Painfully Funny: Cringe Comedy, Benign Masochism, and Not-So-Benign Violations


  • Marc Hye-Knudsen Aarhus University



cringe comedy, benign violation, benign masochism, vicarious embarrassment, humour, evolutionary theory, Fawlty Towers, The Office, The Inbetweeners, Human Nature and Pop Culture


Cringe comedies differ from traditional embarrassment humour by being explicitly aimed at evoking not just the positive emotion of amusement but also the decidedly negative emotion of vicarious embarrassment (i.e. ‘cringe’) in their audiences. Drawing on Warren and McGraw’s benign violation theory of humour and the concept of benign masochism, I offer a biocultural account of how they achieve this effect and why audiences counterintuitively seem to find it enjoyable. I argue that whereas a farce like Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) employs psychological distance in order to render its embarrassing violations thoroughly benign and thus singularly conducive to amusement, cringe comedies like The Office (2001-2003) and The Inbetweeners (2008-2010) comparatively decrease psychological distance in order also to evoke high levels of vicarious embarrassment. Finally, I argue that audiences find benignly masochistic pleasure in such cringe-inducing media because they offer vicarious experiences with social worst-case scenarios.


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How to Cite

Hye-Knudsen, M. (2018). Painfully Funny: Cringe Comedy, Benign Masochism, and Not-So-Benign Violations. Leviathan: Interdisciplinary Journal in English, (2), 13–31.