offer layered forms of engagement, to provide a variety of pleasures for viewers which can bear repeated viewing. For example, audiences can enjoy a mockumentary’s intertextual references to documentary culture or to wider socio-political discourses associated with the thematics of the text. Many mockumentaries also work purely in conventional narrative terms, engaging audiences through identifiable characters and compelling stories. Viewers, then, may appreciate the craft involved in replicating documentary form, the collision of documentary form with incongruous content, the accuracy, insight and effectiveness of the parodic treatment of its targets and the sheer playfulness of the exercise in representation (40-41).
Finally, Adam Kotsko has been one of the first scholars to venture into studies of awkwardness. In his book-length essay he identifies awkwardness as a ‘cultural logic for young people’ to address an unfolding incongruent situation (2-3). He also tries to historicize the awkward tradition as a ‘default setting’ of American culture since the 1970s (24), arising from a gradual realization that the economic stability and steadiness outlined by the system of Fordism could not match the same expectations in the social model. In particular after various civil attempts to shake up social norms in the 1960s, issues of race, gender and class were still a source of instability. The principles of financial deregulation and deindustrialization, which began to undercut the values of Fordism in the 1980s11, undermining labor unions and increasing economic inequality - a trend that has continued since then - have similarly encouraged awkwardness in connection with the different social sensibilities crystallized within political correctness, as well as growing opportunities to infringe them (19-21). Ultimately, Kotsko argues that awkwardness is based in our inability to manage without certain social scripts, which is why these moments are “too much for anyone to endure” (27). However, in a second line of argument, he simultaneously proposes an ideal awkwardness that allows us to experience a more raw human opposition to unnatural social conventions (89).
While I agree that the tide of awkwardness has risen during this period of uncertainty about the effects and rewards of capitalism, I want to take these insights on cringing and focus on the theme of affect employed for work. My choice of the term ‘cringe’ comedy, with its distinctly physical implications, also emphasizes my focus on affect. In analyzing the productive potential of shame as an affect through Silvan Tomkins’ theoretical lens, Elspeth Probyn calls for a cross-fertilization of science and the humanities, denying the strict distinction between affect and emotion, instead acknowledging the mutually influential ‘mix of bodily reactions and societal implications’ (26-27). I’m aligned with her, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Sarah Ahmed,, all of whom have used affect theory to analyze cultural and literary works and conditions, critiquing the segregation of cognition from the body, allowing for a plurality of perspectives on this apparent dichotomy (Sedgwick & Frank, 512 pp) as well as the potential of affect and emotion to “move between bodies” (Ahmed, 8-11). While discussions about affect, feelings and emotions continue to either lump the terms together or distinguish between them depending on the theorist’s standpoint 12,
for examining the cringe effect I specifically agree with Julie Webber’s call for …an expanded concept of affect that situates its workings not just within a live, embodied performance of the ‘social’, but also looks at how televisual and Internet audiences are impacted by the workings of the external environment and affect, and moreover how affect is mobilized by the screen (38).
1.1.The Comeback : A Comedy Without the Laughs
To trace these manifestations of affective reactions to the post-Fordist condition, my main object of study is the 2005/2014 US television showThe Comeback13, focusing in particular on instances of flexibility, hyperperfomance, and the slippery boundaries between work and play, simultaneously emphasizing the type of humor employed amidst the chaos.The Comebackis a television show about an actress, Valerie Cherish. The coming chapters will examine her modes of reacting to her work environment and the respective performances required of her.
It is important to note that the show’s first season ran for thirteen episodes in 2005, but was canceled, only to return (after developing a cult following) for a second season of eight episodes in 2014. Written and produced by television and comedy veterans Lisa Kudrow (Friends) and Michael Patrick King (executive producer,Sex and the City),The Comebackis an HBO show which introduces viewers to the “raw footage” (as indicated by the title card before each episode) of a reality show documenting a faded actress’s attempt to return to television stardom. Actress Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) has agreed to be followed by a reality crew, as she attempts to revive her career by appearing on a network sitcom. Formerly a celebrated sitcom actress on the showI’m Itin the 1990s, she now aims for a revival withThe Comeback, the title of both the fictional reality show and the actual HBO show. In line withThe Office (UK), The Comebackemploys aesthetic techniques and features of thedocusoap14with the bulk of the documented events being captured by a diegetic camera crew working with handheld cameras.The Comebackalso features interview situations in which the producer, Jane, openly directs Valerie’s responses, while further material is supplemented by Valerie’s personal video diary that she operates from home. Finally, the reality crew has set up multiple fixed cameras around Valerie’s house, so that we witness seemingly private moments as well.
