Much like the phrases “jumbo shrimp” and “living dead,” the term “cringe comedy” almost seems like an oxymoron. After all, comedies are supposed to bring you joy and provide a much needed distraction from the awkwardness and anxiety that can plague everyday life. But of course, no two comedies are created equal, and while some characters can have you laughing with pure silliness alone, others serve as an all too real reminder of how uncomfortable existence can be.
We’re counting down the TV characters that have made us cringe more than any others. These are the characters that are so awkward they often make you feel embarrassed for even watching the show in the first place. Their scenes can make you sweat, turn beet-red, and remind you of an all-too-painful memory where you acted like a fool.
Here’s our take on the 15 Most Cringeworthy TV Characters.
15. Phil Dunphy – Modern Family
Phil Dunphy is the epitome of an embarrassing father. He’s a former male cheerleader, has an affinity for magic tricks, and attempts to use hip lingo to stay connected with his kids. Phil refers to this as “peerenting,” which is the act of acting like a parenting and talking like a peer. In reality, Phil acts like a child more often than his own kids do.
The character’s need to be loved by everyone often puts Phil into a number of compromising situations, particularly with his cantankerous father-in-law, Jay. When Jay throws out his back in the episode “After the Fire,” Phil is a little too eager to gain Jay’s affection with a back massage. Phil strips down to a tank top, warms up the oil by placing it in his waistband, and straddles his father-in-law before giving him an awkward rub down.
14. Jenna Maroney – 30 Rock
This next cringeworthy character, Jenna Maroney, was played by actress Jane Krakowski on seven seasons of the NBC sitcom 30 Rock. Jenna is the former star of “The Girlie Show,” an SNL-type sketch show that is run by Jenna’s best friend, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey). After the network welcomes comedic superstar Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) onto “The Girlie Show,” Jenna is dropped from leading performer to co-star, which only exacerbates Jenna’s insecurity and constant need for attention.
When Jenna gains a bunch of weight after performing in the musical “Mystic Pizza,” she basks in the media attention even though it’s overwhelming negative. But when the tabloids stop running stories about her weight gain, Jenna decides to drop the weight by eating nothing but paper.
Jenna’s cluelessness also leads to a number of cringeworthy one liners throughout the series, including “Are bare feet in now? Or do you just have your shoes off?” and “A drinking contests? What am I, 12 and at my boyfriend’s frat party?” Luckily, she has level-headed Liz Lemon as her best friend, who keeps Jenna from going too far off the rails throughout the show’s run.
13. Tandy Miller – The Last Man on Earth
Much to the annoyance of his fellow humans, Tandy is one of the few survivors left following a deadly virus outbreak on the post-apocalyptic comedy The Last Man on Earth. The show was created by former SNL cast member Will Forte, who also portrays the extremely selfish and pretentious Tandy Miller.
After believing himself to be the only surviving human, Tandy adopts various sports balls (a la Cast Away) to be his companions. Just before he decides to give up and commit suicide, Tandy finds Carol and eventually the two cobble together a small group of survivors. Despite his irritability and selfishness, Tandy often tries to be the leader of his group, much to their dismay. He gives a number of uncomfortable speeches in an attempt to motivate his fellow survivors, and he often ends up misquoting idioms in the process, such as “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone in a glass house.” The group often goes along with Tandy’s outrageous plans simply to stop him from rambling.
12. Will McKenzie – The Inbetweeners
The British seem to embrace the awkwardness of cringe comedy more wholeheartedly than American audiences, so it’s no wonder that the British sitcom The Inbetweeners is set during the most cringe-inducing stage of life: high school. The show aired from 2008 to 2012 on the E4 channel, and follows a group of male friends fighting an uphill battle to become popular at their school, Rudge Park Comprehensive. An American version of the show was launched on MTV in 2012, but it was cancelled after just one season due to low ratings.
While many of the characters undergo horrifying high school experiences, it’s the main character and narrator, Will McKenzie, who makes audiences feel the most uncomfortable. Will comes to Rudge Park Comprehensive after attending a private school, and he continues to take his studies seriously with the hope of being accepted into a premier university. However, Will’s obsession with working hard leads to a number of soul-crushing experiences, such as suffering from diarrhea during a final exam after he stays up all night studying and downing energy drinks. Needless to say, Will is unsuccessful at courting women as his attempts to impress often comes across as pretentious, and it doesn’t help that Will talks more like an 80-year-old English professor than a teenager.
11. Foggy Nelson – Daredevil
This entry differs from most of the others on the list in that the character isn’t from a comedy setting, but rather a superhero story. Despite the difference, many have found Foggy Nelson on Netflix’s Daredevil to be plenty cringeworthy during his first two seasons on the show. Foggy, who’s portrayed by Elden Henson (The Mighty Ducks, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), is Matt Murdock’s best friend and law partner who spends his majority of time on screen either mad or sad at his friend’s decision to be Daredevil. While we certainly understand his concern for Matt’s well-being, the character treats audiences to a few too many annoying speeches about the dangers of fighting crime– as if that wasn’t already a given.
