Confessional comedy and cringe comedy rarely dovetail as beautifully as they do in James Morosini’s I Love My Dad, a semi-autobiographical film about a time when Morosoni was catfished by his own father. The film, also starring Patton Oswalt, Rachel Dratch, Lil Rey Howery, and Claudia Sulewski, masterfully ratchets up the tension and humor as Franklin (Morosini) gets increasingly more attached to “Becca”/Chuck (Sulewski/Oswalt). It is very uncomfortable to watch, but also surprisingly genuine, a testament to how strong comedy can be when it’s built on real emotions.
Personal anecdotes and self-referential humor have certainly always been a part of the comedic landscape, yet as a whole, it feels like confessional comedy has become more widespread. We see less instances of things like George Carlin’s breaking down wordplay, Jerry Seinfeld cracking jokes about retirement communities, or Demetri Martin using diagrams onstage, and instead see more comedians like Mike Birbiglia, Hannah Gadsby, Jacqueline Novak, and Joel Kim Booster talking about their personal lives and identities. Though I Love My Dad is a fictionalized take on Morosini’s own experience, it feels close to confessional comedy in that it presents a real vulnerability, a desire to share something personal to an audience of strangers in the hopes that they connect with it.
Patton Oswalt, a well-known comedian in his own right, is no stranger to sharing parts of his life with an audience. “I’m fine to take something traumatic and embarrassing and maybe turn it into comedy,” he notes over the phone. Yet comedy isn’t the only lens through which to view Morosini’s experience. I Love My Dad could have easily been a more dramatic film about a disappointing father desperately attempting to connect with his suicidal son. But Morosini found himself drawn to the comedy of the situation. He says over Zoom, “I was captured by the idea of someone doing something so wrong, but for the right reasons, and from a place of love. It had this fundamental irony to it that made me laugh.”
And true to his word, the film does make you laugh. When Franklin talks to “Becca,” Morosini chooses to have her present in the room with him, mirroring the way an online space can feel as intimate as a real one. The flip side of that is when Becca and Franklin virtually kiss for the first time, Franklin is the one present in Chuck’s room, ready for the smooch. The discomfort on Oswalt’s face as he and Morosini lock lips is both excruciating and, well, very funny. When Chuck frantically types out messages while driving, the Becca present with Franklin excitedly vocalizes the typos as if she’s a malfunctioning robot. Even with the constant underlying tension that Chuck will be found out, the movie is still able to find moments of levity.
We all know that “based on a true story” has varying degrees of truthfulness, and the same logic applies when we listen to comedians and artists talk about themselves. Where some comedians, like Bo Burnham, have established that their stage persona is vastly different from who they are in real life, Oswalt is open about the fact that the person he is as a comedian is fairly similar to the person he is day-to-day. “I’ve reached the point where me onstage is the same as me offstage.” Yet Morosini, even when playing a character that he wrote based on his own experience, veers more heavily towards the former, saying, “I guess I don’t see Franklin as me, necessarily…but I found it interesting, the idea of playing a side of myself and exploring a similar circumstance.”
The core of the film is driven by the desire to empathize, both for the characters onscreen and for Morosini as a writer. “Oftentimes, when we’re in conflict with people, it’s easy to get locked into our own perspective around it,” said Morosini. “Looking at this moment through [my dad]’s point of view…was kind of this whimsical exercise in seeing how deeply I could feel his experience.” For Oswalt, having Chuck be a fully realized human trying his best rather than a one-sided villain helped him connect to the character as well. “Especially as a dad, I think there’s that thing of, ‘Oh, don’t I get credit for wanting to do the right thing?’ I’ve been guilty of that in my life.” Out of context, Chuck’s decision to catfish his son is questionable at best, but within the narrative structure of the film, we see how helpless he feels, and how that emotional distress impacts his decision making. It asks the audience to reconcile with the fact that, given the exact same circumstances, they would likely have done something equally as uncomfortable.
The act of finding laughs through discomfort is often used to classify “cringe comedy”, a genre of humor that relies on awkwardness, idiosyncrasies, and unease. Prominent examples of cringe comedy include things like The Eric Andre Show, or Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, or practically any Sacha Baron Cohen character. Yet the cringey moments in I Love My Dad are not manufactured for the sole purpose of making a character, or by extension, the audience, uncomfortable. “The thing that makes us cringe more than anything, are times that we feel like we’ve been exposed,” notes Morosini. And since the characters are using online personas, being exposed—for looking different than your picture, for not being as cool as you are online, for being a completely different person—are always top of mind.
“It’s compassionate cringe,” Morosoni says, a situation where people are trying (and failing) to connect, but trying nonetheless. And truly, what is life if not a series of moments of compassionate cringe?
I Love My Dad is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD and On Demand.
Michelle Cohn is a New York-based writer and pop culture enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @michcohn.