Irony, Satire, and Sarcasm and Those Who Don’t Get It

13 Nov

Three Different Animals

Most people can point out sarcasm when they hear it. Except maybe Sheldon. It’s when someone says something they don’t mean in an overly dramatic voice and often uses hyperbole. Example:

Oh, I really loved it. That book solved all my worries and I’ll never have to worry again, and it can do this for everyone who reads it. It brought Jesus back to life and made broccoli taste like nutela.”

Put emphasis on the words “really” and “everyone”. That’s the overly dramatic voice. It is true that some people are incapable of hearing the inflection necessary to recognize sarcasm, but that’s not many people.

Satire is usually much more long winded. It’s most prevalent in fictive narratives, like Lucky Jim. Which is a great book, by the by. For a more modern example, watch any South Park episode. Satire is used to poke fun at societal conventions. Because it is presented as serious situations, the majority of people have trouble recognizing it.

There are so many different forms of irony, it’s crazy. There’s dramatic irony, verbal irony, situational irony, and those are just the better know ones. For an example, some people may say “Listen to Ironic by Alanis Morsette,” and while I enjoy that song, half the examples are just unfortunate, not ironic. A good rule of thumb for identifying irony is this: something should have been guarded against, but it happened anyway, sometimes because of the guarding tactics put in place or those guards just failed before the event. Best examples I can think of below:

A man gets his fortune read. It says he will die the next day, so he leaves his home/city/state to escape his fate. His travel method kills him (like a plane or car accident) or when he gets to the new place, he dies in an event there (an earthquake/fire/volcano/plague etc.). This is situational.

Now if you are reading a novel, short story, or poem or watching a show or movie and you know something the character doesn’t, that’s dramatic irony. There is a type of poem, called the dramatic monologue, wherein the whole thing is someone talking to someone else and we only read what the first person says. Their speech reveals to us, the reader, deeper information (note: method is called subtext) that the surface meaning of the words themselves do not reveal. This is also dramatic irony, but the best example is obviously Romeo and Juliet. We know Juliet is still alive, but Romeo doesn’t. We’re helpless to stop him from killing himself, even though we know his death is pointless. Dramatic irony is most often not humorous.

Verbal irony is more fun. I do this more than I should. It’s unfair to those I speak to as verbal irony can be just like sarcasm without the tone to suggest the speaker is not serious. It’s not always detectable, but it is very funny to the speaker.

“I watch Jersey Shore every chance I get.”

Technically, sarcasm is verbal irony, but I like to make the distinction since all sarcasm is verbal irony but not all verbal irony is sarcasm (think squares and rectangles).

Not Getting It: The Examples

I’m so shocked when people don’t get satire and irony. I can’t process how they don’t understand. Two major examples come to mind: “A Modest Proposal” by Swift and #SELFIE by The Chainsmokers. I love both these things because of how well they do satire and irony, but not everyone likes them because they miss the point.

Most college students have to read this at some point, whether it is in comp class or British Literature. The first time I read this for class was Brit Lit I, and some of the people in class had to be informed that Swift wasn’t serious. Then when I taught it in my own class, I stood there frozen for a moment, eyes wide, when a good number of my students thought that Swift wanted to eat children. Then I explained satire for the rest of the hour. Show of hands, who thinks that Swift actually wanted the English to eat Irish babies?

Swift was making a point that the English subjugation was killing the Irish, especially the children, so they were as good as eating their children like cattle for steaks. Swift was a bit of an activist, and yes, the English did freak out about “A Modest Proposal”, thinking he was a sick, sick man, but at least it had some impact.

The Chainsmokers have spent a lot of time in clubs, hearing a lot of the inane conversations and flat-out monologues from club girls that repulse those of us who can take a picture without a duckface or filter. #SELFIE is masterfully mixed, even for those of us who love a good string quartet, but the biggest complaint in the YouTube comments for the song is that this song would be way better without the lyrics. I beg to differ, vehemently.

that girl who’s talking she’s so fucking annoying

I  can´t stop dancing to this song but the way this girl speak is so annoying.

it’s almost like watching a trainwreck

So disgusting that this is what’s popular these days. I may as well go join the Islamic State, maybe they’re right about slaughtering all you infidels.

Quotes from the official YouTube video. (“Well, that escalated quickly.”)

Let’s look at the lyrics first. Then let’s take a closer look, and possibly you’ll see how The Chainsmokers are not pandering to the selfie attitude.