Ironically, the character from the comic books was largely the comic relief within the series. But many of Foggy’s lines on the show are neither serious, nor funny; they’re simply cringe-inducing. Like when Foggy tries to stop a group of thugs at the hospital by telling one of them that having face tattoos is like telling people he must know what prison meatloaf taste like, or that they must certainly have more mug shots than baby pictures at home. To be clear, we’re not condemning Henson’s performance, rather the direction of the character up until this point in the series. And don’t even get us started on Foggy’s sad attempt to seduce Karen Page.
10. Rachel Berry – Glee
Despite having a beautiful singing voice, Rachel Berry from FOX’s hit series Glee often comes across as shrill and downright insufferable in a number of scenes. Rachel may be one of the standout singers in William McKinley’s high school glee club, but not even her on-stage skills can detracted from her neurotic and often obsessive personality.
Rachel is played by actress Lea Michele, who has said that she based the character on a younger version of herself, as well as fictional characters like Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl and overachiever Tracy Flick from the movie Election.
While Rachel learns to be a better team player throughout the series, she continues to steal attention away from other members of the glee club, and her obsession with making it to Broadway only puts more distance between her and her peers. But the most cringeworthy scenes by far involve Rachel and her infatuation with fellow glee club member, Finn Hudson. It’s nearly impossible for Rachel to play it cool around Finn, and she often cites that if she only had a nose job she could finally have him all to herself.
9. Mark Corrigan – Peep Show
While most British series only run for a season or two, Peep Show made audiences feel uncomfortable for a whopping nine seasons, making it the longest-running sitcom in Channel 4 history. The show follows two friends, Mark, a loan manager, and Jeremy, an unemployed slacker, who live in a flat in Croydon, London. While the entire series is chock-full of uncomfortable situations, it’s the series protagonist Mark that has us cringing incessantly.
While Mark is a responsible adult and employee of a loan office, he often looks to his flat mate for social guidance. Mark is constantly examining every social situation he is thrown into, and he’s always worried if other people find him as awkward as he feels. The style of the show only adds to the audiences discomfort, as the majority of Peep Show is filmed with point of view shots. Thus, a majority of the series is Mark making unbroken eye contact with the audience. If that wasn’t already unsettling enough, a voiceover narration fills us in on Mark’s thoughts, which almost always involve a fear of something terrible about to take place. While most characters worry about if they look cool, Mark is so cynical and existential that he worries about worrying about looking cool.
8. Marnie Michaels – Girls
When you think of a character being cringeworthy, you almost certainly don’t think of an attractive and talented young woman displaying any of those self-conscious traits. But much like the HBO series Girls, the character of Marnie Michaels shatters stereotypes and proves that no matter what you look like, you’re not immune to making a fool of yourself.
Marnie, who is played by actress and comedian Allison Williams, is one of Hannah Horvath’s best friends who’s fired from her job at an art gallery and decides to pursue a career in music. In one scene, Marnie awkwardly sings a rendition of Kayne West’s “Stronger” to an unenthusiastic group of her peers who fail to even give her a round of pity applause following her performance. Marnie also has a number of embarrassing sex scenes on a show that’s overflowing with embarrassing sex scenes, including the time Marnie hit her head on a bunk bed and decided to break up with her boyfriend right after he professes his love to her.
7. Screech – Saved By The Bell
Even without the character of Screech, Saved by the Bell is already brimming with squirm-inducing moments, from the obvious moral messages to the ridiculous wardrobes; the series has undeniably not aged well. But when you add Screech into the mix, Saved by the Bell turns into an all-out cringe-athon.
At the start of the series, Screech was just an awkward middle-schooler you couldn’t help but pity. He always meant well, but Screech was repeatedly picked on due to his love for academia and his awkwardness around the opposite sex.
Then, as the show went on, Screech became less of a three dimensional character and turned into the stereotypical nerd-klutz. He would often unknowingly sabotage his friends plans and let out a “Zoinks!” in a voice that constantly sounded like he was going through puberty. In fact, Screech’s voice actually became higher pitched the longer the series ran, to the point where anything he said sounded like nails on a chalkboard.
6. Kenny Powers – Eastbound and Down
No other character on this list can match the crassness and overall indecency that’s displayed by former Major League pitcher turned substitute phys-ed teacher Kenny Powers. The character is played by Danny McBride, who has a tendency to play megalomaniacal characters who often serve as their own worst enemy, including Fred Simmons in The Foot Fist Way and Neil Gamby in Vice Principals. Each one of these characters induces their fair share of cringes, but it’s Eastbound and Down‘s Kenny Powers that takes the cake.
After returning to his home town, Powers continuously boasts about his delusions of returning to Major League Baseball to his middle school students and his fellow teachers. Anyone that doesn’t stroke Kenny’s ego is immediately a threat, and the former pitcher has no qualms about lambasting his detractors with a plethora of racists and homophobic slurs. While the character is meant to show that egotism will eventually lead to one’s downfall, a number of Kenny’s tirades fall well beyond the boundaries of parody and turn the audiences’ laughter into uncomfortable groans.
