Welcome to CringeTok, where being insufferable can be lucrative

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During a three-part special examining the crimes of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer that aired in November on “Dr. Phil,” Phil McGraw, the host of the daytime talk show, played a TikTok video of a 27-year-old woman named Stanzi Potenza as evidence that true-crime fandom had gone too far. In the video, Potenza said she was so obsessed with Netflix’s “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” that she stayed home from work in diapers to binge the series uninterrupted.

As it turns out, Potenza had made a video satirizing true-crime obsessives — and McGraw mistook it as sincere.

Potenza is a cringe comic and actor who describes herself as a “sketch comedian from hell.” She has gained millions of followers on TikTok and YouTube by posting mansplaining public service announcements, sarcastic impersonations of Satan and bone-dry parodies of the horror film “The Purge.”

“Personally, I think some of the best comedy is a little painful,” she said. “It hurts so good.”

As a concept, cringe is deceptively hard to describe. As a content category, cringe is vast, encompassing everything from dated cultural norms to a strategy that musical artists employ to reach real fans. Cringe is not any one thing, but you know it when you see it. On TikTok, you can make a career out of being intentionally cringeworthy in a niche area of the platform known as CringeTok (I know this because my brother, a former lawyer, has been making a living doing cringe videos since the spring of 2020).

Potenza has a theater degree and completed a six-week acting program at the William Esper Studio in New York City, so she feels natural on camera. She ventured into posting cringe comedy videos during the pandemic as a way to continue working on her craft while venues were closed. An early TikTok video of her crying while applying clown makeup garnered hundreds of thousands of views and encouraged her to post more.

Potenza has more than 3.8 million followers on TikTok — a following large enough that it can translate into lucrative brand deals, bonuses and merchandise sales. Her videos, she said, have earned her more than $200,000 annually.

Making a CringeTok video

Popular creators on TikTok can make a living in all kinds of niches on the platform, including by doing makeup, dealing watches, being old — even drinking flavored water. But CringeTok is more like putting on a show.

To craft the perfect CringeTok video, creators mine the depths of the internet and their own experiences for traits they can exaggerate. Identifying behaviors that make us recoil, such as self-absorption and obliviousness, requires an ironic amount of self-reflection. Cringe comedy creators often build time for dreaming up sketches into their schedules. Filming can take as little as an hour — often from the comfort of the creators’ bedrooms.

These videos are different from unintentionally cringey videos in which an overabundance of earnestness combined with a lack of self-awareness leaves viewers feeling uncomfortable.

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