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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