In the - to my current knowledge - only academic discussion of the show to date, Craig Hight categorizes the series as a mockumentary, which integrates its reflexive potential into a “layered set of representations and commentary on the nature of media-defined celebrity and identity” (274), satirizing the form of the sitcom as well as the reality format. Its innovation, compared to other mockumentaries, lies in the “rawness” of the footage presented, as it highlights the ultimately manipulative processes of an actual reality show in production by displaying unedited mistakes in scenes both scripted and unscripted. In addition, the influence of the crew on the filmic outcome is contrasted to the lack of agency experienced by most of the cast. Valerie’s approach to managing her image on screen - hoping to come across as a selfless, talented, generous person both in public and private - clashes with the producer’s agenda. However, Cherish also co-authors her own image abuse, by allowing more and more surveillance in her private life, unwittingly providing the reputation-destroying material.
Viewers of the fictionalComebackare constantly aware of the reality crew’s presence - the two handheld cameras are reflected in a background mirror, the camera frequently shows microphones being adjusted, release forms on location shoots have to be signed at various points, and so on. Furthermore, the amount of communication between Valerie and the crew is a constant reminder of this being a production in progress: Valerie’s requests for time-outs, indicated by frantic hand signals, are repeated constantly, and ignored just as often by the producer.
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Figure 5 & 6: Val requesting the timeout, managing her impression
Similarly, her attempts to influence the crew’s camera angle to be more flattering for her (again ignored) are indicative of both the artificiality of this reality, and simultaneously the powerlessness of the reality star over her own image. Valerie’s influence on the outcome of the “internal”Comebackand her impression management is evidently painfully fruitless, and can be said to be the show’s source both of its humor and its reflexive criticism.
This already multilayered technical approach to the narration of the show is further complicated by the involvement of the sitcom Valerie is starring in:Room and Bored,a formulaic network sitcom written by two Emmy-winning (male) writers, Paulie G. and Tom Peterman. Throughout the first season, Paulie G. especially displays deliberately harassing and abusive behavior towards the actress, based among other things on his frustration with network interference in his creative process. The sitcom quickly shifts to relying on “sexier” stars, eventually pigeonholing Valerie into an ageist role stereotype, making her the stuffy Aunt Sassy, and thereby reducing her original lead to a supporting role with one-liners in a humiliating track suit. Most of season one Valerie spends negotiating or ‘networking’ to have funnier lines written or unflattering ones re-written, hoping to have some form of influence over the way she is perceived. This puts an added strain on her relationship with the writing crew, but also her personal relationships.
As season one comes to an end, the audience and Valerie are presented with the final result of the reality filming process. Having witnessed a season of raw footage, it is a given that the viewer of the fictionalComebackwill be knowledgeable enough about the production practices of a reality show to anticipate an eventual disparity between the events filmed and the edited final result. So Valerie is the only one obviously shocked at the distorted portrayal of herself and her life.
Kudrow’s performance manages to evoke sympathy for the character despite her constantly objectionable behavior. She oscillates deftly between almost-talented comedic acting, her desperate need to adapt to the requirements of a reality show, as well as her passive-aggressive friction and pandering to show-creator Paulie G. In moments of ‘unguarded’ non-performance, Valerie proves to be highly unstable; yet this instability is also a source of humor, as she is lead into a string of (often self- induced) humiliating situations, especially when trying to preserve or recover her dignity. Her desperate and relentless optimism in the face of embarrassment becomes a tone setter for the show, as does her pretense that everything was as expected, of being completely unfazed, even if actions, changes in script, or behavior towards her severely hurt or shame her.
