What the Hell is Irony?

Even though, to a foreigner, the events of September 11 might seem tragic but relatively inconsequential, the collapse of the two towers changed the world. Some of the changes were brief, others more permanent. It was clear, though, that we were living in a different world. In the aftermath, we noticed that the sarcastic and ironic tone that had defined the nineties and was poised to take over the naughties, had disappeared. As the nation entered mourning, everything from politics to movies took on a much more somber and serious tone to reflect the way we feel. Even the snarky and satirical Jon Stewart of The Daily Show gave an unscripted and tearful speech. [1]Irony, it was said, was dead, and for several years, that was true, but it has come back from dead. Today, we have seen a resurgence in the use of irony, almost as if it was never gone, but why?

Stewart, emotional after 9/11

Before we delve into irony much further, we want to make sure we understand what exactly it is and what it is not. If somebody said “I loved Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; I thought it was a cinematic masterpiece”, it would be verbal irony; they made a statement of fact that expressed a point view, while implying the exact opposite. If someone said, “Oh! My! God! There’s a FroYo store and we were just talking about FroYo. That’s sooo ironic”, first, we would collectively smack him or her and then we would explain that what happened was coincidence, not irony. Irony can also be used dramatically which we often see in the horror genre when the audience sees the slasher creep up on his victim, but the babysitter/hot teens don’t see him until it’s too late. Situations can also be ironic, e.g. an inventor is killed by his own invention. Irony can and has been used for decades depending on how it is used, can be good or bad.

While irony may have been dead for a little while, it has certainly returned in a big way. We can see this return in several places, including hipsters, an entire subculture devoted to irony, but perhaps the best example of irony in pop culture is The Colbert Report and its radically conservative host, Stephen Colbert. The character if played by liberal comedian Stephen Colbert who describes his character as “a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high status idiot”[2]. Colbert’s job is to go out four nights a week and be almost exclusively ironic for about half an hour. Simply put, he plays his character as the opposite of himself. So how did irony creep back into culture and is it the same flavor of irony that we saw in the nineties?

This new irony came as a result of the somber and serious tone that accompanied us in the post 9/11 world. People became so used to not only hearing and using that tone but taking it to extremes that it began to lose its effect and seem almost insincere. That is where irony came back, but, it was different than the irony of a decade earlier. Then, it was unhip to have actual views and opinions so people responded with apathy and sarcasm, now people have strong views, but they express them with irony. Colbert (the character), for instance, is in the process of trying to run for president using money raised from a super PAC which is untraceable and unaccountable. He (Colbert the person) is doing this because he believes the new regulations regarding campaign donations are unethical and immoral.

As we can see, Irony is not necessarily a bad thing. With the right mix it creates a healthy skepticism and a way to satirize the world. With the wrong mix, people become complacent and cynical. The challenge is to continue to use irony without losing sincerity.


[1] The Daily Show of September 20, 2001

[2] Colbert, Stephen. Interview with Terry Gross (October 9, 2007). Colbert Builds ‘Report’ with Viewers, Readers. Fresh Air. WHYY. Retrieved on 2007-10-21.

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