Cringe Comedy, Why ‘The Office’ Succeeded Across the Pond

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Film & TV, Film/TV-General

Russell Brand summed it up when he said, the difference in national humours can be found in cultural reference. Because comedy is a slice of national life (or in shows like Episodes, the clash of contrasting slices of national life).

Nowhere is this more true than in ‘cringe comedy’ – that genre which ‘is all about the painful laughs derived from the awkwardness of social interaction and around people’s lack of self-awareness.’ [Time, May 2013] The Office embodies cringe comedy (originally written by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant in the UK and adapted for the US by Greg Daniels of The Simpsons fame) but unlike many other American/British remakes, both are successful and their mutual success lies in the writers recognition of cultural idiosyncrasies.

  • The ‘Irony’ difference

There’s some justification for the oft-cited ‘Americans don’t ‘do’ verbal irony position’ but less than you may think. Americans do ‘do’ irony but it isn’t the backbone of their daily interaction as it is in Britain. They often feel the need to point it out with a ‘just kidding’ at the end of the sentence, whereas Brits may feel the need more to point out where what we say isn’t irony. Our default is ‘assume irony’, unless otherwise stated in additional phrases such as ‘true story’ or ‘no joke’ which themselves might be an ironical emphasis, whereas America is seriously not joking (and therefore needs to indicate that a joke has been made, so their irony doesn’t get taken too seriously).

Consequently, success in British cringe comedy is more often to be found in dry, dark verbal humour where jokes preferred in the US might be perceived by Brits as too obvious and schmaltzy.  The British are more likely expect you to do the work and join the ironic dots if you want to laugh. America delivers humour to your door in superbly constructed sets of punchlines.

But irony is not only verbal, it is also dramatic and situational and the latter often translates better between cultures, especially in cringe comedy (which goes someway to explaining why Mr Bean is one of our successful cringeworthy exports). Get your protagonist in the most surprisingly embarrassing situation possible and see him wiggle out of it. America does situational irony superbly (think American Pie); it works in America and Britain, and both versions of The Office use it to great effect.

  • The ‘Hero’ difference

For the British, less is more. the UK version spans two series of six episodes with two Christmas specials, whilst in the US it ran for 9 seasons, taking on (from the second season) the usual format of 20+ episodes per season.

The difference in the British understated ‘less is more’ philosophy and the American straightforward ‘more is more’ can be seen in a comparison between the characters Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) and Jim Halpert (John Krasinski). Their roles are everyday man counterparts, but Jim (second most popular name in the US) is an American everyday archetype, a mild-mannered, unassuming, cute basketball geek. Our British everyday man Tim (more obscure name, more self-deprecating character), isn’t particularly good looking and is has an edgy sometimes even sullen, insecurity which he disguises with wit–he is an dissatisfied underdog, a bit of a loser. It is unlikely that America would accept the pessimistic Tim as a hero, whilst for Britain, Jim is too optimistic and simply doesn’t appear to suffer enough.

‘All the great British comic heroes are people who want life to be better and on whom life craps from a terrible height and whose sense of dignity is constantly compromised by the world letting them down.’ Stephen Fry on American vs British Comedy

Ricky Gervais said of the two versions, that Brits were more comfortable with life’s losers. Our rigid class system and low social mobility, pervasive even today although far more nuanced than in bygone eras, meant that we stoically accepted our lot in life with a stiff upper lip (even if that lot is stuck in a demeaning job, unable to get the girl). American’s have high social mobility and been conditioned to think they can make it, no matter what. Ambition is lauded in America and frowned upon in Britain, where if you try and act ‘above your station’, you can expect to be taken down a peg or two (usually in deadpan delivery–never quite knowing whether the joke is actually, on you).  But if you suffer enough, you can be our hero.

  • The ‘Cursing’ difference

The pilot episode of The Office (UK & US) was the most similar scriptwise after which each departs into its own cultural universe. It is therefore a useful episode to compare. In Britain, David Brent the manager starts the episode off by swearing ‘I don’t give shitty jobs’ with plenty more swearing throughout ‘You’re a cock’ (Tim Canterbury) – all of which was skipped in the American version. ‘Bloody good rep’ (David Brent) was translated in the American version as ‘terrific rep’.

