Worldly, Yet Carefree

The 90s and aughts were pretty optimistic times through much of the world (with the notable exception of Russia). There were troubles of course, but it felt like everyone felt on top of things. There was no general sense of being collectively overwhelmed and rendered helpless. The world was getting more complex and troubled, but our sense of our own agency, especially technological agency, was growing even faster. So it was easy to not worry.

One sign of this could be found in the kind of humor that ruled culture. In the United States, shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons managed to at be once worldly, yet carefree, WYC. After around 2000, what is now known as cringe comedy, which is neither worldly, nor carefree, gradually became more prominent. WYC humor slowly degenerated into a strained, mechanical, and formulaic genre that increasingly failed to land.

After the Global Financial Crisis, humor needed at least some obliviousness and escapism to work at all. Nowhere was this clearer than in cringe comedy, which over the course of a decade ate almost all humor (with the metamodern nihilism of Rick and Morty being a notable exception). The last relatively watchable example of 90s-aughts style worldly-yet-carefree humor in the US was probably The Big Bang Theory, which wrapped in 2019. South Park, perhaps the only show to span both eras successfully, evolved from WYC to a kind of meta-aware escapism, marked by the spotlight shifting from the precociously world-aware kids to the marijuana-peddling cringe adult character Randy Marsh.

WYC is an attitude that’s aware of and actively attending to what’s going on in the world, but confident enough about the collective human response to the world’s troubles to routinely kick back and relax with a sense of security. Cringe, by contrast, is a retreating kind of humor that requires a certain obliviousness to the world to work, and is never quite free of a vague sense of subconscious neurotic insecurity about the state of the world. There are other aspects, but that’s the main difference.

The protagonist of WYC humor is the Straight Man: aware, reasonable, and skeptically amused by the world. The world of the era consisted the Straight Man, like Jerry Seinfeld, the Funny Man, like Kramer, and a distant cast of powerful people ineptly (but not catastrophically so) running the world, driven by venal (but not catastrophically so) self-interest. They ran the world well enough that you didn’t need to worry, but fumbled often enough to keep you amused and entertained. They were not admirably competent, like 50s SF heroes, but they were not worryingly incompetent. They were not idealistic and noble, but they were not driven by vicious, world-destroying venality either. WYC humor fundamentally believed in the soundness, if not the sanity, of the world it poked fun at.

The world of cringe comedy has no Straight Men, and the Funny Man has evolved from Kramer-like characters to cringe characters. From harmlessly crazy and deluded at the margins to worryingly crazy and deluded at the center.

In cringe comedy, there are only embarrassing protagonists you fundamentally feel sorry for, maintaining an attitude of sufficient obliviousness and unworldliness to cheerfully keep going, striving towards their modest and myopic goals. It seems noteworthy that though cringe comedy too started with men (Larry David, Steve Carell), it was turned into a fine art by women (like Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag). Ironically, retired stalwarts of WYC comedy — Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais and others — seem increasingly out of touch and unable to find the funny vein in the course of world events, to the extent they even bother to come out of semi-retirement to try at all. They’ve joined the ranks of fundamentally bewildered and dismayed culture war commentators. They have mostly given up and retreated from the fray, muttering ominously about about woke sensitivities, utterly convinced of the rightness (and righteousness) of their response, and the degeneracy of contemporary responses by the younger generation.

For all its faults, cringe at least still tries to make sense of the world; it hasn’t complacently retreated to a smug, superior resentfulness. It was born of doubt, and has retained a capacity for it. WYC in a way never had any real doubts about the world. Cringe may be less worldly, but it just might be more wise.

I think cringe rose to prominence because worldly-yet-carefree became fundamentally untenable. Starting around 2007, you could either pay attention to the world, or feel relatively untroubled about the world. You couldn’t have both.

What is fascinating about cringe comedy is that all the other characters on-screen, cringing on our behalf, are equally oblivious to the world. They’re merely less embarrassingly incompetent at functioning in a state of studied obliviousness within the very limited world on display. So you see a great deal of commentary about the minutiae of everyday life, but no awareness of the larger world. It’s not that Seinfeld or The Simpsons had profound commentary to offer about world affairs. But the world at least showed up as a stable through-line element, in the form of a stream of cameos and contemporary references. Cringe, by contrast, is a cozy style of humor. It does not take its cues from the world to any significant degree. All it needs is flawed humans watching even more flawed humans in a shared bubble of obliviousness.

I don’t blame comedy writers for going down this path. It’s been hard to sustain worldly-yet-carefree attitudes. This became especially clear in the evolution of shows like The Daily Show. The premise of attending to the real news from a skeptically amused but fundamentally untroubled point of view gradually unraveled, until the show turned into an increasingly unfunny partisan outpost of dubiously self-confident sermonizing in the culture war.

I’ll admit I’m not particularly fan of cringe comedy, though I turned watching an early example (The Office, which arguably is proto-cringe) into a consulting career. I like staying aware of the world, and being amused in a carefree way by it. But I’m not smart enough to do it by myself. I need good television to help me see the world that way, and a sense of borrowed confidence derived from watching more capable people visibly doing a competent job of running the world.

Arguably — and this is an 80s upbringing armed with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy talking — worldly, yet carefree is the ideal attitude for the vast majority of the world to adopt almost all the time. It allows you to enjoy life, do your bit, and be rationally invested in the fate of the world without being overwhelmed by your sense of its troubles. When humor must escape the world to find laughs, it is not as satisfying.

So why did this happen? There are three possibilities here.

The easiest answer is, I think, wishful thinking — that there is simply a cultural cycle here, and we’re due for a swing back.

