The universal language of cringe comedy

One of my favorite seminars in my postgrad media theory class is on Erving Goffman’s work on embarrassment. I put them in an embarrassing situation of having to give each other compliments, and then we reflect on what it feels like to give and receive compliments, discussing which is more embarrassing, and why. I also always take them through Goffman’s list of how people experience embarrassment–blushing, dry mouth, fumbling hands, etc.–and we talk about our own embarrassing experiences (they’re usually related to public speaking–it’s universal). 

I love how universal and human this seminar is–each year, I have a different mix of international and British students, but no matter where they’re from, everybody can relate to embarrassment. Talking about it in a theoretical sense always leads to confessions, vulnerability, and laughing with each other in this small (10-15 person) group. 

This year, I also showed them a clip from “The Office” to illustrate one of Goffman’s points about vicarious embarrassment–when we feel shame or embarrassment on behalf of another person:

“When an individual finds himself in a situation which ought to make him blush, others present usually will blush with and for him, though he may not have sufficient sense of shame or appreciation of the circumstances to blush on his own account.” (Goffman, 1956, p. 265)

I always think of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “cringe comedy” when I read that part. David Brent has no idea how embarrassing he is, and the audience is cringing with embarrassment on his behalf. So many of their other characters do this to us, too–Stuart Pritchard in Hello Ladies;  Maggie Jacobs, Shaun Williamson and Darren Lamb in Extras; Danny in I Give It A Year;  most of what they do with Karl Pilkington…

I was curious to see how my Chinese students would react to the original UK version of The Office–would they get it? Would they realise how cringey David Brent is supposed to be? I used this clip of his terribly inappropriate job interview, and I was thrilled to see that they did indeed get it. There was lots of laughing, groaning and eye-rolling in the room. Everybody was able to reel off the various social rules he broke, his awkward body language, his inappropriate questions, and her embarrassment cues.

I wasn’t able to find any academic studies of international adaptations of The Office, but that’s one I’d love to see…It’s been adapted in 11 countries and 9 languages, and the similarities are brilliant. Wikipedia has this great chart with details about the different versions–I think my favorite part is that the Swedish version is an office hygiene product company instead of a paper company, and that’s just like David Brent’s job in Life on the Road. 

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Explaining the Inexplicable

This week I’ve been going back to my survey of American study abroad participants, in which I asked about their experiences of talking about US politics overseas during and after the 2016 election. By far the most frequently asked question they faced was simply “What happened?” They wanted to know why the election had the outcome it did, why Trump won, why Clinton lost, and whether Americans were actually in agreement with Trump’s platform.

It’s been almost two years since the election, and we still don’t really have all of the answers. Hillary Clinton even used that question as a title for her book, which she’s now promoting again for its paperback release.

There are a lot of contributing factors–the electoral college, for starters. Americans might be asked to explain the electoral college to people they meet overseas, often without fully understanding it themselves. There have only been a few elections in which the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college, but two of them have now happened in our lifetime, and both were to the detriment of the Democratic party (2000 & 2016). That’s going to raise some eyebrows when we try to explain it overseas.

Another factor is the problem of “fake news”–not Trump’s definition of “fake news”, i.e. every form of journalism but Fox News–but actual misinformation disguised as news and circulated on social media by readers who may or may not be aware of its true nature. Trump’s overuse of the term has turned it into a joke, but the spread of fake news stories that smeared Hillary Clinton may have had real consequences, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Ilkley Brewery’s real ale with the slogan “Making Beer Great Again!” and Topshop jeans

There’s also the matter of Russian influence that we still don’t really know the full details of–but a few things are certain: 1) Russia did definitely meddle in the election, 2) they wanted Trump to win, and 3) Trump really doesn’t believe they did.

There are a range of other contributing factors, too: the Democratic party’s in-fighting and prolonged primary with Bernie Sanders, the “baggage” of Bill Clinton’s scandals, James Comey’s investigation announcement that came far too close to the election (and although it turned up nothing, the damage was done), Hillary Clinton’s so-called “likability” problem which is probably just sexism against the first female Presidential candidate, etc.

I’m still going through the survey data, but so far I’m just struck with the enormity of what we Americans abroad are asked to do, when we’re asked to explain the 2016 election. There’s really no explaining it, not then and not even two years on from it.