The ‘New York Times’ Has No Idea What ‘Cringe Comedy’ Is

Two articles about ‘cringe comedians’ from this past weekend show that the ‘Times’ can’t decide what ‘cringe’ means
The ‘New York Times’ Has No Idea What ‘Cringe Comedy’ Is

What do I Think You Should Leave and TikToks poking fun at true crime fans have in common? If you answered “not much,” then you do not work for the New York Times.

This past Friday, the New York Times Magazine published their latest issue with a cover story titled “Tim Robinson and the Golden Age of Cringe Comedy,” in which the Times interviewed comedy’s most paradigm-shifting performer, the co-creator and star of Netflix’ absurdist humor hit I Think You Should Leave. The next day, the New York Times newspaper published a story in their business section titled “Welcome to CringeTok, Where Being Insufferable Can Be Lucrative,” which dove into the economics of “cringe comedy” in online spaces. 

Between the two pieces, a hidden truth emerged organically and unintentionally — the New York Times can’t decide what they think “cringe comedy” means.

According to The Times, we’re currently living through the peak of “cringe comedy,” and, so they seem to be saying, any comedy created during this epoch must be “cringe.” The term that once was used to describe shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm has been expanded to include any artistic endeavor that mines humor out of social situations. We used to just call that “comedy.”

In an hour-long dinner during the grueling editing process for I Think You Should Leave’s third season, Robinson and his creative partner Zach Kanin sat down for a short and stilted conversation with Sam Anderson of the New York Times Magazine. After some coastal condescension typical of the Times, which included compliments on Robinson’s “salt-of-the-earth Midwestern vibe” and a belabored description of his face and its “big flaring dolphin fin of a nose; small, deep-set eyes that sit in little pools of shade; a warm, gaptoothed smile,” Anderson reported scant few telling details about Robinson: He’s mild-mannered, he loves spicy food and he hates explaining his comedy.

Though Anderson learned little about I Think You Should Leave or its star’s creative process, he did land on a loose definition for the genre of “cringe comedy” that is now allegedly in its heyday. “Cringe comedy is like social chile powder: a way to feel the burn without getting burned,” wrote Anderson, invoking the academic phrase “benign masochism” in describing the addictive qualities in these controlled doses of social discomfort. 

Then, the next day, the newspaper side of the Times printed Kate Ryan’s examination of the economic mechanisms at play in what she describes as “CringeTok,” interviewing content creators such as Stanzi Potenza, Wendell Scott and Riri Bichri. The first example Ryan pulls from the “CringeTokers” is from Potenza, who posted a satirical takedown of fans of the ghoulish Netflix series Dahmer. In the video, Potenza plays a character whose nitpicking of the series and obsession with the serial killer escalates in absurdity to the point where the fan admits that they just wish they were Jeffrey Dahmer. Pertinently, Dr. Phil once earnestly showed a clip from the sketch from his show as a warning of the dangers of true crime, failing to recognize the obvious satire.


Compared to her colleague on the magazine side of the Times, Ryan had an even more vague description of her article’s central theme, saying that the word “cringe” is “deceptively hard to describe,” before summarizing it as “vast, encompassing everything from dated cultural norms to a strategy that musical artists employ to reach real fans. Cringe is not any one thing, but you know it when you see it.”

In both pieces, the New York Times struggled to explain exactly what they mean when they say “cringe comedy,” and in both cases, their actual subjects struggle to conform to the confines of the phrase. Traditionally, the phrase “cringe comedy” describes projects that mine social awkwardness and characters’ incongruity with social norms in order to elicit a pained laugh as our mirror neurons scream in embarrassment. The average I Think You Should Leave certainly starts in that familiar territory, usually beginning with Robinson playing a character who doubles down on a faux pas or who confidently can’t read a room, but the sketch never ends in that same initial awkwardness. 

Where I Think You Should Leave differs from aforementioned “cringe comedy” classics like The Office is that Robinson uses that friction between a character and social conventions as a launching pad before blasting off into aggressive absurdity that burns labels like “cringe” in its jet stream. The sketches start in a place of familiar social friction, but the average I Think You Should Leave sketch rapidly evolves out of that “cringe” stage into sheer escalating absurdity that leaves any semblance of an initially relatable situation behind it. Calling the iconic “Baby Cries” sketch referenced by Anderson “cringe comedy” is like calling a butterfly a caterpillar.

Similarly, the second piece seems to lump every kind of “character comedy” that plays with social conventions into the genre of “cringe.” Potenza describes herself as a “sketch comedian from hell,” and her typical fodder isn’t the uncomfortable air in a room after someone accidentally says something offensive to their co-worker — it’s the abortion debate, or the working conditions in an Amazon warehouse, or the state of the state of Florida. Potenza plays characters at odds with norms, but the intended and eventual result isn’t awkward — it’s assaulting.

Cringe comedy, in its traditional form, lives in awkward silences, like the one after Larry David refuses to thank a veteran for his service. The trend that the New York Times has identified, however, is anything but silent — it’s explosive and exponential, using the defiance of social conventions as a spark on a pile of tinder soaked in gasoline. In I Think You Should Leave and on dozens of TikTok accounts, we are seeing the post-cringe stage in comedy, where the expectations established by the successful cringe comedians of the last two decades are being subverted and perverted by performers pushing the medium to places it’s never been.

The New York Times boasts that its reporters cover “All the News That's Fit to Print.” Those same journalists now seem to think that all modern comedy is cringe, to which I say, “You sure 'bout that?

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?