The, er, loving couple: Asher (Fielder) and Whitney (Emma Stone) in “The Curse”. Image: via YouTube

Existential cringe

The uncomfortable comedy of ‘The Office’ isn’t new—but ‘The Curse’ takes it to higher planes
January 24, 2024

To my mind, there are a few possible explanations for why cringe-inducing comedy appeals to people. It could be schadenfreude. It could be that we get a kind of catharsis for our own social failings by watching them unfold elsewhere. It may be a way to experience the nauseating but still adrenaline-inducing kick of an awkward situation happening without it actually happening to us. Maybe it’s a combination of all three, or something else. Whatever it is, cringe comedy is popular. I find it taxing, although it depends on the format—and the degree of the cringe. 

Series such as the decade-old Impractical Jokers, for instance—in which comedians undertake to put real people in socially horrifying situations without their prior knowledge—make me physically revulsed. I can’t bear it, these people being made to feel uncomfortable and confused, unknowingly watched and laughed at. I hate the promise of conflict to come between the strangers and the pranksters. In fact, it’s not going too far to say that I experience a low-grade “humanity is varied in ways impossible to comprehend”-type alienation at the thought of people who are not horrified—but enticed—by the prospect of jokes that are designed to irritate or enrage others.

Usually, when a show is scripted—like The Office, say—I can deal with cringe comedy. I am able to find the awkward scenarios thrilling and amusing because they are, after all, not real. And I certainly prefer these types of comedy shows to canned laughter sitcoms.

But despite it being scripted, I found The Curse, the new show from actor-comedian Nathan Fielder and writer-director Benny Safdie, more difficult than I expected. Though I did watch it avidly (it’s on Paramount Plus). I have thought about it a lot since watching it, too. Why?

The Curse is about a young couple, Asher (Fielder) and Whitney (Emma Stone), who are in the process of filming a pilot for their “reality” TV show Fliplanthropy, in which they try to reinvigorate (or gentrify) an underprivileged town in New Mexico by building and selling eco-friendly passive housing. They are also trying to conceive a child, despite difficulties arising from the fact that Asher has a micropenis (yes) and that Whitney sort of hates him.

It’s a satire of white saviourism, but that is only the first layer. Things get stranger and stranger when Asher begins to believe that a little girl has placed a curse on him for staging an act of generosity for the show, in which he gave her $100 only to ask for the money back once he thought the cameras had stopped rolling.

It’s a satire of white saviourism, but that is only the first layer

Their well-meaning but cack-handed interactions with people of colour; Asher’s craven worship of his uninterested wife; their desire to do good rubbing up against their desire to make engaging television that will catapult them to fame: all these elements produce cringe, but they also speak to dark, unpalatable elements of the human condition. It is scripted, but the near-candid camera style of the shots and the naturalness of the dialogue meant that I had to remind myself, “It’s not real, it’s okay,” in order to get through some of the scenes. 

What Fielder and Safdie have done with The Curse is to combine cringe comedy with existential dread. Perhaps this is not surprising, as Fielder is a master of the former (see Nathan for You and The Rehearsal) and Safdie, who co-directed Uncut Gems and Good Time, of the latter. Stone’s and Fielder’s characters make social blunders that cause us embarrassment, but there is a pervasive sense of something deeply sinister going on that means your cringe develops into—or is perhaps even deliberately confused in our minds with—dread. And it was this feeling that I found absorbing.

The Curse is not a feel-good comedy. It is as close to a feel-bad comedy as I have ever seen. But the surreal elements are what have made the show stay with me in a way that other cringe comedies never have; the idea that there is some higher—even magical—power at work in the lives of these people that could at any moment cause a calamity much more consequential than an off-colour remark or a problematic attitude. And when that calamity comes, I guarantee you, you will not have seen anything quite like it before.