I remember the first time I saw Napoleon Dynamite.
For the majority of movie, the level of awkwardness that I felt as a spectator was pretty comparable to the contrived awkwardness of just about every single one of its characters. But eventually, there was a breaking point where I stopped questioning the unnatural laws of social interaction that governed the film’s universe, and allowed myself to buy into its unorthodox comedic value instead.
This summer marked 10 years since Napoleon Dynamite’s release, and with every year that passes, it feels less and less accurate to categorize the movie as unorthodox. When you look at the evolution of the entertainment industry since then, there has been a high demand for comedy that wins you over with amplified doses of awkwardness. Even when the comedy in question is so awkward that it makes you cringe—it is a reaction we are growing increasingly comfortable with.
Awkward comedy manifests itself in a variety of styles and mediums. Although Napoleon Dynamite was an extreme example that worked by deliberately pushing its characters and dialogue to abnormal levels of awkwardness, the genre is often at its best when it draws on realistic ideas and situations. Recent shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Girls, and The Mindy Project exemplify this and thrive on extremely awkward realism. The Office was critical to this branch of humour, paving the way for some of our generation’s biggest comedies like Modern Family and Parks & Recreation. Plus, it didn’t shy away from the cringe effect. When Michael made insensitive oversights in conversations with his staff, or when Jim flirted with Pam, only to be blocked from articulating his true feelings, those moments were uncomfortable to the point where you sometimes wanted to turn away and hide from the TV (see episode “Scott’s Tots” for a particularly potent example).
Still, for all the squeamishness those scenes can cause, they are also something we have come to crave. Perhaps the best example of a cringe-worthy TV show today is Nathan For You, a docu-reality series that follows Dumb Starbucks mastermind Nathan Fielder as he sources out struggling businesses in Los Angeles and tries improving them in offbeat ways. Fielder projects his own awkward persona onto the business owners and customers he interacts with and shamelessly manipulates or embarrasses whomever he has to in order to achieve his ends. For instance, he convinces a cartoonist to only draw offensive images of people and only allows attractive women to shoplift from a clothing store. It’s often gut-wrenching to watch, but those moments represent the pinnacle of the show’s humour and keep us tuning in.
Fielder playing to the camera in Nathan For You is an example of one of the best niches for awkwardness in entertainment: When the character causing the awkwardness is aware that they’re being filmed. Tim and Eric’s Dr. Steve Brule immediately comes to mind for his anti-charismatic news segments. YouTube interviews in particular are an advantageous medium for awkward comedians. In his “Between Two Ferns” videos, Zach Galifianakis completely subverts the expectations of a talk show by immediately casting an embarrassing spotlight over his guests. Kyle, of the channel GoodNeighbourStuff, catches unsuspecting targets off guard as he asks them questions in a shy, nonsensical manner. Again, it can be uncomfortable for us as viewers to see regular people struggle to react when they’re put on the spot by a calculating interviewer, but it is addictive to watch.
Even in the musical realm, Flight of the Conchords reminds us that awkwardness doesn’t have to be restricted to a visual experience—although watching them perform on stage or in their TV series is entertaining to say the least. Maybe some elder folk might be a bit uncomfortable listening to Jermaine croon the lyrics “Then we’re in the bathroom brushing our teeth/That’s all part of the foreplay,” but it sits just right with this generation.
Years from now, maybe we’ll look back at these years as a golden age for awkward comedy; but with comedians like Michael Cera, Kristen Wiig, and many more on the rise that have long, awkward careers ahead of them, I’m looking forward to the next big uncomfortably funny thing.