I want to start by addressing this comic:
Despite the offensive use of the word retarded, this comic brings up a really interesting topic of discussion:
At what point does ironic behavior transcend to simply who you are and how can it reflect on you as a person?
Irony is incredibly prevalent nowadays and it’s honestly an easy way to get a laugh.
Scrolling through Netflix with your friends? Recommend a shitty movie!
On a road trip? Play a bad song, you know- as a joke!
X? Y instead!
Taking an ironic stance on anything is a cheap shortcut to being funny, though we can’t help but wonder how far is too far?
A story my friends and I tell a lot takes place about two years ago in a McDonald’s drive thru. I was ordering when I asked my friend David if he wanted anything. He asked if he could just get water and instinctively I felt the need to shout ‘No!’ Why? Because it is the opposite of what he would have expected. When I told him that I had such an impulse, his response was that he was equally surprised that we didn’t make a joke out of him ordering, but we couldn’t understand why we both felt as if that should be the default interaction. It’s as if the ironic response became the expected norm and we had all somehow agreed upon that.
How do we use irony?
Subverting expectations is a major component to ironic humor, and in some instances, it can be used to ridicule certain groups. The whole reason that X is proposed instead of Y is because as a group we see X to be laughable and ridiculous. How often have you heard someone ironically praising Paul Blart: Mall Cop or throwing Nickelback onto a party playlist because it’s funny? When you use ironic humor this way, you are telegraphing what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘laughable.’
It is a strange behavior that I myself partake in and I think that exploring why we do it and the lasting effects it has is crucial.
What does irony say about us?
I’m going to use movies as an example because that’s what I know best:
If you go on YouTube there are scores of channels dedicated to trashing bad movies. Do you like Podcasts? From How Did This Get Made to We Hate Movies, there is no shortage of review shows dedicated to bad films. Why is this? They exist in abundance so there must be a market for this, but what does feeding off of such negativity do to us?
When we obsess over what we hate, we tend to forget what we love. I couldn’t tell you the last time I went to the movies and saw something I was excited for, but I can tell you that in the last week I watched a 30-minute video on why A Million Ways to Die in the West is awful. You may be reading this thinking ‘Yeah, I’ve never done that,’ and if so, that’s awesome! But the fact of the matter is that these various forms of media have hundreds of thousands of views. These are people, myself included, who have turned disdain into a hobby.
One thing I’ve noticed when living in a worldview such as this is that you aren’t even a part of your own community. You put your time and effort into something that you don’t even like. You have no say in it; you can only react from the outside looking in.
I’ve watched so-bad-it’s-good cult classic The Room at least 25 times, yet I watch my favorite movies maybe once every handful of years? This brings me to my next point:
Low effort satisfaction
The opposite of irony is sincerity and I think sincerity has been in decline. The reason? It’s hard to be sincere. There is always the fear of being ridiculed for what you believe in or not being taken seriously. Irony is an easy shortcut.
Irony doesn’t require you to try. In fact, I would argue that irony is effectively the applied inverse of trying. Comedian H. John Benjamin has an experimental jazz album titled ‘Well I should have… (Learned How to Play Piano).’
The album is described by the following:
‘The album was intentionally recorded to sound bad, since, as the album's title indicates, Benjamin does not know how to play piano, but still does so on the album.’
The album is categorized as ‘comedy music’ but when does feigning bad quality just become bad quality? Weird Al Yankovic does comedy music, but it does hold merit on it’s own, and it isn’t by any means ‘bad’ in terms of his musical ability. If you had no knowledge of H. Jon Benjamin and his comedic worth and just picked up the CD in a store, would it be indistinguishable from a bad album?
Irony Done Well
I do believe that there is a distinction, because certain pieces can be ‘made bad on purpose’ and be greatly enjoyable. The first thing to come to mind is The Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration ‘Grindhouse.’
Grindhouse is the name given for the double feature of Death Proof and Planet Terror. On the surface, they don’t look like well-made movies. I don’t know how hard I have to stress the fact that Rose McGowan has a functioning GUN for a LEG.
Like H. Jon Benjamin’s album, without knowledge of the ironic quality of these films, you would think that they were some garbage low budget B-Movies. They are made in the spirit of cheap flicks from the 70s and emulate the look and feel exceptionally. The key difference is that competent filmmakers made both movies. What makes them so jarring is that the movies contain so many amateur mistakes despite the fact that both directors have proven themselves to be more than able to make a phenomenal film. It actually takes skill to show the restraint that they show and make a bad movie on purpose.
This is why it would be hilarious if tomorrow Christopher Nolan announced that he made a 4th Batman movie in secret and would release it on YouTube, only for it to be a five minute sketch filmed with Christian Bale wearing a Halloween costume in his garage. The irony comes from juxtaposing his obvious skill with a hilariously poor execution. It’s what separates irony from poor quality and it’s why H. Jon Benjamin’s album doesn’t appeal to me. It would be one thing if an exceptional pianist made a bad album as a joke, but when someone who already lacks the talent does it, all I think is ‘Why am I paying for this? I can play this badly at home.’
One Last Thing
I made it a point to write about H. Jon Benjamin’s album because I had not listened to it yet. I wrote up to the heading of this paragraph, waited a few weeks, then listened to it so I could continue with a fresh take on the album.
And I laughed.
Irony isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I think that the application of irony for comedy is best described as complicated. When I played the first song on the album, it was pretty straightforward jazz until the piano came in. Make no mistake, it was bad music performed by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, but it was funny. I might even go as far as to say I enjoyed it! The knowledge that it’s intentional somehow makes it funny and I can’t really tell you why. That’s why this article is titled Irony - A Discussion and not Irony - An Answer.
I once had an English teacher in high school who described irony as the following:
‘The difference between what is said and what is meant’
And I think that’s the most you can say about it. It can be a crutch in the form of low effort jokes, but without it we’d be deprived of so many great pieces of media. Even Shakespeare loved his irony, though it was more traditional dramatic irony, but it worked nevertheless. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you say or do something you don’t mean for the sake of humor, you should mean it. Whatever that means.
Play me off, H. Jon Benjamin.