In the theater, I pull my legs up to my chest and cower away from the screen. To my left, my friend has his index fingers at the ready in case the audio becomes more than he can bear.
No, we’re not watching a horror flick, but the new Ricky Gervais comedy, Ghost Town. The recoiling and ear-plugging is not induced by the fear of seeing a victim cut to bits by a chainsaw, but rather terror in the form of inappropriate conversation and awkward pauses—our generation’s sense of humor.
While there are two streams of cringe comedy, scatological humor and the humor that arises from an awkward situation, the former is being eclipsed by comedy series like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, The Office, and Extras. These shows do include a few “gross out” jokes, but the episodes revolve around one embarrassing situation or misunderstanding that escalates throughout the show.
An American audience usually needs its jokes presented more explicitly (just compare the two versions of The Office), but the subtlety of cringe comedy has received a welcome reception from Stateside youth. Part of its success might have to do with its universal accessibility. These comedies are very much a caricature of real life. We experience awkward situations everyday, whether it’s a result of another person’s behavior or the consequence of our own. Everyone knows that guy who makes inappropriate comments in class. Everyone has waved hello to someone only to realize that someone was greeting the person behind you.
Instead of pretending these moments don’t exist, we gasp, “awkward!”, and proceed to share the anecdote with our friends. By laughing at these instances, revealing them, and agreeing that everyone has had a similar experience, the need to feel embarrassed effectively goes away.
Ghost Town begins similarly to the comedies mentioned above. Gervais plays the socially awkward (surprise) Bertram Pincus, D.D.S. Through his daily life, Pincus makes every interaction almost unbearable to watch because he is either cruel or entirely inappropriate. After waking up from a surgery, Pincus finds that he died for seven minutes while on the table and can now see ghosts. One ghost, Frank (Greg Kinnear), keeps bothering him to break up his widow’s new engagement. This type of fantasy is never present in the normalcy of cringe comedy, but it was forgiven for the time being.
Halfway through the movie, however, I became confused. Suddenly the movie had turned into a romantic comedy with Gervais seeking the affection of Frank’s widow, played by Tea Leoni. Up to this point, any kind of canned storyline (speaking to ghosts, for example) could be excused because I was seeing the Gervais humor I had come to see. But the romantic genre had somehow snuck its way into my comedy, and I was stuck watching the lame clichés seen in every Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie.
How did my favorite style of comedy get crushed together with a romantic story fit for the likes of Lifetime? Like so many things, I blame Judd Apatow.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up unfortunately altered the look of romantic comedies so that Colin Firth could be replaced with a pudgy, average guy who would stumble his way out of silly situations and into the heart of a hot chick who had it all.
When Apatow blurred the lines between cringe comedy and romantic comedy, he ruined the genre. Now, romantic comedies have their place, usually in front of a couch with a pint of ice cream, but let’s get one thing straight: normal fat guys are not romantic and being nice isn’t funny. Romantic comedies shouldn’t be allowed to steal genuinely funny actors and make them less humorous by stuffing them into a formulaic love story.
In all fairness to Ricky Gervais, he didn’t write Ghost Town, and perhaps I shouldn’t have expected it to be like all of his other work just because he was in it. My only request is that romance gets out of my comedies. It’s making them soft.
And, if it’s not too much trouble, Mr. Apatow should make a film with a genuinely awkward, pudgy, average girl who gets the hot guy in the end. No, not one of those She’s All That jobs where an attractive girl just stops wearing glasses and baggy clothes to become more attractive. I want a real uggo to win over her handsome counterpart by her charm and authenticity alone. Not to say my dating life hasn’t been accurately represented in romantic comedies before, but if life truly mimics art, this kind of movie would definitely up my chances.