When the actor, former actor, future hip-hop musician, prankster and/or celebrity burnout Joaquin Phoenix appeared recently on "Late Show With David Letterman," staring and mumbling through a spot usually devoted to cheerful self-promotion, it set off a wave of media comment and forwarded video links. Whether you took it as an authentic psychotic break or as a guerrilla performance piece -- whether it was sad and strange for real or sad and strange on purpose -- the result was pretty much the same: As news, it was entertainment, and as entertainment, it was comedy, and as comedy, it was a success, of sorts. A clip of the interview is heading toward 4 million viewings on the official CBS YouTube page; nearly 9,000 viewer comments have been posted there.
It was just another reminder -- alongside "Superbad," Adult Swim, "Flight of the Conchords" and Conan O'Brien -- that we are living in an Age of Awkwardness, certified by that great cultural bellwether Facebook, where the group "Awkward moments define my life" has attracted more than 237,000 members and the group "It wasn't awkward until you said 'Well, this is awkward' -- now it's awkward" nearly 69,000. A Google search for the phrase "Well, this is awkward" fetches 19,000 responses, and if you leave out the "well," it goes over 300,000.
It's a kind of free-floating punch line, "Well, this is awkward" -- a tired yet tirelessly reproducing meme used to defuse uncomfortable silences and situations by drawing attention to them, though it might just as easily have the opposite effect. (Shorthand variant: a simple, sing-songy "Awk-ward!") At once sincere and ironic, like a Jeff Koons sculpture or a song by Weezer, it says, "We know there's a problem and we make it into a joke, but other than that we have not the slightest idea how to proceed." (Making a joke out of the joke, Stephen Colbert uttered the phrase repeatedly during his pointedly awkward "A Colbert Christmas," as he found himself beneath the mistletoe with various guests, male, female and furry.)
Awkwardness has an old role in comedy, but these days it's the main event. It's a kind of mental thrill ride, the point of which is to feel uncomfortable: We like watching people squirm, it seems, and we like squirming while we watch them. Cringeworthy characters like Larry David's on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and Ricky Gervais' and/or Steve Carell's on "The Office" (British and American flavors), or Tina Fey's geek goddess on "30 Rock," or any number of cluelessly preening lunks played by Will Ferrell -- whose recent stage show and HBO special, "You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush," cast him as that most awkwardly spoken of American presidents -- are the comic lights of the time. What they share is an inability to mature. "You're a grown-man baby!" Ben Stiller shouted at David in an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." He is not alone.
Why should this have become the dominant note in comedy? I might say, tapping my spectacles on the lectern, that it proceeds from a general feeling of impotence in the wider world, that nothing we do or say reaches the powerful, whose own power to affect change has grown increasingly doubtful -- but I'd just be making that up. (Will it survive into a new era of netroots, earnestness and presidential aplomb? I'd be making up that answer too.) Certainly, the riches of embarrassment are well known to a compulsively self-documenting generation that grew up taping and photographing itself and formed the habit of sharing its business not just with friends but with all the strangers of the world -- a generation that grew up with a limited notion of privacy, with the model of a president whose sexual follies were the stuff of nightly monologues. (Hey, kids: blue dress.)
They have filled the servers of YouTube and MySpace and such online virtual networks as Channel 101 with real or staged video clips that exploit their own awkwardness, sometimes awkwardly. (It's as if "America's Funniest Home Videos" were the most important show of the last 20 years.) Whether actually amateurish or just made to seem that way, there's something punk about this aesthetic -- not just its homemade, anti-gloss quality but also in the way that passion wears a cloak of ironic detachment.
You can see this at work in a show like Comedy Central's "Important Things With Demetri Martin," where the production values mirror Martin's deadpan delivery -- the camera might hang onto a shot just a little too long and shots are framed to isolate the comedian from his audience. Even drier and more alienated in tone is HBO's "Flight of the Conchords," which follows a pair of Brooklyn-based New Zealand pop musicians for whom the word "aspiring" is possibly too strong.