The slightly more troubling answer is that even though the world is not fundamentally in worse shape in 2023 than in 1993, we know so much more about it, and see so much more of its irredeemable ugliness, it just takes a lot more work to maintain worldly-yet-carefree attitude. Perhaps a Buddha-level sense of humor is necessary on a mass scale. That would mean WYC was not actually as worldly as it thought it was. It was a blissful false consciousness that rested on insufficient information. If you put the typical 90s sitcom and its typical audience into a new meta show, you’d get a cringe show today.

The third and most troubling answer is that the world has actually slipped out of our grasp and into an ungovernable downward trajectory. That it’s not just that we hear more of the bad news, but that there is more bad news. And our growing collective agency is no longer staying comfortably ahead of our growing collective problems.

I hope the first is true, I suspect the second is likely true, but I’m afraid I can’t dismiss the third scenario as impossible. There’s a chance we can’t enjoy worldly-yet-carefree laughs together because we are genuinely in serious trouble, and things are about to get much uglier (and unfunnier).

I suppose it says a lot about me that I’m more interested in rediscovering a new-and-improved vein of WYC humor (without putting in any growth work) than in helping solve the world’s problems. This might be impossible in the future. Perhaps we can never again reclaim that sense of carefree worldliness, and must make do with some mix of cringe, dark humor, nihilism, and earnestly humorless gravitas.

That would frankly suck.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Scheckie Ivanov says

    WYC is the humor of the stably privileged.
    Cringe is the humor of the downwardly-mobile privileged.
    Humorlessness is the state of the newly unprivileged before acceptance.
    The next step is something like Soviet humor or classic Yiddish humor.
    Why not look there, Venkat? ;)

    • Daniel Moore says

      This is great advice. From ChatGPT when prompted for classic Yiddish jokes – “If things don’t get better, at least they’ll get different.”

  2. “Worldly, yet carefree” reminds me of this golden oldie, “not my revolution if I can’t dance” which is apparently a paraphrase and not an actual quote. Agree getting harder to pull off

  3. That would mean WYC was not actually as worldly as it thought it was. It was a blissful false consciousness that rested on insufficient information.

    WYC rested on a liberal bourgeois culture, which accepted satire and mockery as artistic freedoms. When object and meta-level collapsed and the authorities of old intervened, think about the church when “The Life of Brian” came out, the old authorities always lost and the comedians always won. In a way, our life time has been exceptional, because there was a time without a culture war but this happened to be an unstable equilibrium. It was broken by non-state-actors who asserted themselves and acted forcefully, most notably, they eliminated the cartoonists of ‘Charlie Hebdo’, physically. These days, a low risk position in the general game of who might mock whom is simply to mock oneself and isn’t this what it means to ‘play cringe’? Also you can only play it because no one acts on the base ‘insufficient information’ but everyone is hyper-aware of everything.

  4. Peter Davies says

    The carefree part is the part that requires privilege. There’s a reason the palace was called Sanssoucci!

    • “There’s a reason the palace was called Sanssoucci!”

      For the Old Fritz the choice of the name was more plain than you think: no women, no kids, no worries.

  5. All in all things have certainly changed a lot from Three’s Company but whether or not we can see through Chrissy’s underwear, regardless of the fact that they are/were hanging on the shower rod in the bathroom, is incentive to continue looking through the transitory, ambiguous and contingent aspects of our shared phenomena without getting caught up in it. Absurdity remains the best alcohol to ease into oblivion and rid these chains of selfhood. Nice flow to your writing style by the way. It puts me in mind of a demigod making circles in the earth with its finger, naturally drawing the inhabitants into its opening. In other words, it moves and shapes the mind with a lovely crescendo of sorts.

  6. I wonder how much of that sense of change has to do with the change from “electric” to “digital” technologies and methods of knowing.

    In the electric era, you basically got the same information about the world as everyone else, and it was curated through a relatively small set of channels, unless you worked really hard to find alternative sources. So everyone was ambiently aware of the same events, the same entertainment, etc., and generally inherited the same sentiment (which was probably upbeat Boomer optimism). And because everyone had the same cable TV, information flowed at kind of the same lazy river speed for everyone; paddle a little, and you’ll keep up. That seems like it fosters the WYC type of personality, which I remember in individuals from my youth as well as shows.

    But if that was like a cohesive empire, digital is like the return of barbarism. In digital, information feeds are now asynchronous, more preserved, and more parochial, which means we’re not all living the same story at the same speed. There’s not the same sense of living in the world together that there was pre-iPhone, and we’re subject to the obsessions, beefs, and griefs of more autonomous agents than electric-era TV watchers were, which means both that we can know more of what’s going on and that we can get sucked into info clans.

    All this to say I think your scenario 2 is more likely what’s going on, with the addition of the fact that we’re going through a technological disruption that might be on par with the invention of the printing press or the TV (it’s too soon to tell); and so we might not be in “decline” necessarily, but “disruption” that makes it feel hard to follow life.

  7. Thank you for your post :)! I somehow find the ‘wordly’ adjetivation as a mirage of universality cast by industrial audiovisual/mass-media first-arrived-first-served anglo-coloniality (that’s now been perpetuated and refined through its ‘mestizo’ symbollic inclusivenesses). I therefore tend to read ‘forcedly-worldly’ in ‘worldly’; because of that forced ubiquity, a group of cultural productions that was imposedly spread and therefore known by a big portion of the world’s population might be perceived as one seizable and comfy simplified world order, which (this one and lots of non-anglo-centered ones) I happen to enjoy to inhabit and evoke aproximately once a week when feeling overwhelmed by European fascist social fabric destruction and isolation dynamics. Kisses!