From left, the cringe comedy creators Stanzi Potenza, Wendell Scott and Riri Bichri.Credit…Alyson Aliano for The New York Times; Wulf Bradley for The New York Times; Lexi Parra for The New York Times
During a three-part special examining the crimes of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer that aired last 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, Ms. 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, Ms. Potenza had made a video satirizing true-crime obsessives and Dr. Phil mistook it as sincere.
Ms. 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).
Ms. Potenza has a theater degree and completed a six-week acting program at the William Esper Studio in New York, 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.
She now 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.
The making of 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, like 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 cringy videos in which an overabundance of earnestness combined with a lack of self-awareness leaves viewers feeling uncomfortable.
In those cases, “we’re not laughing with you,” Ms. Potenza said. “We’re laughing at you.”
Riri Bichri started posting CringeTok videos in 2020, and by April she had quit her job as an electrical engineer to pursue content creation full time. She has built a following of 800,000 subscribers by drawing on 2000s rom-com tropes, fan fiction and her own cringy behavior for inspiration.
Ms. Bichri recording a video as her favorite cringy character: a manic pixie dream girl.Credit…Lexi Parra for The New York Times
“If I’m not embarrassed by what I did yesterday, if I’m not cringing about what I did yesterday, I did not grow,” Ms. Bichri said.
Brad Podray, 40, is an orthodontist in Des Moines whose TikTok account, the Scumbag Dad, was originally a riff on the work of another TikTok creator, Nick Cho. Known online as Your Korean Dad, Mr. Cho plays a wholesome, fatherly figure who treats viewers as if they were his beloved children.
“A lot of my main comedy is based on identifying trends and deconstructing them to the point where they are no longer recognizable from the original inspiration,” Mr. Podray said.
His P.O.V.-style videos feature a series of short sketches in which the Scumbag Dad exposes his fictional kid to progressively volatile situations. Early in Season 1 of the parodies, Mr. Podray steals his child’s prescription pain medication, and by Season 6 his child is helping him assassinate drug dealers.
“I never got to complete the series, unfortunately, because TikTok banned me too many times,” Mr. Podray said. TikTok prohibits videos featuring youth exploitation and abuse, fictional or otherwise, in its community guidelines, but Mr. Podray continues to make other kinds of parody videos. He said he earned about $150,000 a year from his content on TikTok and YouTube.
How the cringe creator economy works
In July 2020, TikTok established the Creator Fund to reward popular accounts and encourage content creation. It initially pledged to distribute $200 million and now expects the fund to grow beyond $1 billion. How much each creator gets, however, can vary.
“Payouts from the Creator Fund are based on a number of factors,” said Maria Jung, TikTok’s global product communications manager. “These factors include what region your video is viewed in, engagement on your video and the extent to which your video adheres to our community guidelines and terms of service.”
It has been widely reported that eligible creators typically get a few cents for every thousand views a video gets, though Ms. Jung wouldn’t confirm that number.
Creators with millions of followers and views per video can make a few thousand dollars a month from the Creator Fund. Having an engaged TikTok audience also allows creators to extend their reach on other social platforms. Meta discontinued their Reels Play bonus program in March, but creators can still earn money from Facebook Ad Reels, a program that operates similarly to YouTube’s revenue-sharing model.
Cross-posting content to increase revenue streams is a common practice among creators.
“It wasn’t until I became monetized on YouTube that I actually started making real money,” Ms. Potenza said. “In order to make this a living, you have to utilize a lot of different methods to make it sustainable.”
YouTube’s business model is different from TikTok’s in that it shares 50 percent of its ad revenue with its creators.
The combined revenue from social platforms can be significant, but the most lucrative opportunities come from brand partnerships.
Ms. Potenza recently created a sketch in which she played John Wick’s therapist to promote the latest movie in the John Wick franchise. Mr. Podray’s sponsors include Insta360, a camera company, and Lovehoney, an online sex toy store.
As their follower counts and average views per video grow, so do their rates. Ms. Potenza secured her first brand deal in 2020 and filmed a branded video for $150. The next year, as her account grew and she hired an agent to help her negotiate, her rate increased to $5,000 per video. These days, she wouldn’t accept anything less than $10,000 for a sponsored post.
Ms. Bichri has gotten brand deals with companies like CashApp, Bubble Skincare and Pluto TV, but she’s unsure how much money she has earned because, she said, her agency hasn’t paid her for work she has done.
A nationwide TikTok ban, proposed in Congress because of the app’s Chinese ownership, would put all creator revenue streams — not to mention hard work — into question.
“Watching a bunch of congresspeople talking at the C.E.O. of TikTok about things they don’t understand was really embarrassing,” Ms. Potenza said. “It makes me super pro-China at this point.”
What isn’t cringe today can be cringe tomorrow. Much like death and taxes, cringe comes for everyone eventually. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that brands are interested in participating. Being authentically embarrassing is still authentic.
Wendell Scott, 32, is a production coordinator in Atlanta who instructs Delta Air Lines on how to make effective social media content. He uses his downtime to create TikTok videos in which he provides one side of a cringy conversation in a duet or stitched video with other creators. In one video with nearly two million views, he plays a founding father who discovers John Hancock’s large signature on the Declaration of Independence.
“For me, cringe is something that we’ve all experienced, but we don’t like to talk about it,” Mr. Scott said. “Every single person has had some sort of odd, off-the-wall moment or something they think is off the wall, but it’s actually very real. And I love bringing that to life.”