I Want to Punch Him in the Face

Discomfort comedy and the ironic generation

by by Greg Nissan

illustration by by Diane Zhou

The film opens with a familiar sight: the mid-30s hipster donning a blank expression, a trendy button-down that snags on his porcine belly, and a pair of jorts cut three inches too short. He adjusts his sky-blue Ray-Bans, claws at his unkempt beard. This is Tim Heidecker, the cult comedian of Tim and Eric fame, who has a talent for offending his audience. In Rick Alverson’s new film The Comedy, which opens in theaters on November 13, Heidecker portrays the sardonic and inept Swanson, an aging Williamsburg scenester whose life is a mix of unbridled sarcasm, flaunted privilege, and crippling boredom. The film gained the reputation of the most polarizing film at Sundance 2012, with many viewers walking out. Perhaps it was the title, which implies none of the darkness of the film, or Heidecker’s strikingly realistic portrayal of entitlement and insincerity, but its reputation is not surprising—this movie is incredibly uncomfortable to watch.

Heidecker is no stranger to discomfort comedy. Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job is both a brilliant satire of humor and a revolting collage of corporeal weirdness. It’s a mushy stew of ’80s public access TV aesthetics and bathroom humor. Tasha Robinson of the AV Club describes the show as “a kind of staring contest where the comedians are betting the audience will flinch or blink first.” Tim and Eric is indeed a litmus test of squeamishness, a drastically different kind of discomfort humor than The Comedy. The former attempts to gross the viewer out with its surreal, disgusting images, while the latter dispenses of surprise and absurdity in favor of a more profound discomfort—that of being confronted with incorrigible, base people.

The Comedy is unsettling in its realness. Heidecker moves away from the shock-value oddities of Tim and Eric towards the egregious social blunders of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, another staple of discomfort comedy. Both are barely scripted, detailing events rather than dialogue. The conversation that does arise in this approach makes the discomfort all the more salient. When Larry exits a handicap toilet to find a disabled person waiting outside, there’s no snappy back-and-forth dialogue, just Larry’s mumbled obnoxiousness and the other man’s unfettered rage, leaving plenty of room for uncomfortable interruptions and silences. While David dissolves any chance of resolution in a Curb episode through his misanthropic, self-centered pursuits, Heidecker’s Swanson is even more flippant and while both characterrs are unapologetic, Swanson lacks David’s charm and wit. Swanson is one of the most brutal characters I’ve seen in a long time—he justifies Hitler and jokes about being a rapist while hitting on girls, viciously berates the nurse who changes his dying father’s diapers, and sings a racist song to a taxi driver about not giving him a tip (since there’s no satellite radio where he can listen to ‘black music’). He is joined in the taxi by Eric Wareheim and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem (an engaging contextual addition—he and Bill Murray are archetypes of the aging hipster). Opportunities for self-reckoning occur repeatedly as the movie goes on, but Swanson manages to remain unchanged.

The film doesn’t sound funny. It sounds pretty awful. There’s a whole branch of reality shows that stem from Candid Camera, in which an unknowing participant is put in an absurd and uncomfortable situation and we casually observe their reaction for entertainment. The discomfort is contained within the scene, and we’re given a true moment of schadenfreude as we laugh at the misfortunes in the show. In discomfort comedy, however, the discomfort is aimed elsewhere—at the viewer. In a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm or a film like The Comedy, we’re not impassively watching an awkward situation. We’re in one, and others’ misfortune definitely does not delight. While The Comedy is very much an indictment of irony as the main mode of life—Swanson treats nothing with sincerity, and the result is a need for increasingly extreme transgressions to combat his desensitization—one cannot appreciate this movie without irony. We have to realize that Swanson’s transgressions are meant not only to offend us, but to stand in for a judgement, inseparable from the film’s discomfort—that irony is a crippling mechanism of privilege. Swanson can only achieve the luxury of distance from reality due to his inherited wealth (from his father) and inherited nonchalance (from his surroundings). He is the sublime realization of a type of asshole to which we’ve become very accustomed. I found myself howling at his absurdity, loving the character as a perfectly realized version of what I and many others unreservedly hate.

