Discomfort comedy we can and can't take
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I enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia about equally, although I have friends who just can’t take Curb, even though the darker moments of The Office are far crueler than anything Larry David devises. And while I thought TV Funhouse was brilliant, and occasionally enjoy the more horrifying moments of Family Guy, I cannot handle Wonder Showzen or South Park, though friends more strait-laced than I love them. What gives? Is it a certain moral point of view in a show, however disguised or in the background, the general tone or setting, sheer genius at the cost of discomfort, or some other thing? What do you laugh at that disgusts or turns off your friends, and vice-versa? —Jon Allen
For me, the issue with discomfort humor generally isn’t the moral questions or empathy for the discomfited (except in Sacha Baron Cohen films, where I’m too aware of the trickery, manipulation, and outright lies involved in getting all those people to make fools of themselves). The real issue is that I can’t take the pacing. Discomfort-humor shows too often tend to be about the long, uncomfortable pauses and the moments drawn out to the point where the audience is supposed to be debating what they want more—to break and flee, or see the characters break and flee. I tend to prefer my comedy more fast-paced, banter-y, and screwball-breathless, and even when I’m squirming in discomfort, the awkward pauses tend to make me impatient. Which is why I haven’t been able to get through an episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, for instance. I seem to be the only person in the office that doesn’t think it’s genius, but to me, it’s an endurance test, a kind of staring contest where the comedians are betting the audience will flinch or blink first. From what I’ve seen of it, it feels like discomfort comedy where all the discomfort is being heaped on the audience. But I have no particular problem with, say, Extras, the Ricky Gervais series that invited celebrities to come humiliate him and themselves. As long as discomfort comedy moves along fleetly and tells a great story—which Extras does, to my mind, with considerably more polish than Gervais’ The Office—I have no problem with it. Most of the people I’ve showed Extras to feel differently, though. I can understand them not being able to take all the embarrassment, but to me, that show was always more hilarious than painful. I still can’t stop laughing at the scene where Gervais pours his woes out to David Bowie, who promptly improvises a catchy sing-along about Gervais’ uselessness and presumed impending suicide:
When it comes to Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! I can only watch one episode at a time, spaced out. If I watch two or more in a row, the weirdness and gross-out elements (I’m thinking right now of the episode I watched recently where the guys were lactating) just pile up in my brain like a traffic jam. In terms of what I can take, I’m trying to convince everyone I know to watch Louie, which I think is pretty full of discomfort humor. I tell a lot of people that it reminds me of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which has both worked and failed as an endorsement. That said, Curb was the only show that ever sent me out of the room. It was the episode titled “Affirmative Action,” when Larry insults two black people and then encounters them both, later on, at a dinner party full of successful black professionals, and has to explain himself and his apparent racism. (His earlier excuse, “I was being affable!” was so unforgivable!) I had to jump up and get out because the tension of the situation was overpowering: I sort of hoped things would work out, but I also knew Larry deserved to be punched in the face. I think to this day, that was the only non-horror scene where I couldn’t look at the screen.
Tim And Eric has become an office litmus test, but Wonder Showzen set the standard. The show was so bleak and relentlessly uncomfortable—it made The Office look like Growing Pains—that it was grueling to watch. Normally when I pick a show up on DVD, I blow through episodes pretty quickly, but I could never go more than two with Wonder Showzen because it was so goddamn dark—and I’m a fan. The roughest moments came in two places: “Beat Kids,” where children did brutal, inappropriate man-on-the-street interviews with unsuspecting adults, and the similar interviews with Clarence, a blue puppet who said awful things to people and nearly got the Wonder Showzen guys stabbed once. Maybe it does come from the moral point of view, Jon, because in this case, there was none—Wonder Showzen was gleefully nihilistic. Sure, the show made some points about society’s relationship with children, but it did so without any semblance of hope. It existed purely to fuck with people, and it could be pretty unbearable—yet funny—doing so.
While I agree with everything mentioned so far—and that goes triple for Louie’s relentless series of pained confrontations—I prefer to witness the balance between comedy and discomfort in a stand-up setting. Even when a comic handles a tough situation masterfully, stand-up makes the possibility of a horrible collapse feel much greater, and therefore more delicious. Going too far with sarcasm or preachy-ness is certainly part of the charm with David Cross. He knowingly delights in goading people, whether he’s going off at scroll-worthy length about religion, making crude cracks about rape, or stretching a wordplay-based bit to the point of implosion. When some of us A.V. Clubbers saw him in Chicago last fall (doing material that’s since been released as Bigger And Blackerer), he began by sending a little kid onstage to pretend he was Cross, grown-up words and all. Later on, someone walked out, yelling, “Fuck you, David Cross! You’re boring!” loud enough for the whole theater to hear, and Cross somehow managed to dig himself out of the ensuing unease, but then again, not entirely, and it was to his advantage. Beyond stand-up, few writers have made the best of one icky situation after another like Sam Lipsyte in his recent novel The Ask, which might be the funniest thing I’ve encountered all year. The fact that the protagonist has a co-worker named Vargina is the least of the book’s discomforts, and I’ll refrain from spoiling the rest here.
