In Adam Kotsko’s book Awkwardness he sets out three categories of awkwardness in the modern world. ‘Everyday awkwardness names the violation of a relatively strong norm, cultural awkwardness the general malaise that accompanies a relatively weak norm, and radical awkwardness the panic brought on by the lack of any norm at all.’ Into these categories
Kotsko places respectively the TV show The Office, the films of Judd Apatow, and, in the last instance, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, although there exist crossovers between these.
He traces a trajectory in mainstream comedy from a reliance on irony in the 1990s (Seinfeld and so on) to ‘cringe-worthiness’ in the 2000s and onwards. Now, awkwardness is everywhere; the epithet ‘awkward’ itself is readily applied to social situations (often during the situations themselves, delivered with a drawn-out enunciation, as a sort of ice-breaker) and used incessantly in internet comments, and its concept is stretched out to such an extent that we often see online lists, such as for ‘20 painfully awkward album covers’, in which the criteria for awkwardness is itself painfully – or cringe-worthily – indeterminate…
Making the rounds as the apogee of awkwardness currently are two viral video interviews: Bruce Willis’s – alongside Mary-Louise Parker – with Magic 105.4’s Jamie Edwards at a press junket to promote the movie Red 2, and Reza Aslan’s on Fox News, concerning his new book Zealot. What these two instances raise is the question of where the question of awkwardness arises from, what norms are being established by the emphasised reaction to their ‘transgression’?
Willis shows up the press junket’s sales-pitch staged nature and ‘takes down’ Jamie Edwards in a way fans of Die Hard might revel in John McClane doing, but a volley of vitriol has been shoved his way since the video went viral, predominantly for his violation of ‘interview etiquette’, and for ‘non-professionalism’. It makes us wonder about the desire of an audience, which seemingly wants Willis to have a certain film/screen persona and a very separate interview persona, which must be commensurable with his ‘real’ persona. Or we could trace a line – like Kotsko’s for comedy – in audience enthusiasm for interviewees behaving ‘badly’ or ‘madly’ – from the Sex Pistols to Hunter S. Thompson, Serge Gainsbourg to Gore Vidal – to this trend of slightly sanctimonious consensus in upbraiding awkwardness or misbehaviour, in place of mechanistic routine, that’s arisen in online discussion fora and elsewhere.
Thus, whereas we might initially be tempted to lump Willis’s interview in the category of everyday awkwardness – likening him to a David Brent or Michael Scott – for his transgression of a ‘strong social norm’, we might actually do better by trying to find in his discourse and manner a more radical dimension. We might observe that not only is the obvious press junket ‘norm’ of faked enthusiasm – utter performativity – subverted or undermined here, but also the interviewer’s (however individually unintentional, though symptomatically institutional) gender favouritism is redressed by Willis’s dismissal of being labelled ‘a god to all women’, and by his advocating a gender-neutral ‘niceness’ in the place of any seduction or placation to ‘keep women happy.’
This showing up of where a question comes from – brought on by giving an answer different to what’s expected, i.e., by not ‘playing the game’ – is found much more explicitly in the awkwardness of the Aslan interview, in which charges are made against the writer for being a Muslim writing about Jesus, which for the reporter (here the mouthpiece of the institution of Fox News) jars, seemingly incommensurably. The obvious demonstration of the interviewer’s rife Islamophobia is demonstrable if the tables are turned around, and the question of whether a Christian should have a place writing on, or commenting about, Islam becomes the focus, which, on Fox News, is of course not the norm.
As Kotsko himself suggests, the ‘the skill of awkward improvisation’ can lead to a ‘unique kind of “revolution”’ – in the moment of awkwardness itself. In both these instances of ‘awkward’ interviews, as, no doubt, in many others, it should thus first be reflected on – before cranking up the dismay and sensation machines – that it is sometimes the radical potential of awkwardness to explode and expose the rigidified thinking which blind ‘etiquette’ and unquestioned ‘professionalism’ may perpetuate, through certain norms which might elsewhere engender a double-take.