We become the butt of the joke when watching The Comedy. No wonder so many people walked out at its premiere (and the movie’s trailer suggests the filmmakers were quite proud of such a feat, daring viewers to watch as a test of their endurance). It forces us into a strange tension between wanting to laugh in order to recognize Swanson’s absurdity or cope with the awkwardness, and not being allowed to laugh for fear that we might condone this atrocious behavior. I didn’t feel empathy for the characters that Heidecker berates in the movie for that very reason—he’s so one-dimensionally an asshole that he seems to be shrugged off, and I felt just as assaulted as the characters inside the movie. This displacement of assault—from the character who actually receives it in the story to the audience—is accomplished by the bizarre and twitchy pacing of this genre. Tasha Robinson elaborates on this displacement, of tension as well as assault: “Discomfort-humor shows too often tend to be about the long, uncomfortable pauses and the moments drawn out to the point where the audience is supposed to be debating what they want more—to break and flee, or see the characters break and flee.”

Discomfort comedy is all about making the audience a character, and generally not a happy one. I never know whether or not I should recommend comedy of this kind, because when discomfort is aimed at the viewer, so much depends on the context of watching. The feeling ceases to be contained within the characters or the situation, and reaches out of the film to be felt by the viewer; the viewing experience becomes unpredictable. AV Club’s Steven Hyden recalls an especially uncomfortable comedic moment while watching Two And A Half Men (a show decidedly not of the discomfort humor genre) with his grandmother, “there was this painfully off-color joke where Sheen contemplated having sex with the pregnant woman, ‘Just because there’s a bun in the oven doesn’t mean I want to butter it,’ Sheen concluded dismissively. It haunts me to this day that my grandmother laughed at a wacky quip about ejaculating on an unborn fetus.” What separates discomfort humor from other dramatic forms that manipulate discomfort is that the discomfort is not contained in the story; it’s the central external product of the film. That’s why I felt a similar effect when watching The 40-Year-Old Virgin with my mother (a terrible idea)—there is a tension external to the film, one that we’re forced to deal with rather than nodding along and empathizing. We feel bad for ourselves. Alverson elaborated on the effect he wanted the audience to feel in an interview with “Doubt. Confusion. A nagging discomfort. I want people to leave with a new sense of alertness because of those feelings. I think they are very important experiences that are eschewed by most movies and media because they don’t lead to excessive, instantaneous comfort.” While The Comedy is a deft satire of the pitfalls of the ironic lens, a pertinent critique in 2012, the lack of development is an important aspect of its identity as discomfort comedy. We’re given no moment of catharsis as a reward for being so patient through all the offenses, no development that comments on how awful Swanson is. We have to deal with Swanson’s actions, since nobody in the film does.

Perhaps the most brutal scene is when Swanson enters a Brooklyn bar as the only white guy. He proceeds to claim his need to “represent Williamsburg” to a group of black guys. He talks about his respect for “the hood,” how they’re “tough” and “cool” simply because they’re black, and a handful of other offenses. The group casually insults him in response, barely responding to his absurd racism or his desperate attempt to seem cool, as he’s miles beyond incorrigible. Part of the strangeness of this movie is that it seems to ask, what happens when you want to punch someone in the face, but you can’t, and no one else will? While directors often play with this desire to scold a character on screen, it impetus feels all the more visceral when nobody in the film seems to care, so immersed are theyt in their own ironic aversions. In this way, The Comedy and other pieces of discomfort humor can be studies of indignation. It’s an external study, one that results from provocation. The Comedy has two narratives: the detriment of the ironic generation, which the film depicts, and how we deal with such frustration, which the film only suggests.

GREG NISSAN B’15 is a kind of staring contest.