Cringe comedy is a specific genre of comedy that derives humor from social awkwardness. Often a cringe comedy will have an air of a mockumentary and revolve around a serious setting, such as a workplace, to lend the comedy a sense of reality. It could be argued, therefore, that the film This Is Spinal Tap (1984) was a forerunner of cringe comedy.
The protagonists are typically egotists who overstep the boundaries of politcal correctness and break social norms. Then the comedy will attack the protagonist by not letting them become aware of their self-centered view, or by making them oblivious to the ego-deflation that the comedy deals them. Sometimes, however, an unlikeable protagonist may not suffer any consequences, which violates our moral expectations, and also make the audience cringe.
"Imagine the cutlery laid out for a formal dinner. Suppose that the salad fork is in the wrong place. If you are the sort of person who is disturbed by such deviations from the norm, you will not be capable of finding this amusing. On the other hand, if you are more easy-going about such matters and also aware of the incongruity, it may elicit a chuckle. That is, you may find the error amusing or not. But if you find it genuinely amusing you cannot find it annoying."
This mutual exclusivity with annoyance can explain the divisiveness of cringe comedy.
Popular examples of television programmes that employ this genre of comedy include Frasier, The Office, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Portlandia, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Alan Partridge, The Comeback, House, Nathan For You, Peep Show, The Thick of It, Louie, Freaks and Geeks, The Inbetweeners, Friday Night Dinner, Flight of the Conchords, Extras, Life's Too Short, Hello Ladies, Parks and Recreation, Miranda, The Eric Andre Show, Silicon Valley, and Mr. Bean.
- Susman, Gary. "Discomfort Zone: 10 Great Cringe Comedies". Time.
- See page 18 of Fairclough-Isaacs, K. (2014). Documentary's awkward turn: cringe comedy and media spectatorship, by Jason Middleton: New York, Routledge, 2014, 185 pp, ISBN 978-0415721073 (hardback). Comedy Studies, 5(2), 207-208.
- McFarlane, Brian (2009). "A curmudgeon's canon: random thoughts on 'Summer Heights High', 'The Office' and other nasty pleasures". Metro Magazine (160): 134–138.
- Carroll, Noël (2014). Humour: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-19-955222-1.