Sympathetic Viewer Awkwardness; The Office, American Pie 2, etc.

Michael Scott (The Office)

There’s something I dread when I watch comedies, and it’s even more prevalent in certain black comedies where they are played seriously, dead-pan. I like to term it “Sympathetic Viewer Awkwardness”, which happens both when the character feels awkward, but much more commonly, when we feel awkward for the character.

Take for instance the American version of The Office, starring Steve Carell as Michael Scott, the boss at a small office where they sell paper. Michael will not miss an opportunity to be rude, racist, sexist, and offensive. His staff obviously pays him no mind, and don’t take him seriously. I do remember the scene where he asked every person in the office to talk as if they were someone from another “group”, and he drew the “Indian” card (India, not Native American), and then Kelly, the Indian worker, had walked in and had slapped him, since she thought he were mocking her.

The thing is, watching The Office is almost a physically painful experience for me, as I can’t help but go, “Oh gawd, he didn’t just do that, did he? He did!” and of course the show actually plays and gives social commentary, by showing you these ridiculously offensive things, and having a character who truly means well, he just really doesn’t know any better. If you watch the show with people who think Michael’s behaviour is legitimate, BTW, know that you are not in Kansas anymore ;)

In American Pie 2 there’s a scene where Jim takes a special ed kid’s trumpet (I think he was autistic, but it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve last watched the movie), and walks towards Michelle (Alyson Hannigan‘s character) in a public show, trumpeting, with a complete lack of ability on the trumpet. The thing is, the scene went on and on, with him sounding so bad, and looking so stupid, that I literally half-covered my eyes while it all went on.

Likewise, in last week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory, where Howard first proposes to Bernadette in the middle of the Cheese Factory, and then goes and performs a number on stage there. I watched it on my own, so I actually stopped the video for a bit.

So what is this “Sympathetic Viewer Awkwardness”? It’s when the characters are acting so outrageously bad, that you feel ashamed, you feel ashamed for them, you feel the shame you would have felt in their place, you feel the shame you’d have felt if you were in public with them and related to them. You feel awkward, because it’s something you can’t stomach, and you care for the characters, and you feel the pain, the shame, of their actions, even as far removed as only seeing them happen on TV.

It makes watching comedies somewhat painful, but I brave it. It may show that I identify too strongly with characters, but who knows.

P.S. I’m sorry last week had no updates, I actually meant to write an entry several times, but something always came up.

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16 comments on “Sympathetic Viewer Awkwardness; The Office, American Pie 2, etc.

  1. Yi says:

    That’s exactly how I felt for The Office. I feel embarrassed for him so often. Also, on a tangent, does it seem like characters in The Office are becoming more malicious lately than since the first season?

    • Guy says:

      Are they becoming more malicious? I just think they’re fed up, and they must turn increasingly juvenile and sarcastic to not completely lose it.

      I somehow missed most of the 4th season, so I still need to catch up on that. I was busy when it was on school, and didn’t watch the taped episodes…

      • Yi says:

        The recent episodes have a kind of meanness that the first two did not. For example, Dwight went from just being a weirdo to someone who actively and almost successfully tries to jeopardize Jim’s position in the company. Phyllis has become quite a mean and unforgiving person as well.

    • Guy says:

      Ah, you’re talking third season, I was thinking fourth. Yes, Phyllis becomes such a mean person, trying to pull her import over other people, lording them once she gets some dirt on them…

      Well, that’s Dwight, that didn’t surprise me at all ;)

  2. Reltair says:

    The most recent episode of The Office, I felt awkward for Michael when I knew he had to tell those kids he lied.

    Also, The Office isn’t as funny as it used to be. =/

    • Guy says:

      Was The Office really ever funny? I laughed at some points, but I actually felt like I’ve went through an emotional pulper after watching each of the episodes. I didn’t feel light and happy, but heavy and almost ravaged.

  3. Canne says:

    I know how that feels. I usually turn my gaze away from the screen when the awkward moments occurs. Sometimes it’s hard to understand other people who laugh at such scene, or is it their personal responses to awkwardness? I don’t know.

    • Guy says:

      Laughter and humour are defense mechanisms against things that make us awkward or which frighten us.

      I sometimes wonder, but it’s like scenes in a movie where someone gets butchered and everyone laughs. I’m not sure anyone finds it funny, but the laughter is there.

  4. Optic says:

    My sister started getting into it and now she got me into as well. Currently up to S2, Part 2 and loving it but I think I missed out a few episodes from Part 1. Gotta check back and rewatch them.

    I completely understand how u feel. Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or not or feel sorry for this guy. I know it’s just a comedy but some of the things mentioned are very harsh and I find it hard to take it as a joke.

    Overall, it’s a very good show and I highly recommend it to anyone. ^^

    • Guy says:

      Sometimes I feel the “Comedy” tag and the laughs now and then are just there so people could stomach the show, and its social messages.

      In a way, Michael Scott is a speciman of how not to behave.

  5. Tommy says:

    I don’t know, I’ve never felt for any of these “stupid characters” in my life, so I’m not sure what you’re really talking about, especially since I don’t watch The Office. I did watch American Pie 2, but it was too long ago that I forgot what went on there. Maybe these awkward moments are the same moments that I find boring in these comedies?

    I don’t give a damn about the character’s stupidity when watching comedies because they act like that to make you laugh. Sometimes you need to have a sense of humour to enjoy these comedies, which isn’t for everyone (especially when they crack a racial/sexual joke). Something I find funny might sound stupid to another. And if you think things like this doesn’t happen in real life, you have to think again. Shit like this happens.

    When I watch a comedy, I let myself go and relax for the time being. That’s the only way you can enjoy them.

  6. lovelyduckie says:

    “Sympathetic Viewer Awkwardness”

    I suffer from that…watching Meet the Parents was REALLY hard for me because of it. I haven’t seen The Office yet though, I plan on trying it, but it might be too much for me.

    • Guy says:

      I think The Office is almost cathartic, but not more than two episodes at a time.

    • Guy says:

      Emotionally hurtful is harder to watch than raw “gross”. Also, gross things are much less gross when watched on screen, and when you don’t get to truly see them in 3D and/or smell. Though I’m not squeamish at all with anything blood, pus, gangrene or the like. Just vomit (and I also dislike the scent of feces).

  7. […] Salvaggio’s perceptive account of the lunch exchange brought me a shudder of recognition as I re-read it today that was half-schadenfreude, half sympathetic awkwardness. […]

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