The second season differs from the first in only a few technical and narrative points. It exchanges the reality show with footage initially commissioned by Valerie to pitch material for a new reality TV show, later meant to be behind-the-scenes web content, and ultimately a full documentary for HBO. The sitcom, now long canceled, gives way to an HBO show in which Valerie is supposed to star as a fictionalized version of herself, based on the script of former sitcom writer Paulie G. During the eight episodes of season two, Valerie endures more humiliation than in season one, and displays an even higher willingness to adapt to these conditions so detrimental to her well-being or her relationships. In both seasons the reality crew needs to film on the set of the intradiegetic sitcom/HBO show, but still adheres to the handheld camera setup without offering further external insight - except in season two for occasional footage of the dailies. This presence on set provides an insight into the production practices of both the network sitcom and a cable series. Narratively, season two seamlessly connects to its antecedent, but it is notable that the second season finale offers a more traditional “happy ending”, which has made it more popular with a broader audience, and less so with critics 15. In the finale the camera also ‘breaks cf. “The smooth edges and fictionalized feel of the last 10 or so minutes of the episode violated every ruleThe Comebackhad set for itself. Neither the toothlessness of the story's resolution nor the method employed to convey it made any sense, andThe Comebackhas always, depressingly, deliciously, made sense.” Juzwiak, Rich. "The Comeback Finale Was Bullshit, and I Don't Accept It."Gawker.)
Also compare: Lowry, Brian. "'The Comeback' Finale Strains To Find Redemption." Variety, to Jacobs, Matthew. "'The Comeback' Signs Off With A Stunning Season Finale."The Huffington Post. character’ for the first time, offering a detachment from Valerie and her crew and a more classic redemption, similar to the resolution found at the end ofThe Office (UK). While the first season had a more mixed reception 16, season two enjoyed very high ratings, constantly growing with every episode, particularly over the course of the second season. While the show initially struggled to find a visible fan base, due to its high level of cringing, the second season’s popularity - while it does not spare the rod - could be attributed specifically to American audiences having become more exposed to cringe (see Figure 7). Unlike the highly popularThe Office(US),The Comebackventures into more of a hybridization of form and content, refusing to adhere to established genre delineations and thereby often producing a level of discomfort not immediately acceptable to a broader audience of comedy.
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16 Maerz, Melissa. "Why I Was Wrong about The Comeback EW.com."EW.com.
1.2. Post-Fordist Cringing inThe Comeback
The affective structure of an optimistic attachment involves a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time,nearness to this thingwill help you or a world to become different in just the right way
Lauren Berlant,Cruel Optimism, 2, my emphasis
In episode one, we see Valerie in her room of pictures and memorabilia of medial representation, reminiscing of the days when she was literally ‘it’ (the show she used to be famous for is calledI’m It):
Valerie: Well, this is it, this is my It-wall. Used to be bigger, but then I got married and you know, you have to share. So... Um, let me show you this. Thishere is my people's choice award, that I got forI'm It. And it means a lot to me because it's from the people. So... and right here is my Leno. There it is.
Jane: Talk more about that.
Valerie: What is there to say? There was a monkey on my head and he pooed! You know - it was a real water cooler moment, you know, the whole next day everyone was... you know. And you know, this was Leno's first year. So it was a real important show for him too! You know. It was quite an appearance. Classic! (TC, season 1, episode 1)
A substantial part ofThe Comebackis Valerie striving to come across as effortless and funny - without ever quite pulling it off. As the star of her own reality show, she is often asked by Jane to “talk more about that”, a method the producer uses to gather useful sound bites which can be edited together afterwards. Valerie’s heightened care for her own impression management, aiming for a specific narrative of her success and smooth comedic appeal, is most often totally at odds with what we actually witness - silence or pauses caused by technical delays, or a heightened awareness that there is no audience to laugh along with her or at these specific ’funny’ moments. We encounter Valerie in many excruciating, almost heartbreaking moments of disappointment about her not-quite-successful performance - be it due to external structures or her own doing. And what happens when these failures ensue - what do we see? Her reaction often features what Lauren Berlant describes as “the recession grimace - a mix of a smile, a frown and a tightened lip“ (Berlant, 196) - also compare figure 11-12.
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Figure 8: Val’s ’recession grimace’
Berlant employs affect and aesthetics in an attempt to grasp the current “crisis ordinariness” (as opposed to the unique and extraordinary event in trauma theory), offering the “impasse” as a transitory moment and reflecting upon traditional genres as insufficient to explain the present (10). She sees the “long-term problems of embodiment within capitalism, in the zoning of the everyday and the work of getting through it” (105). While she examines several aesthetic survival strategies for navigating precariousness and incoherence in late capitalism, her idea of cruel optimism in particular is relevant to this topic. Berlant identifies cruel optimism as a relationship of desire to an object that is “actually an obstacle to your flourishing […] when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially” (1), relating this to unattainable postwar fantasies of ‘the good life’.
