The Office delivered the cringe factor like no other show on TV and there’s a reason why fans love it, even when things get very uncomfortable. During an episode of An Oral History of The Office podcast, host Brian Baumgartner explained why, despite the cringey moments, the show continued to win over fans.
‘The Office’ nailed the cringe comedy elements
The original British Office first brought the cringe with Ricky Gervais’ character David Brent. Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant explained during the podcast how that cringey element became such a focus of the show, even though they didn’t plan it.
On the August 4 episode of An Oral History of the Office, Baumgartner explained how “cringe comedy” was a “critical element of The Office.”
Paul Feig, who directed many episodes of The Office, summed up the reason why the cringe element is so funny.
“To me, the most awful embarrassing moments in your life are so hellish when you’re going through them that to sit like a horror movie in a safe position and watch somebody else go through something that you have been through or something that’s as bad as something you’ve been through is so liberating,” he explained.
Baumgartner summed it up perfectly, noting, “Maybe we get a sense of relief from seeing our own worst moments turned into a joke and projected on screen.”
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The ‘accidental pioneers’ of cringe comedy
There were “hints of cringe in the U.S.” in 90s TV with Seinfeld, Baumgartner explained, but the British Office definitely provided a breakthrough.
Gervais and Merchant were “accidental pioneers,” however, as Merchant explained, “It was not an intention to make people squirm. It was just that, for us, it was so much funnier when someone who was trying to be funny, for instance, said a joke and then you just heard the silence and then you just sat in the silence. I don’t know why Ricky and I just found that so funny.”
“It was only when we started hearing from people, ‘Oh that made me feel really uncomfortable’ or ‘I have to watch it through my fingers’ — only then did it occur to us, ‘Oh maybe this is not always as enjoyable for people as it is for us.’”
“They weren’t even aware of how realistic all of these cringey moments felt,” Baumgartner noted.
Merchant added, “It was so funny to us to just keep turning the screw and making this world uncomfortable. It didn’t occur to us that people would find it cringeworthy.”
Michael Scott was cringey but likeable
When the show was created for the U.S., the writers had their work cut out for them — they had to deliver the cringe element but make Michael Scott likeable. “Michael had to be different from David Brent in some key ways,” Baumgartner explained. “Michael couldn’t completely alienate himself from his employees, that would end the show.”
The episode “Scott’s Tots,” in which Michael promises to pay for kids’ college tuition but can’t deliver on that promise, is among the most cringey episodes of the series.
When Baumgartner asked Lee Eisenberg, one of the episode’s writers, if he was “proud of himself for writing the cringiest episode of The Office ever,” Eisenberg said, “Incredibly, yeah. Nothing makes me happier.”
“Cringe was an essential part of Michael Scott’s character,” Baumgartner explained. “And, as with many leading men over the history of comedy, so was his handling or mishandling of sensitive social issues.”