Swearing in American mainstream comedy won’t pass muster as it is perceived as coarse, vulgar and thus less humorous, more offensive. It has no comedy value (unless of course you’re Eric Cartman and intent on delivering humour through shock value–there’s a lot of ‘fucking’ in South Park). Notably, whilst there is a lot of what we term as mildly offensive swearing in the British version, the word ‘fuck’ is only used once and as a true insult.

Neil Godwin: No dog with you today David?
Chris Finch: Didn’t you see her? She just left.
[Neil and Chris start laughing at David]
David Brent: Chris, why don’t you fuck off?
[Neil and Chris are left in stunned silence]

In the UK jocular swearing is expected (at least in contemporary comedy) – ‘Sammy, you old slag’ is funny in the UK but its equivalent ‘Sammy, you old slut’ might even be censored in mainstream American TV.

  • The ‘Drunkenness’ difference

Within minutes of the first episode the British manager has admitted that he ‘had a skinful last night’. Binge drinking is part and parcel of British life even if viewed as humorously inappropriate and unprofessional, whereas in American cringe humour it is less acceptable. There’s no mention of alcohol fueled antics in the US version whilst drunkenness is a running theme in The UK Office. There’s plenty of social awkwardness in the US version which stems from lack of self-awareness or personal ineptitude… always the alcohol free kind.

In fact embarrassing drunkenness features heavily in many UK cringe comedy series and tends to be used as a vehicle to put characters into awkward social situations, from The Inbetweeners and Fresh Meat where it’s a constant vomiting embarrassment, Peep Show where memory loss through excessive drinking eventually reveals a forgotten excruciatingly cringeworthy moment and even the quintessential Blackadder, which devoted an entire episode to Beer, in order to demean its protagonist. America, with its history of protestant moralistic convictions apparently finds it more difficult to laugh at humour delivered through extensive and regular drinking, although the odd drunken scene may sometimes work.

  • The ‘Respect for Authority’ difference

Anarchy in the UK is still part of our recent cultural (and musical) history. David Brent is a vile character and a meta demonstration of the popular opinion, ‘management is utterly incompetent’, versus the depiction of David’s counterpart Michael Scott, who is altogether more likeable (especially in later seasons).

The corporate manager (Jennifer in the UK) is nicknamed Camilla Parker-Bowles by David Brent. At the time that The Office came out in 2001, there could be no greater insult. Camilla was someone who was viewed by Brits back then, as a woman usurping the irreplaceable Diana (who’d died two years before), unworthy of her position; someone who was universally disliked. She was a commoner, and dared to rise above her station. Diana, an icon, figures in the top ten of Britain’s greatest heroes (mainly I suspect because she suffered a lot in her quest to be happy), and named Camilla as the wicked witch spoiling her fairy tale.

But Jennifer’s counterpart Jan in the US show is nicknamed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the analogous scene; a polarizing figure known for her indomitable force and viewed as flawed but still intelligent and competent. Twice, Hillary Clinton has been listed as one of the 100 most influential American lawyers. Less of an insult, more of an accolade, albeit controversial.

It seems the British are more likely flout authority and disrespect celebrity (perceived as undeserved authority/influence), where Americans have traditionally put it on a pedestal. And perhaps given British history, where divine right was used to justify the monarch’s whims and where the privileged upper classes lived off workers’ land labour, our tendency towards anarchy is understandable…

Cringe comedy differences in… The Office (UK) The Office (US)
The Irony Constant flow of irony (usually both verbal and situational) Constant flow of  irony (more situational), with a tendency to be peppered with less ironic more obviously funny punchlines
The Hero A loser/losers as the main protagonists More likeable heroic figures as main protagonists (who follow a sweeter more redemptive arc)
The Cursing A fair amount of swearing, sometimes simultaneously affectionate and derogatory No swearing
The Drunkenness Drunken debauchery, often used to create social awkwardness Very little drunkenness used, social awkwardness comes usually from personal ineptitude
The Respect for Authority Blatant disrespect of authority  Some mild disrespect for authority, if any

The best examples of cringe comedy in the UK also score highly on some or all of these five points. Starting with the obvious, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Peep Show, Ali G, The Inbetweeners, Little Britain, Fresh Meat, AbFab, Coupling… whereas I can think of no better example than Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents as the US depiction of the finest cringe comedy. Someone sweet and inoffensive, socially awkward, not drunk and fairly cute who looks doomed for failure, but in the end all is well.