As with most cringe comedy protagonists, it is Valerie’s own desire to be loved (in her case, by the public) which creates “situations of profound threat […] (which are) at the same time profoundly confirming” (2). Berlant proposes that the present is at first perceived affectively, and her ideas on the dissolution and recreation of contemporary genre are of use for analyzing how cringe comedy offers a site of evidence for individuals who struggle desperately to live up to the fantasy. According to Berlant, adaptations to this gradual change are felt not as a dramatic event, but rather in “messy situations, episodes, incidents, gestures” (196), represented in genre and cinematic bodies (197). Her focus on the stasis inherent in these realizations of the impasse is fitting for cringe comedy, which lingers in delays and shows bodies in states of need for sudden adaptation, marking “a delay thatdemands activity” (199, my emphasis).
These moments of affective stagnation, when the protagonist and the viewer realize that ‘we’ are stuck, speak a lot aboutwhywe cringe. We cringe as the protagonists try to adapt and perform to the requirements of the situation in order to attain a seemingly unachievable ideal, usually to their detriment. While Berlant refers to the corrosion and disappearance of promises of a certain life style, including dreams of upward mobility or enduring and secure intimacy, it seems fitting to also include the fantasy of celebrity. The state of stagnation in the face of desire unites many cringe comedy protagonists since the turn of the 21st century: “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (24), the clinging to of unattainable fantasies, more often than not tied to the requirement for external approval. Compare David Brent’s compulsive need to be a fun and popular boss in The Officewith Valerie Cherish’s masochistic ambition to return to television stardom in The Comeback or Stuart Pritchard’s unflagging desire to find love with a supermodel inHello Ladies.Berlant examines this attrition of fantasies with the specific question of how “people maintain their binding to modes of life that threaten their well-being“ (16). And her approach to an optimism that is potentially damaging is a particularly helpful instrument in approaching television comedy, specifically the sitcom, commonly characterized as uplifting and re-affirming existing stereotypes, ideologies and modes of living. In the cringe comedy 17 these stable structures of genre become slippery or crumble before the viewer’s eyes.
The performance of this cruel optimism contributes massively to the cringing in these shows. Valerie holds on to a certain fantasy - of being publicly loved and adored as a funny entertainer - while aiming to achieve professional acknowledgment for her personal methods.
1 Garrison, Laura Turner. Exploring the International Franchises of The Office.Splitsider. The Awl, 04 May 2011. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.
2 Cringeworthy. Part of a Series on FAIL. knowyourmeme.com. Cheezburger Network, 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.
3 cringe, v.OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 13 March 2015.
4 Customer reviews of season 1, on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/The-Comeback-Complete- Only-Season/product-reviews/B000FL7CB4 April 15 2015.
5 cringeworthy, adj. OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 13 March 2015.
6 Even President Obama made use of this currently hip awkwardness: in playing along on a fake interview show hosted by awkward specialist, comedian Zach Galifianakis. Obama plugged Affordable Healthcare inbetween drawn out pauses, confusing glances and misinformed cues of the interviewer, once more speaking to the specificity of the cringe in current humor vocabulary and potentially of its arrival into the mainstream. "Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis: President Barack Obama."Funny or Die. 13 Mar. 2014.YouTube. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.
7 FAIL as in turn of the century Internet slang used as an interjection to point out a person s mistake or shortcoming. See: "FAIL. Part of a Series on Internet Slang."knowyourmeme.com. Cheezburger Network, 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.
8 Broderick, Ryan. "22 Cringeworthy Ways To Tell The World You re Pregnant." Weblog post.Buzzfeed.com. Buzzfeed Inc., 13 June 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.
9 "Cringe Comedy - TV Tropes." Weblog post.Cringe Comedy - TV Tropes. TV Tropes, n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.
10 Stephen Merchant comments on the choice to often work with this naturalist aesthetic for this reason. Merchant, Stephen. "Life s Too Short The Making Of."YouTube. HBO, n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.
