“I will never forget today,” Michael Scott says in front of a classroom full of optimistic high school seniors. He is standing behind a small podium: the only barrier between him and the group of students he promised to pay college tuition for. Despite being in a small classroom, the students’ excitement and anticipation for the rest of Michael’s speech makes it seem bigger. They all wear custom shirts with “Scott’s Tots” ironed on the front, all to praise Michael for his promised generosity. Moments before Michael begins his speech, they surprise him with an extravagant song and dance sequence complete with original lyrics, “Hey Mr. Scott! What you gonna do? What you gonna do make our dreams come true!” The school also names its library after him, because after all, it’s the least they could do to honor Michael for paving the way of world’s future leaders.
Meanwhile, audiences around America are cringing at this scene of The Office. Some pause the TV, others fail to complete the episode at all. But most keep watching. So what makes this situation with Michael Scott so awkward and unbearable?
As it turns out, Michael did pledge to pay the tuitions – 10 years ago while inspired by the charm of youth and under the pretense of becoming a future millionaire. However, and as you have already figured out, Michael can’t uphold his promise. This is the reason why audiences grimace but nervously laugh at this scene. Michael’s huge mishap mixed with the children’s optimism both complement and crash with the rules of comedy and our sympathetic nature.
This scene in The Office is not unlike any other scenes within the show. In fact, it’s that kind of dry, second hand embarrassment humor that makes the show the success it is. Audiences grimace, but they can’t help but laugh at the main protagonist who constantly puts themselves in awkward social situations. This kind of comedy, mostly known as cringe comedy, is an umbrella term for types of comedy (mostly black, dry, dark, and the occasional reality TV) that features oblivious characters within embarrassing situations. As explained by Psychology Today:
Grimace [cringe] funny and is the kind of humor that has long been fingered as a defense mechanism. This laughter barely escapes through gritted teeth and appeals to the primitive in us that once found amusement in a court jester falling off a stage. This same impulse is expressed in the modern world when we can’t help but slow down to absorb every detail of a fiery car wreck. Self-destruction lies at the heart of this kind of comedic entertainment and, as a result, incites an emotional discomfort that we are programmed to avoid. So we avoid it by laughing it off.
And by TVTropes, cringe comedy:
mostly comes from placing characters in the most embarrassing situations possible, or having them say the most awkward or offensive thing possible at all times. Often uses documentary feel to heighten the naturalism and increase the cringe, or has actors in character interacting with an unsuspecting public. Comedy that gives you second-hand shame. Comedy you have to watch through the gaps between your fingers.
An important aspect of cringe comedy stems from the oblivious nature of the character, but this is not always the case. As seen with Michael Scott, he is aware of his broken promise and so are we, the audience, which just makes the inevitable realization of doom for the unaware students even more cringe worthy to experience. The shared embarrassing knowledge between the main character and the audience (which is usually kept from the audiences in traditional dramas, suspense, etc.) enhances the impending awkward situation. The audience knows what the character knows, therefore making it easier to feel what the character feels. Hence the term second-hand embarrassment within TV comedy, which could arguably be the best of the worst feelings imaginable.
Another cringe worthy scene comes from no less than Saturday Night Live itself, with Kyle Mooney playing a white and nerdy aspiring rapper confident on beating Kanye West at a rap battle. We first receive the stings of cringe-y defeat when Kyle begins to awkwardly rap, “Kanye West… Man, that stinks! Grab a mint, what is that? Your Kanye breath?” to utilize as an initiation tactic towards his future rap battle with Kanye. What makes this scene work is the obvious fact that Kyle’s appearance and verbal style clearly doesn’t even compete with that of Kanye’s, but nonetheless he is still confident about winning.
Fast-forward to the actual rap battle at the end of the video when the viewer senses Kyle’s defeat. As Kanye verbally tears him apart with his typical Kanye style, Kyle stands there quietly and awkwardly. He doesn’t know what to say and he doesn’t even know where to look. Periodically we see him trying to say something in retaliation, but we know he won’t. At that moment, Kyle is cornered by someone bigger than him – physically and metaphorically – and his occasional confident grin of disbelief is a feeling we, as an audience, know too well.
Even though not all people can relate with having to rap battle Kanye West, everyone can relate with their “Inner Kyle.” The Inner Kyle is the common person’s own secret form of inflated egotism. It’s that confident yet stubbornly cocky “other self” we all hide from society but let loose in our heads. It’s the voice in your head that mocks your boss after he or she says something demanding to you – but you do the thing asked anyway. And that’s the difference with the cringe comedy characters we see on TV and rule-abiding people in real life: the characters will feed their Inner Kyle with more uncomfortable situations, while real-life people will conform to polite societal expectations.
Another mild, yet unsuspectingly triggering example of cringe comedy comes from Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, when she runs into an old ex with a new girlfriend in an elevator. She, on the other hand, is dating someone else as well, but the relationship isn’t quite going as well as she expected. In order to one-up her ex, she yells at him to let it be known that she, too, is in a happy relationship. This desperate attempt to overmine her ex-boyfriend’s success is obviously very try-hard, and she ends up imitating Tony the Tiger when she tries to overmine his use of the word “great.”
We sympathize with Mindy’s miscalculation and overestimation of a trivial word even when we, as an audience, wouldn’t personally say it like that, but saying something or doing something like the character isn’t the point. The triggering quality of cringe comedy lies on the fact that it’s something we personally would do, only if there were no social etiquette rules or feelings like embarrassment. In this specific scene, Mindy’s use of the word “great” ends up sounding silly at the end, but we can sympathize with her because we know the feeling of desperation.
Cringe comedy, although sometimes hard to watch, produces a certain kind of comical aura where audiences are allowed to laugh, sympathize, and relate with the characters. It’s this kind of comedy that makes people relate with the show by forcing them to put themselves in the character’s position and feeling what they feel. Scenes featuring cringe comedy forces a connection between complex character relationship dynamics of the show with that of the audience, which creates a fundamental bond for both craft and viewers.