Cringe comedy has been in vogue for a decade or more, with the popularity of the British version of “The Office” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The fact that Seth MacFarlane, who dabbles in cringe as the creator of “Family Guy,” is hosting the Oscars next month is only more proof that the comedy of discomfort has gone mainstream.
Cringe isn’t necessarily raunchy, although it sometimes is. Cringe is that kind of humor that makes you writhe in both pain and laughter as you watch someone in the middle of an embarrassing or humiliating situation. You’re teetering on the line between sympathetic uneasiness and hysteria. It’s not entirely new, by the way; Jane Austen was making readers cringe back in the 19th century, as she ridiculed the likes of Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins in “Pride and Prejudice.” Mr. Collins would rival Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in “The Office” in self-important buffoonery.
The HBO series “Girls” relies heavily, if not solely, on cringe comedy, as Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath continually falls into embarrassing situations. In honor of the show’s return on Sunday night at 9, here are a few landmarks in the genre.
He was so out-there as a performance-artist comic, you didn’t know if he was joking or not. He pushed his absurdist hoaxes far enough to make audiences uncomfortable.
“THE KING OF COMEDY”
Watching Robert De Niro’s deluded Rupert Pupkin pretend to be a late-night talk show host was both funny and ridden with pathos. For a comedy, this Martin Scorsese classic made viewers ache.
“THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW”
With his raging insecurity and his hungry ego, Garry Shandling’s Larry made a fool of himself in every episode. It still hurts to remember the time when Carol Burnett had to tell Larry that his testicles were showing.
“SWINGERS” ANSWERING MACHINE SCENE
This was one sustained ouch, as Jon Favreau’s Mike leaves a series of messages that get more and more needy and tense. You want him to stop calling, but he’s stuck in a spiral of desperation.
“WAITING FOR GUFFMAN,” CHRISTOPHER GUEST
The first of the mockumentaries that Guest directed was affectionate teasing that frequently made you squirm at the characters’ innocence and ignorance.
“THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY,” THE FARRELLY BROTHERS
The humiliations that befall Ben Stiller’s Ted in this movie are painful and painfully funny. From the zipper scene on, we wince and smile simultaneously.
“CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM,” LARRY DAVID
You don’t want him to say what he says — but you SO do. No argument is too petty to become an embarrassing confrontation for Larry. The documentary shooting style makes his clashes all the more painfully realistic.
“THE OFFICE,” RICKY GERVAIS AND STEPHEN MERCHANT
They’re the kings of pain, having solidified their status with the original “The Office” and, more recently, “Life Is Short.” Gervais as the “Office” boss who needs to be liked, a man who puts his foot in his mouth and swallows, is an embarrassment of embarrassment riches.
“DA ALI G SHOW,” SACHA BARON COHEN
With his characters Borat, Ali G, and Bruno, the ace trickster — whose show hit HBO in 2003 after a season in the United Kingdom — made us recoil for all the unsuspecting real people whose ignorance he exposed.
You’ll be squirming on the couch watching this brilliant one-season series, in which Lisa Kudrow plays a vain, deluded TV actress who meets with endless humiliation.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.