11 While debate continues on the exact timing of the transition between the Fordist and Post-Fordist modes, most theorists agree on the following elements as key methods and characteristics, which are commonly set in contrast to each other, although they might overlap at times: “As a stable mode of macroeconomic growth, Fordism involves a virtuous circle of growth based on mass production, rising productivity based on economies of scale, rising incomes linked to productivity, increased mass demand due to rising wages, increased profits based on full utilisation of capacity [...]“ (Bob Jessop, qtd. in Amin, 9). Depending on theoretical perspective, this is contrasted with the transition to Post- Fordism in the mid 1970s, signifying a “shift to new ’information technologies’; more flexible, decentralized forms of labor process and work organization; decline of the old manufacturing base and the growth of the ’sunrise’, computer based industries; the hiving off or contracting out of functions and services; a greater emphasis on choice and product differentiation, on marketing, packaging and design, on the ’targeting’ of consumers by lifestyle, taste and culture rather than by social class; a decline in the proportion of the skilled, male, manual working class, the rise of the service and white- collar classes and the ’feminization’ of the work force; an economy dominated by multinationals, with their international division of labor and their greater autonomy from nation state control; and the globalization of the new financial markets, linked by the communications revolution (Hall qtd. in Amin, 4).
12 While affect, emotion and feeling are often used interchangeably, and the discussion around their delineation or similarities remain ongoing, Eric Shouse provides an overview of the most frequently discussed theoretical positions on the use of the terms: Brian Massumi holds affect as a pre-personal feeling, as opposed to social character of emotions, whose display can be feigned (see Hochschild) (3). According to him, feelings are socially constructed variations of affect, with a decided focus on the body integral to our experiences. He makes a distinction between emotions as what we ’broadcast’ to others, which may be adapted to social norms, but can also be directly aligned with our pre-social affects (in the case of infants) (4). Shouse proposes that affects are transmitted through media, which “can create affective resonance independent of content or meaning“, yet he doesn’t believe that “one person’s feelings can become another“ (14). Teresa Brennan inThe Transmission of Affectwould disagree: she sees affect as a “physiological shift accompanying a judgment“, while feelings are “sensations that have found the right match in words“, ultimately stating that “we are not self-contained in our [affective] energies“ and “there is no secure distinction between the ’individual’ and the ’environment’ (5).
13 I specifically chose to work with the term post-Fordism as opposed to postmodernism, because I want to stress the economically influenced aspects of the cultural product I am analyzing, beyond merely looking at the aesthetics-heavy theory more associated with postmodernism (cf. Amin, 31).
14 With the rise of reality programs in the 1990s, docusoaps have emerged as formats that appropriate a documentary style of observation but add the dramaturgy of a soap opera. While purporting to be factual in content they foreground “entertainment over social commentary“ (Stella Bruzzi qtd. in Williamson, 110)
15cf. “The smooth edges and fictionalized feel of the last 10 or so minutes of the episode violated every rule The Comeback had set for itself. Neither the toothlessness of the story's resolution nor the method employed to convey it made any sense, and The Comeback has always, depressingly, deliciously, made sense.” Juzwiak, Rich. "The Comeback Finale Was Bullshit, and I Don't Accept It."Gawker.) Also compare: Lowry, Brian. "'The Comeback' Finale Strains To Find Redemption." Variety, to Jacobs, Matthew. "'The Comeback' Signs Off With A Stunning Season Finale."The Huffington Post.
16 Maerz, Melissa. "Why I Was Wrong about The Comeback EW.com."EW.com.
17 Being aware of the debates around the use of the term ‘genre’, I am trying to employ cringe comedy less as genre, but more as a mode of discourse on media and affective practices (cf. Hight on mockumentary, 17). I also find Berlant’s approach to genre helpful, as she seeks to “track the waning of genre, and in particular older realist genres, whose conventions of relating fantasy to ordinary life and whose depictions of the good life now appear to mark archaic expectations about having and building a life“ (6). If we talk about genre in The Comeback, then this talk centers around a corrosion of the latter which becomes clear when looking at Valerie’s forced sitcom smiles, the gratingly enthusiastic repetitions of her lines, our permanent witness of scenes that are meant to be cut out, or references to outdated working practices that she is used to from working on television in the 80s/90s.