The Joy Of Cringe: When Bad Comedy Makes Good Reality TV

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Almost all professional comedians have paid their dues on an open-mic circuit. It is a rite of passage and a necessary baptism of fire. Many comics will record their open mic sets for posterity. They will study the recordings in order to refine their sets. If they crushed it, chances are they’ll upload the footage to YouTube so they can show everyone the great job they’ve done. But if they bombed, that video (or audio file) will be sent to a digital dump, likely never to be consumed by anyone other than the bad set-haver himself. For most budding comedians, a bad shoot is fleeting…unless it’s a reality TV star like Michael Fractor of 20s: Austin (an Austin-based show about a bunch of zoomers who live and party together), in which case one of the most vulnerable and humiliating moments of your life is a public record that’s probably been viewed by an audience of millions of people.

“I’m just hoping for some kind of noise,” Fractor says, charmingly awkward, during one of his testimonials on the fifth episode of the Netflix reality series. “I don’t want to do comedy for pure silence. I hardly had moments when I did well, but the moments when I did well, it’s great! he adds wistfully. Fractor’s endearing statement makes the comedic show’s scene that follows all the more unsettling, as does the fact that Fractor’s castmate and love interest, Isha Punja, accompanies him to watch the set.

Fractor takes the stage full of excitement and expectation, but he bombs. Wrong. With the audacity of a reality TV actor in his early twenties, Fractor begins with a joke in which he implies that he is a pedophile. His audacious opening earned him a few pitying laughs followed by an almost deafening silence. It’s possible to recover from a bad opening, but it takes quick wits, a skill Fractor has yet to develop, which is why he continues his pedo joke with a bit of Hitler. Sure, it’s possible to create a fun Hitler joke, but for someone as new to the game as Michael, it would never have had a satisfying outcome.

Punja recoils from her attempts to make her laugh and her discomfort adds another layer of unpleasantness to the scene. After a strange get-together involving a Jerry Seinfeld impression, Fractor wraps up his set and returns to his seat, ending one of the show’s most memorable moments. As bad as Fractor’s set was, he took a big swing and persevered in the face of utter failure, and you have to respect that. After all, it takes a lot of courage to pose as a sex criminal on TV.

Reality TV is often very funny, although it’s rarely funny when the people on screen are explicitly trying to make us laugh. But what about when people on screen really want to be funny? In the episode “Beach, Please” of the fourth season of Bravo’s Vanderpump Rulestwo cast members argue over which of them is more dedicated to sketch comedy. Vanderpump Rules is a very entertaining show about a group of sexy people who work at a West Hollywood restaurant called SUR (incredibly, that’s an acronym for Sexy Unique Restaurant), which is owned by The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills former Lisa Vanderpump. Most of its actors are part-time models or actors out of work, but the sudden revelation that Kristen Doute and Ariana Madix are both so into comedy that they’re forced to argue at a picnic. at the beach is so pleasantly jarring that it must be mentioned.

Kristen brags about starring in a recent comedy show, leading her former love rival Ariana to question Kristen’s comedy credentials. See, Ariana also does comedy, so she thinks Kristen is stealing her thing (not that anyone watching at home will know it was her thing before the scene in question). With the same Judy Gemstone energy that carried her throughout her tenure on the show, Kristen returns in an absolutely amazing moment in which two reality TV stars (who both dated the same guy while working in the same restaurant) argue very seriously which of them is the real comedian of the group.

Later in the series, we see Kristen doing both skits and stand-up comedy at a comedy club, and to be fair, her show seems to be doing pretty well. That being said, his jokes are pirated and the audience is mostly people who wanted to get on TV.

Reality TV producers are some of the most depraved creatures on the planet, and many of us are more than happy to reap the rewards of their unbridled sadism. New Jersey housewives tearing out hair extensions? Sign me up! Millennial models fucking each other’s partners? Hang it in my veins! But of all the twisted things reality TV throws at us, nothing is more obnoxious than its bizarre fetishism with an uncomfortably terrible stand-up, which may be partly explained by the rather significant overlap of “person who thinks that she’s funny enough to tell jokes on stage” and “no one who thinks she’s interesting enough to be on a reality TV show” Venn Diagram. While filming the popular show’s fifth and final season Japanese reality TV terrace house, stand-up contender Kai Kobayashi was definitely at the center of that chart. In an episode of Terrace House: Tokyo 2019-2020Kai (who grew up in the US) performs in English at an open-mic in Tokyo.

Kai may be multilingual, but when it comes to the language of charisma, he’s shockingly incompetent. Unlike the aforementioned Michael Fractor, who only had one female co-star to accompany him on his show, Kai invites three of his housemates over to the show — and what a show. Instead of trying to be himself on stage, Kai is clearly trying to emulate the mannerisms and cadences of several legendary stand-ups. He throws himself into a George Carlin thing, but he doesn’t get it and he comes across as someone who is trying too hard to be deep and professorial, when he should just be trying to be funny. Moreover, his jokes simply are not funny. It’s a terrible set, and the terrace house the editors make the viewer endure every excruciating second. Like Fractor, Kai crashes and burns as his obviously disgusted co-stars watch in what is one of the most chilling scenes in reality TV history.

Of all the art forms, few (if any) are as difficult to digest when done poorly as stand-up comedy. Unless you regularly attend open mics, the chances of you seeing an unquestionably awful set are probably pretty slim. By the time a comedy set reaches the ears of the casual stand-up fan or even a mainstream television audience, it’s been honed to perfection. Generally, only good things are shown on television. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of easy-to-see stand-ups that you personally find bad, but objectively terrible stand-up sets are rarely seen by the average person. Bad movies can be so bad they’re good and bad songs can be fun to dance to at wedding receptions, but the only people willing to sit through a bad stand-up are addicted reality TV viewers. at schadenfreude.



Norman Quarrinton is a tall person from South London who now resides in Southern California with his American wife. Follow him on Twitter @NormanQ.

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