This article is a preview from the Summer 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Why am I watching this? It is not pleasurable. It is excruciating, agonising; I’m watching with my hands over my face, always on the brink of turning away. In the 21st century, I’ve responded like this most often not to cinematic horror – which has, for the most part, devolved into generic predictability – but to television comedy.

Adam Kotsko’s trilogy of books (Awkwardness, Why We Love Sociopaths and Creepiness, all published by Zero Books) has done the most to contextualise and explain the rise of this mode of comedy. It has come to the fore, Kotsko writes, because we live in an awkward age: awkwardness is now unavoidable. Work, family gatherings, teenage parties, shared accommodation, sexual seduction – practically all forms of social interaction are now potential sources of awkwardness. And, as Kotsko elaborates, there is something contagious about awkwardness: anyone observing an awkward situation will also feel awkward. Which, on the face of it, only makes it all the more puzzling that we should voluntarily subject ourselves to its agony. So why do we?

A first answer to this question is that if we do live in an age of awkwardness, we need culture that confronts this ubiquitous discomfort. It could be that the comedy of awkwardness is one of the few new cultural forms that this century can claim to have invented. While there were predecessors such as the various Alan Partridge shows, awkward comedy really began with HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (first broadcast in October 2000) and BBC2’s The Office (first broadcast in July 2001).

This was also the moment of the rise of reality TV, and TV awkwardness appealed because it offered a similar impression of unmediated access to “real” characters and situations. The Office was a parody of the kind of workplace-based fly-on-the-wall documentaries that had been popular in the late 1990s and more than a few unwary early viewers mistook the series for an actual slice of vérité. Curb Your Enthusiasm played on such confusions, with its lead actor, Larry David, using his real name and its improvised, “retro-scripted” scenes playing very differently to standard TV comedy.

These devices only intensified the agony of awkwardness, since the usual distancing tactics that viewers might employ – our feeling that this was “not real”, that it was just a scripted programme – were not so readily available. The feeling of awkwardness intrinsically involves a sense of too-great a proximity, and both The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm depended for their power on the tendency of the lead characters to over-share, to expose their lack of social graces.

Fifteen years on, awkwardness continues to be at the heart of two of the funniest shows on television at the moment: Impractical Jokers and Inside Amy Schumer. As with all awkward comedy, the laughter is laced with profound unease. Tellingly, Impractical Jokers was originally titled Mission: Uncomfortable. A casual viewer might group it with laddish prank shows such as Jackass or Dirty Sanchez. It’s true that Impractical Jokers is similarly based around the camaraderie and competitiveness of a group of men – in this case, four former school friends from Staten Island, New York: Brian Quinn (“Q”), Joe Gatto, Brian Murray (“Murr”) and Sal Vulcano.

It’s also true that the somewhat sadomasochistic humour is usually at their own expense, rather than at the expense of the public, as it was in “classic” prank shows such as Candid Camera, which relied upon deceiving the unwitting participants. Ultimately, however, Impractical Jokers is very different in mood and tone from a show like Jackass. The humour is rooted not in extreme stunts but in an exploration of the limits of everyday awkwardness. Both shows are based on testing the limits of how much the pranksters could take; but in Impractical Jokers, the endurance required is emotional rather than physical. How much embarrassment can you withstand? How willing are you utterly to flout social conventions? The conceit depends on the Jokers being somewhat sensitive. There would be no humour if they were outright sociopaths, ignorant of social niceties and immune to disapproval. But what Impractical Jokers often requires is for them to act as if they were sociopaths. As such, the series frequently works like an extended experiment in social psychology. It isn’t only the four Jokers who are being tested; what we also see are the limits of public tolerance for behaviour that can be bizarre, rude, inconsiderate or simply clueless.

Joe Gatto is perhaps the best at simulating the behaviour of an outright sociopath. The most memorable example of this might be the time when he was required to sit on a toilet in a café, open the door, and complain loudly that the toilet paper had run out. Sal Vulcano is at the other end of the scale: ultra-sensitive, germophobic, you often wonder if he is in the wrong job. But it is precisely Vulcano’s extreme sensitivity that makes him so compulsively watchable.

In one episode, Vulcano was required to take on the role of a bingo player repeatedly shouting “bingo” when he was nowhere close to winning. Each time he claimed “bingo”, the tension mounted to the point of seeming unbearable; as the crowd of players around him, initially quite good humoured, became increasingly restive and aggressive, Vulcano looked progressively deflated, pale, sweaty, as if the life was being drained from him.

So many of the scenarios in Impractical Jokers resemble situations we might encounter in anxiety dreams. In one episode, Murr, his nearly-naked body greased up because he thought he was going to have to appear in a weightlifting competition, instead finds himself interviewing his childhood crush, Danica McKeller, a star of the 1980s schmaltz-fest The Wonder Years. But so many of the scenarios also involve work and the overlap of the anxiety dream and work is, of course, no accident. Adam Kotsko points to the way that, because of the sheer nebulousness of much office and service labour, it is saturated with the potential for awkwardness.

In one of the series’ most reliably funny routines, two Jokers give a business PowerPoint presentation that has been put together by the other pair. The Jokers’ improvisational flair here serves as an unintentional satire of participants in programmes such as The Apprentice. With no preparation and with a presentation deliberately designed to be embarrassing, the Jokers invariably perform better than the “expert pitchers” we routinely see floundering on The Apprentice.

If the comedy of awkwardness has been dominated by men not knowing how to behave properly (or acting as if they don’t know how to behave), then Inside Amy Schumer is about being a woman in situations when, seemingly, there is no acceptable way to behave. In one sketch, Schumer is at a party when she is approached by a man. Should she tell him that her boyfriend is getting her a drink, or will this make her look arrogant? She decides to say she has a boyfriend and is met with the anger that she feared. Why is she so arrogant as to think he is hitting on her? Yet when another man comes over to her and she doesn’t mention her boyfriend, she finds that there is now no comfortable point at which she can mention that she is in a relationship.

Schumer is often thought of as a sex comic and the double binds imposed on women with regards to sex are frequently invoked in her routines. But shame is the real subject of her comedy. Schumer’s sketches and stand-up disclose a nightmare world in which the threat of shame is never far away. Often that shame has to do with body image – one bravura episode in the last season was entirely devoted to a brilliant reconstruction of Twelve Angry Men, with the jury now debating, in excruciating detail, and with alarming earnestness: is Amy Schumer hot enough to be on television?

There are new sources of shame and embarrassment everywhere; new ways in which she can be found wanting (does her rescue dog have enough problems?). Humour becomes the antidote to this pervasive shame, a temporary release from the quest to meet impossible demands, an opportunity for fellow feeling instead of relentless competition. In some of the most painful sketches in the show, Schumer anatomises the ways in which women are invited to degrade themselves competitively: the woman who is the most insulting about herself when she receives a compliment wins.

The laughter here doesn’t reinforce current social codes. It exposes instead their impasses, their gaps and their (gendered) inconsistencies. If someone like The Office’s David Brent was simply incapable of shame, then Schumer’s work promises the possibility of a refusal of shame. In highlighting the sources of social anxiety, the shared laughter that Schumer provokes allows us momentarily to experience a world where that anxiety has dissipated.

Both shows are broadcast in the UK on Comedy Central