When Jason was at the table
I kept on seeing him look at me while he was with that other girl
Do you think he was just doing that to make me jealous?
Because he was totally texting me all night last night
And I don’t know if it’s a booty call or not
So… like what do you think?
Did you think that girl was pretty?
How did that girl even get in here?
Do you see her?
She’s so short and that dress is so tacky
Who wears Cheetah?
It’s not even summer, why does the DJ keep on playing “Summertime Sadness”?
After we go to the bathroom, can we go smoke a cigarette?
I really need one
But first,
Let me take a selfie

Can you guys help me pick a filter?
I don’t know if I should go with XX Pro or Valencia
I wanna look tan
What should my caption be?
I want it to be clever
How about “Livin’ with my bitches, hash tag LIVE”
I only got 10 likes in the last 5 minutes
Do you think I should take it down?
Let me take another selfie

Wait, pause, Jason just liked my selfie
What a creep
Is that guy sleeping over there?
Yeah, the one next to the girl with no shoes on
That’s so ratchet
That girl is such a fake model
She definitely bought all her Instagram followers
Who goes out on Mondays?
OK, let’s go take some shots
Oh no, ugh I feel like I’m gonna throw up
Oh wait, nevermind I’m fine
Let’s go dance
There’s no vodka at this table
Do you know anyone else here?
Oh my God, Jason just texted me
Should I go home with him?
I guess I took a good selfie

Selfie [x8]

Let me take a selfie

If you’re not willing to read all that, go here to listen to the song.

Okay, let’s take the whole thing. It’s a monologue. She asks 12 questions but never once pauses for a response. That’s how self-absorbed she is, more than just wanting to take multiple selfies. Now let’s look at smaller bits. In line 12, she questions why the DJ is playing Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Saddness when it’s not summer. I won’t go into what that song is about, but it’s not about summer and how bright and fun it is to say the least. The only songs that can’t be played year round are Holiday songs (like We Wish You a Merry Christmas), so her question just reads as strange. In the second verse, she wants to pick a filter to look tan, which suggests that she is supposed to (in her own mind) look tan and that instead of tanning (or perhaps she doesn’t think she is tan enough) she wants to use photo-altering methods. This means that she will look different in person than she does in the photo, which is disingenuous (Don’t get me wrong, I understand everyone wants their photos to flatter them, but this is a step too far). Next, she thinks about her caption. She wants it to be clever, but any listener knows that “Livin’ with my bitches, #live” is far from clever. In the final verse, she asks (the admittedly rhetorical) question “Who goes out on Mondays?” Since the person she is talking about is out, she has to be out to see them, so apparently she goes out on Mondays. This is the most obvious point in the whole song, wherein if a listener isn’t at least thinking, let alone exclaiming, “You do!” then the irony has flown over their head.

But wait, there’s more! The speaker is repetitive (not just because they mixed it that way though that feeds into the point as well). Her actions and words are repetitive, retreading ground she has already covered, such as the two times she wants to take a selfie, but also the two drinking moments in the third verse, and the turning of her thoughts to Jason, who can’t be clearly characterized by what she says about him but who is in all three verses. The most subtle repetition is at the top of the third verse wherein she says both wait and pause one following immediately after the other, which have the same meaning within this verbal context. These repetitions are great musically, but in actual speaking and action they show an inane mind that can’t focus on more complex ideas. The simple ideas of smoking, drinking, discussing one’s appearance, and boys/sex show that the speaker doesn’t have the capability or lacks the desire to think about more important and productive subjects and actions.

Don’t change that channel yet! The speaker is shown to be fickle. When returning to subjects, her opinion is different than it was the last time she brought it up. For example, she goes from distrusting Jason’s motives, to thinking he is creepy, to considering going home with him. This all happens in one night, but the short length of the song emphasizes how rapidly her mind changes. On the selfies themselves, she goes from wanting to take one, to wanting to post an altered version of the photo, to wanting to take it down within five minutes, to thinking she should take a new one, to thinking her first one must have been good. This doesn’t just show fickleness but also vanity. This vanity is also shown in how she puts down the other women she sees show in the first verse and the third verse. The first woman is viewed negatively based on the fact that she is with Jason, but also by aesthetic values such as her height and the type of print she is wearing. The second woman is viewed negatively because she took off her shoes (a common occurrence with women because of heels), and is seemingly attractive (being described as a model, even a fake one, suggests some kind of attractiveness), then is subject to less obvious judgments about her non-visible actions. I’ve already mentioned the inherent contradiction of the speaker’s last on this woman.