To be honest, I’ve always thought that the line that cannot be crossed in terms of bleak humor will never appear on television. The Office took it pretty far, but even the UK version, which was substantially darker than its American counterpart, was rarely unsparing, because, well, it was a TV show. There’s some stuff you just can’t show on television, and while the UK Office had a horrible centerpiece in David Brent, and the U.S. version could occasionally paralyze with horror in an episode like “Dinner Party” or “Scott’s Tots,” they were still ongoing series with the censorship issues that occur on networks and the desire to make the characters likeable enough for you to tune in every week that goes along with episodic TV. Tim And Eric, I think, isn’t even in the same league; it’s more about absurdity and indulgence than emotional pain and discomfort. A.D. Miles’ web-based soap-opera parody, Horrible People, came close with its gleeful amoralism, and Wonder Showzen is probably as near as it’s ever going to get for national television, but it’s mostly material appearing in print that gives me that “Should I even be laughing at this?” feeling. There’s plenty I could name, but the grand champeen is babysue—lamentably no longer in ’zine form, but thankfully surviving online—which outranks everything ever televised as the thing you worry the most about anyone knowing you read, while spitting out uncomfortable laughter every few minutes.
I love discomfort humor, so I’m not sure I can answer this question. I think Wonder Showzen and Awesome Show, Great Job! have each produced moments of actual comedic genius by pushing things farther than they’d gone before. Laughter is often inspired by surprise, and even if you hate those two shows, you’d be hard-pressed not to find some moments surprising (or deliberately shocking, like, y’know, cooking and eating God on Wonder Showzen). I can offer my own sense of discomfort with regard to comedy though: When relatives talk about the latest episode of Two And A Half Men, reciting every plot detail and then looking at me as if to say “You saw that one, right?”, I get a little uncomfortable.
Speaking of Two And A Half Men, the last time I got really uncomfortable while watching something that was supposed to be funny was when I caught two consecutive episodes of the Charlie Sheen-Jon Cryer laughfest at my grandmother’s place. Not only did both episodes include gags where a character cleared out a room with stinky flatulence—one involved a pregnant woman and the other involved the half-man, half-kid—there was this painfully off-color joke where Sheen contemplated having sex with the pregnant woman. “Just because there’s a bun in the oven doesn’t mean I want to butter it,” Sheen concluded dismissively. It haunts me to this day that my grandmother laughed at a wacky quip about ejaculating on an unborn fetus. Watching Curb Your Enthusiasm will forever seem like sipping on ice tea on a porch swing compared to that.
When people talk about how uncomfortable they feel watching the UK version of The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or even particularly bleak scenes in Breaking Bad, I can’t relate. It doesn’t matter how well a story is written or acted; they’re still just characters to me. Real people humiliated on hidden-camera shows, on the other hand, make me squirm. Even as a kid, I couldn’t stomach Candid Camera. It’s like my empathy kicks into overdrive. Some poor person is walking down the street, minding their own business, when suddenly they’re suckered into some lame con for other people’s amusement—the very thought makes my toes curl. The show’s “edgy” descendants, like The Jamie Kennedy Experiment or Boiling Points, are even worse. (The one exception to this is Punk’d, which doesn’t bother me at all. Those people chose to be friends with Ashton Kutcher and deserve whatever they get.)
I had a friend who didn’t like Da Ali G Show for the reasons Lindsey mapped out here. I love Cohen in part because, in his Ali G incarnation, at least, his satirical targets are some of the smartest, most informed, most knowledgeable people in the world, people who really should know better. He afflicts the comfortable, which makes his show not just fun and funny, but genuinely transgressive and subversive. I tend to love most humor rooted in discomfort and shock—I am, after all, on record as loving Freddy Got Fingered—but I recently encountered the limits of my tolerance/appreciation for this type of humor while watching Cyrus. I appreciated what the film was doing intellectually, but I felt the discomfort never led to cathartic laughter or laughter of any sort, just further irritation and a desire for the movie to end as quickly as possible.