by Tim Norton
I don’t like The Office, Arrested Development or The Thick Of It.
There, I said it. Cue the vitriolic hatred spewing my way from every inner-city intellectual with a handy internet connection. But allow me to explain first, before you cast the first stone of comedic judgement.
All of the above shows form part of the genre of ‘cringe comedy’ – humour that arises from placing characters in uncomfortable or embarrassing situations. Often this takes on a ‘fly on the wall’ attitude, with documentary camera angles and reality television plot lines utilised to heighten the realism of the characters’ ultimate failure.
The Germans had the delightful foresight to invent the word ‘schadenfreude’ – pleasure derived from the misfortune of others – but this word does not fully encapsulate the feelings evoked by cringe comedy. In recent times this has been adapted into the neologism ‘fremdschämen’, which describes the process of being vicariously embarrassed by someone else. This seems more fitting for the act of watching five minutes of Ricky Gervais pound out a terrible guitar solo, or Larry David fight to keep his shoes on in a friend’s house. None are more guilty of belonging to this weak and lazy genre than Arrested Development.
In this collection of bile known as a television show, there is a very deliberate attempt to root this type of comedy with the associations people will draw to their own lives. Thus, we are not necessarily laughing at Tobias Fünke, we are laughing at that person in our daily lives who reminds us of he. That pathetic guy at work who always seems a bit sad on the inside, a bit goofy and rife for a chuckle with the cool kids of the office around the water cooler. Really, this is what it comes down to – the immature, unfair deriding of the picked-on kid that is so reminiscent of high school that it just makes me sick.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The phenomenon of laughing at the misfortune of others has long been a standing point in comedy. You only have to look back to Monty Python’s fat man in the restaurant, or Blackadder’s Baldrick to see that the butt of the joke can make for decent viewing. The defining difference is the self-awareness these characters had about their own ridicule. Baldrick was an extreme caricature of himself, and therefore too hyper-real to resemble any real person who could imagine themselves in his situation. The most obvious indicator of self-awareness in comedy is that of the audience laugh-track, and modern cringe comedy seem to delight in taking away this auditory cue just to heighten the level of uncomfortable viewing. Gervais’ character David Brent in The Office was specifically designed to emulate any middle management person in a modern office, and the less said about the US spin-off of this, the better.
Grow up. Show some respect for the type of ridicule and bullying that you are giving license to, just by supporting and encouraging this type of comedy performance. Because what is popular in cultural mediums is allowed to perpetuate in the real world, and the last thing that I, or anyone else needs, is someone laughing at me next time I trip over in the street.
by Sabine Wolff
Are we seriously even having this argument?
But seriously. The problem with living in a (cough) ‘hyper-connected’ world is that it offers you more opportunities than you could possibly imagine to encounter your fellow humans. As it happens – something you’ve probably noted – a significant proportion of your fellow humans are terrible people. Really, really just awful.
If you doubt the truth of this statement, turn the television over to Question Time, or go on Twitter and pick a likely looking topic such as #auspol, and just let the under-informed, over-confident and poorly punctuated opinionated screeching waft over you like a gentle breeze blowing over a sewage farm.
It can get difficult to face all the truly useless people you have to interact with on a daily basis without suffering some sort of break with reality; the sort where you start believing the world is run by lizard people and consequently run off into the forest to live as a sort of neo-hermit, far from the cacophony of stupid that pervaded your previous life.
However, deforestation is occurring at such a rapid rate that it isn’t really practical for us to return to the forest to live among our ape cousins. This is where shows like The Office, The Thick of It, and yes, Arrested Development can actually help, by providing us with the coping mechanisms we need to assist us in interpreting and subjugating the people-based challenges of everyday life.
To address Norton’s argument a bit, it is entirely true that when you laugh at GOB’s unwarranted bombastic self-confidence, or Lucille’s distant self-involved alcoholism, or Tobias’ complete inability to function in society, you’re really laughing at people who remind you of these characters. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing: laughing at things that would otherwise depress you is probably quite healthy.
Arrested Development – and other comedies that encourage us to laugh at embarrassing situations, awkward moments, and characters who are completely without redemption – shows us the very worst of our society, then (and probably more importantly) showing us that it’s hilarious. Being able to laugh at the inherent ridiculousness in the most unflattering aspects of life makes for a far more tolerant and accepting outlook.
Anyone who’s even vaguely acquainted with the inner machinations of politics will recognise this in The Thick of It, Norton’s hatred of which makes me seriously question why we are friends. It’s depressingly realistic, or at least it would be depressing if its slight exaggerations didn’t make it absolutely hilarious. The Office does the same for our workplaces, and Arrested Development for our gloriously screwed up families.
Humour leads to acceptance. If everyone around you is awful, and let’s face it, odds on they probably are, the only real option you have to deal with it while remaining a sane and productive member of society is to have a quiet chuckle to yourself about it all every now and then.