Friday, January 19, 2007

The deeper meaning of irony

The best way to get new people onto your blog is to comment on other people’s blogs. Most of the time they’ll click on your name to see which particular brand of lunacy you subscribe to. It was via this process that I wandered over to Mike Beversluis’s winsome site, and found his link to a US ‘College Humor’ site’s attempt to improve Alanis Morissette’s well-known song, Ironic.

This put me in mind of an amusing routine on the BBC by Irish comic Ed Byrne from some years ago, in which he pointed out that none of the Morisette lyrics intended to show irony actually do, which is in itself ironic. And thanks to the wonders of Youtube, I found this routine (see below).

It could be that the college ‘humorists’ behind this latest attempt somehow saw the Byrne routine and attempted to ape it. The problem is that a large number of their attempts to be ironic are not very ironic, merely absurd.

Which is in itself pretty darn ironic.

Some of them are ok: “A black fly in your Chardonnay... poured to celebrate the successful fumigation of your recently purchased vineyard in southern France”; and “A traffic jam when you're already late... to receive an award from the Municipal Planning Board for reducing the city's automobile congestion 80 percent.

These would both be thoroughly irony-riddled situations.

But: “Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife... with which to kill your spouse for sleeping with the young soup chef who works at the Au Bon Pain” isn’t ironic at all – merely stupid (see the Byrne video for how to make that line ironic – it’s really quite simple).

All of this made me wonder if irony is an exclusively British (and Irish) concept, and that we’ve done a Humpty Dumpty on the word ‘irony’ to give it a meaning only we understand.

The dictionary isn’t much help. It’s easy enough to understand irony in a case of straightforward “use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning” but half the time that’s just sarcasm. What about ironic situations?

And irony can be a matter of degree. Something can be mildly ironic (speeding past a sign saying “Thank you for not speeding”); or very ironic (speeding past a sign saying “Thank you for not speeding” and, being distracted by it, taking your eyes off the road and crashing); or, extremely ironic (speeding past a sign saying “Thank you for not speeding” and, being distracted by it, taking your eyes off the road and crashing into another sign saying “Our excellent road safety record and ‘Thank you for not speeding signs’ have ensured that this is a crash-free zone” and you were the person responsible for putting the sign there having long argued that its presence would help prevent crashes).

Perhaps you just have to give examples of irony, and you either get it or you don’t.

So, going back to the College Humor attempt to rewrite Morisette, let’s look at their effort here:

A free ride when you've already paid... all of your money to the good-natured cab driver when you mistook him for a mugger.”

Pure rubbish. A much more ironic ending for that line would be:

A free ride when you've already paid... out on the £100 wager you had with your friend while on a night out, in which he bet that there were no free rides to be had, you bet that there were, subsequently admitted defeat because you were unable to find any free rides, gave him the £100 and, having no cash and being forced to go home, pleaded with him to lend you £10 to get this (free, it turns out) ride home, which he did, but at extortionate interest.”

And how about this effort by the College boys:

"A death row pardon two minutes too late... because the governor was too busy watching Dead Man Walking to grant clemency any earlier".

That’s not really very ironic, unless you’re specifying that the influence of the film Dead Man Walking changed the governer’s views on capital punishment and was the reason he decided to grant clemency. And even then the fact of it being two minutes too late wouldn’t be that ironic, merely unfortunate, unless the only reason the governer was watching the film was because it started two minutes later than scheduled, and, being a man who will only watch films all the way through if he sees it from the very start, this late start was the only reason he caught it in the first place and changed his views on capital punishment.

This would work better:

"A death row pardon two minutes too save the life of the inmate, because his friends had planted a remotely-controlled bomb inside a carriage clock designed to explode at precisely 11am and had given it to the governor as a pretend gift because they hated him for refusing to grant clemency. But the governor then did decide to grant clemency that morning, and furthermore in all innocence gave the inmate the clock as a gift, but in doing so he accidentally moved the hands forward by two minutes, just before going public at exactly 10.59am – a minute after the exploding clock killed the inmate at 10.58am (11am on the now fast clock) - to make the announcement of the pardon that would have prompted the terrorists to disarm the clock bomb before the real 11am and thus save the inmate’s life when they thought they were sparing the governor’s life."

Admittedly, this would be somewhat more awkward to set to music than the original lyrics, but it would be irony!

Here’s Ed Byrne:


Anonymous said...

You want irony? The Duckians have a great one.

I think the reason that so many people have difficulty with irony here in the states is that irony requires self-reflection, a talent that seems sadly lacking.

Brit said...

Obviously I'm generalising here, but in America Britons soon find they do have to be much, much more literal in conversation than they would be at home. Throwaway comments and suchlike frivolities are seized upon as if they are serious points.

My guess is that it's because the melting pot of the US means that people are much more wary of misunderstanding each other, or of being misunderstood.

Anonymous said...

It's just like the Internet. The less the common shared background, the wider the boundaries of possible literalness, so the more difficult the understood irony.

I may also be a bad reference, as I often have that experience as well.

Duck said...

Most Americans just haven't figured out what a crew of wiseasses you Brits are.

I blame the loss of Empire. How ironic is it that the most lasting legacy of your dominance of the world is the fact that your former colonies take turns spanking you in cricket.

Anonymous said...

Brit - thanks for the compliment.

I suspect, though, that all it takes to appreciate the complete lack of irony in Alanis's song is to not be Alanis.

Oroborous said...

Isn't being offered a free ride, after you've already paid for transportation, slightly ironic ?

If not, what is it ?

Simply disheartening ?

Brit said...


Not very. However, if our sole purpose in building the Empire had been to establish our eternal supremacy at the game of cricket, that would be ironic.

Peter Burnet said...


I'm trying to get a firm handle on the concept. Do you think there is any irony in so many Post-Judd Alliance members defiantly quitting Brothersjudd in high-minded protest and then repeatedly setting comment-posting records whenever his name comes up?

Brit said...

None at all - it would be unnatural if they didn't talk about their reasons for quitting the thing that introduced them to each other in the first place.

However, if they all quit because they were fed up with people talking about OJ behind his back, that would be fairly ironic.

Anonymous said...

Oroborous: Where's the misinterpretation of words? So, yeah, it's basically wryly unfortunate.

Peter: more like, if you all quit to be OJ-free, and then started editing each others comments, talking about trains all the time, and saying "Bingo" a lot.