Cringe Comedy and the Suspension of Empathy

Type: Conference paper

Location: Australasian Humour Studies Network Conference, University of Queensland, February 7–9, 2024

Abstract: Cringe comedy has been an ascendent form of comic media for the past two decades, testing viewers’ ability to endure extreme levels of awkwardness and abjection. One popular mode of cringe comedy — practiced by the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Nathan Fielder, and Eric Andre — involves staging interactions between a comedian and real people who are not in on the joke. These encounters, which blend comedy with techniques borrowed from documentary and reality television, intensify the discomfort to such an extent that they walk a delicate line between humour and cruelty. Competing theories of humour have attempted to explain how and why we laugh at the expense of others, as well as how we can find humour in subjects considered taboo or disruptive of social norms. Schadenfreude, comic license, superiority, and benign violation theory are all useful but inadequate concepts for considering the mechanism of humour in cringe comedy, which poses distinct challenges to how we think and talk about the ethics of humour. In cringe comedy, it is not necessarily the content of the joke that is problematic, but rather that the joke is at the expense of an unwitting mark, who may have done nothing to deserve the indignity of victimhood. For the reasonable viewer this would seem to preclude ethical enjoyment of such comedy — and yet, these cringe comedies remain a popular and respected form of comic media. In this paper I draw on the notion of the suspension of empathy to explore how these comedies cultivate an affective environment in which a viewer can laugh at an innocent person experiencing discomfort or being made to look like a fool. Additionally, I survey the assortment of visual and other cues cringe comedies use to signal to the viewer the ethical permissibility of laughter.

Winner, 2024 AHSN Student Scholarship Award