The beauty of awkwardness in television
Yesterday I wished somebody a happy birthday. With all my heart, I hugged him and felt sorry that I didn’t know it was his birthday. Only thing is, it wasn’t his birthday at all and so I made a fool of myself. I could have been angry at him for misleading me this way or laughing it away for the silly thing that it was (which I did). But underneath I felt something that seems to be a key ingredient for comedy nowadays: Embarrasment and Awkwardness.
So it got me thinking about our masochistic delight in feeling embarressment and shame for the misbehaviour/pain of someone else. In Germany we have the perfect word for this feeling, Fremdschämen, which is an equally spot on description of a feeling as Schadenfreunde and Weltschmerz (praise our compound nouns!) are. But where Schadenfreude benefits from its inherent feeling of superiority over the subject we’re laughing at, it’s the opposing element of empathy that makes the sensation Fremdschämen not a very pleasant one by default. So why is it that comedies including one of the most exported comedies in recent years (The Office) is presmised on the general cringeworthyness we feel for the protagonists?
„Comedy is tragedy plus time“
Whoever said the quote above, hits the nail right on the head. We’ll laugh about it later probably is one of the most used consolation phrases. And it’s true, every mistake can turn out to be a hilarious anecdote in retrospect. Remember the time I called my teacher mommy in class? Remember when I mistook that stranger for a dear friend and greeted him inappropriately? Time doesn’t make the awkward feeling go away when you recall the events even if it happened to someone else but it eases the immediacy of the pain and makes it funny. We’ve all been in those situations so we can all empathize with them if they happen to someone else. In television it’s a little different, I think. Awkwardness is only funny as long as long as the protagonist isn’t aware of the fact that he’s or she’s making a complete fool of him-/herself. The sadness and loneliness underneath redeems characters like David Brent, Stuart Pritchard and Bernd Stromberg who otherwise would be total dicks. They are unaware that they are in fact lonely , incompetent, inappropriate and embaressing. You feel for them because you know they’re lonely and sad deep inside and laugh because they don’t know it.
In Hello Ladies Stuart, played by Stephen Merchant, is constantly trying to get laid with women who are clearly out of his league. Or as Wikipedia put it more romantically: „It stars Merchant as an Englishman looking for love in modern Los Angeles“. His self-perception is off the charts and he is embaressing himself so much that I literally had to cover my eyes (though ears would be the more appropriate solution) while watching. Just like a good horror movie. It’s in those rare moments where he rides home alone or is his charming self around his friend Jessica when you start forgiving his delusions. If he knew he was a screwup we’d have depressing Leaving Las Vegas and not a comedy. Stuart’s undaunted enthusiasm makes it a comedy. so you could argue that not only comedy = tragedy + time but also comedy = tragedy + oblivion.
The bottom line is, to feel awkward for another human being, fictional or not, “ is to have a more intense awareness of the presence of others, to see as if from a distance the rules and relationships that bind us together or keep us apart.“ (Cutterham) Isn’t that beautiful?