5. Tina Belcher – Bob’s Burgers
The truth can be a hard pill to swallow, and Tina Ruth Belcher speaks nothing but the truth. While many of the characters that make us cringe do so by putting on a charade to mask their insecurity, Tina makes us feel uncomfortable because she can’t be anything but herself. Tina has a tendency to over-share; she not afraid to tell her family about which part of her body itches that day (usually her crotch) and she has no desire to hide her love for butts or her passion for writing erotic fan/friend fiction.
For the audience, the cringe here comes from a reminder of the times when we’ve expressed quirks similar to Tina’s only to be met with blank stares and encouragement to keep personal thoughts to ourselves. Unfortunately for Tina, that’s her entire life. Which explains why her character is also prone to a crushing anxiety, which renders her useless and often results in Tina lying on the floor of Bob’s Burgers, groaning in agony.
4. Eric Andre – The Eric Andre Show
While most late night talk shows attempt to make their guests feel at ease, The Eric Andre Show prides itself in making the guests (and the audience) feel extremely uncomfortable. Though comedian Eric Andre hosts the show under his real name, he is almost certainly playing a character. Unless, of course, he actually walks around in real life smashing desks to bits while refusing to zip up his fly.
Much like the ’90s cartoon Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which also aired on Adult Swim, The Eric Andre Show continues to deconstruct the talk show format with its surreal comedy and shoddy production quality. Many of the celebrity guests who walk onto the set quickly go from puzzled to horrified as Andre often fills his interviews with racist accusations, spurts of violence (usually aimed at his own desk), and the occasional awkward silence when he refuses to ask his guest an interview question. Andre’s sidekick, fellow comedian Hannibal Buress, lingers behind each guest throughout the interview, and Buress’ sedated, dead-pan delivery is the perfect juxtaposition to Andre’s wild-man persona.
3. Steve Urkel – Family Matters
Today, it’s hard to believe how much the live studio audience loved it when Steve Urkel popped into a scene on the ’90s sitcom Family Matters. Almost every punchline– or line, for that matter– that comes out of Urkel’s mouth incites a cringe. He’s the epitome of a nerd, complete with a piercing voice, massively oversized glasses, and a fascination for science experiments. Even his gestures are unbearable to watch, and the character’s extreme clumsiness hatched a plethora of annoying catchphrases, including “Did I do that?” and “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
The character was portrayed by Jaleel White, who looked more like Urkel’s alternate-ego Stefan Urquelle than Urkel himself. While the nerdy neighbor was originally slated for a one-time appearance, Urkel was so well-received that he became a regular on the show, and eventually the lead character. Comedy has certainly changed in the last 20 years, as it’s hard to image how such an annoying, over-the-top character could become the spotlight of a sitcom today.
2. Dr. Tobias Funke – Arrested Development
Tobias is one of the few characters that can make you cringe just by looking at him. With his knitted sweaters, over-sized glasses, and hipster mustache, Tobias emits such a grandiose sense of superiority before he ever opens his mouth. However, his constant showmanship is nothing but a sad attempt to hide that he’s always having an existential crisis: about his career, his marriage, even his own sexuality.
Tobias is actually quite intelligent. Before he lost his medical licenses and became an aspiring actor, Tobias was both a psycho-analyst and a therapist (or, as he puts it, the world’s first “analrapist”). But what Tobias seriously lacks is any shred of self-awareness. Thus, he’s created a life where he can analyze and pretend to be others because he’s too afraid to take a long hard look in the mirror at himself.
This leads to an excessive amount of awkward puns and Freudian slips throughout the series, including “I blue myself” and “I suppose I’m buy-curious.” His insecurity only becomes more apparent when Tobias is revealed to be a Never Nude– a condition that prohibits him from ever taking off his denim cut-off shorts. Not even while he’s crying alone in the shower.
1. David Brent/Michael Scott – The Office
At times, both David Brent and Michael Scott are meant to encapsulate what we’ve come to suspect about our least favorite bosses: that they’re self-absorbed jerks who aren’t really concerned with their employees so long as they look good. But everyone, even the office manager, is ultimately just looking to be loved.
In both versions of The Office, the cringe comedy comes into play when both managers end up confusing attention with affection. They’ll do anything to get a laugh from their co-workers, even if that includes carrying out a racist impersonation or stealing the attention away from a bride and groom on their wedding day.
While Ricky Gervais’s David Brent is far less redeemable throughout the original series, there are still a few flashes of compassion and loneliness that shine through, particularly when Brent begs not to be fired from his job without a shred of sarcasm in his voice. And while Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott becomes increasingly lovable throughout the U.S. series, his absent-mindedness continues to make the audience cringe in a number of later episodes.
This is on full display in “Scott’s Tots,” where Michael must renege on a 10-year promise that he would pay for the college tuition of a group of underprivileged high-schoolers as long as they made it to graduation. While many of Michael’s mistakes are quickly apologized for, this particular mishap was nearly a decade in the making, which makes this season six episode an absolute cringe-fest to sit through.
So which TV character makes you squirm in your seat? Let us know in the comments!