Whether it’s cult films or the mockumentary style perfected by The Office, why do we seek discomfort from our comedies? Everyone agrees that Martin Scorsese’s collaboration with Robert De Niro is one of the great movie double acts. But when laurels are scattered in its general direction (Raging Bull! Taxi Driver! Goodfellas!), few are spared for their tale of a sociopathic failed standup, The King of Comedy. Yet, you could argue that said feature film, 35 years old this year, is the pair’s most influential match-up. From People Just Do Nothing to This Country, survey today’s entertainment landscape and everywhere you see comedy that mainlines awkward pauses and excruciating faux pas. Raging Bull got the Oscars, but The King of Comedy anticipated a movement – cringe comedy – that has come to dominate TV and movie screens everywhere.Its high-water mark was in the early 2000s, with The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sacha Baron Cohen’s oeuvre cultivating a new taste for squirmy humour. “Oh, it was horrific,” says Ali G and Borat co-writer and co-producer Dan Mazer, shuddering to recall his experiences with Baron Cohen. “Sometimes I couldn’t watch and had to extricate myself. Latterly, I couldn’t be on set: the discomfort overwhelmed me.” Viewers will recognise the feeling, and watch-through-the-fingers comedy has proliferated since. Nathan Fielder’s spoof business advice show Nathan for You or last year’s Palme d’Or-winning movie The Square are as toe-curling as anything Baron Cohen or Ricky Gervais made. The unforgiving gaze of cringe com is a key component in series as diverse as Fleabag, Catastrophe and Lisa Kudrow’s cult hit The Comeback. What distinguished those mockumentaries with Baron Cohen, says Mazer, was that awkwardness was a means to an end: “We wanted to highlight injustice or satirise things, and awkwardness was the best way to do that.” Continue reading…

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