I could keep examining this song, but I imagine some people are getting tired of it at this point. This long tirade of examination is all dramatic irony. We know, even if she doesn’t, that she’s ridiculous, but what she said isn’t random. It was written by people who knew what they were doing. They wrote each line with purpose: showing exactly how outrageous this kind of behavior is. They even picked a good actress to take on the role and use the correct dialect for this type of person. Alexis Campisi is actually nothing like the character she depicts, so not only was this monologue written by writers (as opposed to actual audio from a club girl), it was an act. Her own selfies lack duckfaces and those weird way above the head angles girls so often use, if not filters. Her twitter feed, at a glance, is replete with actual thoughts and funny quotes (“Do you want to build a snowman? Taking applicants based on singing ability.” and “My iPhone is so conceited, it keeps telling me it’s too hot to function.”) instead of inane chatter and a plethora of hashtags. The point is the monologue is crafted to present something to the listener. It’s grating and irritating, but it’s supposed to be. It’s also meant to be laughable, so I can’t help but be shocked when people don’t understand that they aren’t lauding the character but maligning her.

What’s the Point of All This?

Could someone please explain why some people understand irony and satire and others don’t? I’m at a loss here. I can usually get this kind of writing on the first experience, but I don’t understand how some people can take this stuff seriously. It’s so much more fun to nod along with the creators of satire and irony if we all get it. It’s possible this has more to do with critical thinking skills than anything else. I imagine a bunch of club girls who don’t have a good sense of irony speaking along with the monologue, smiling because it is a song about them and isn’t that great, then I laugh inside, then I die inside. When people don’t get this kind of writing, I’m not just shocked. I’m also sad, not because they’re not in on it with the rest of us, but because through no fault of their own, the creator’s work is perverted. Maybe we should have a picture of Leonard holding a sign that says the appropriate term as a warning to these people.


Posted by on November 13, 2014 in Craft of Writing


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3 responses to “Irony, Satire, and Sarcasm and Those Who Don’t Get It

  1. Fred

    December 12, 2017 at 11:23 am

    This post is 3 years old, but here’s my comment anyway:

    Something I noticed is that people who don’t get satire, tend to be people who can’t fathom the possibility that they might be wrong. They see everything from one angle, and refuse to even consider other possibilities.
    It’s easy to say people who don’t understand satire are just less intelligent, but that’s not true. I know very intelligent people who don’t get it. My father tends to take everything seriously, and he’s one of the most intelligent people I know. He’s also somewhat conservative. I have a friend who has more than one masters degree, and is definitely not stupid. But he looks at EVERYTHING from a Christian point of view. He doesn’t consider other views. But let’s not make this about religion. I know atheists who don’t get it either, because they have their own way of looking at things, and if you don’t agree with them, you’re wrong.

    There’s a cartoon I saw, where there’s a cylinder hanging in the air. One guy looks at it from the side, and sees a rectangle. The other guy looks at if from the end, and sees a circle. The circle and rectangle are labeled “True”, and the actual cylinder is labeled “Truth.” In my experience, people who only see a circle or a rectangle don’t get satire. Why is this? I don’t know.

    • Alex Miceli

      December 12, 2017 at 3:16 pm

      This is my most viewed post for three years running, so your reply is completely welcome. I love the idea of further discussing this subject.

      I do not equate education to intelligence. It was actually kind of a joke among some of the professors at my university that the more degrees a person had the less intelligent they were, and this was coming from PhDs. I would equate the two if western education didn’t narrow their pedagogy and values as much as they do. In western society, education is more closely linked with knowledge. Knowledge can help, but there is a lot of knowledge in an encyclopedia, but that doesn’t make it smart. I equate intelligence to the ability to solve problems. The more complex problem the subject solves, the more intelligent the subject. Emotional intelligence affects this, because bias and a lack of maturity can cause some people to refuse even to attempt to solve specific problems. The ability to recognize internal bias is part of problem solving. For example, I know some people who are religious who refuse to work around their religious beliefs to solve some issues; just as I know some people who have other internal biases that refuse to solve other issues. I find those people who have the most internal biases in the way of solving the problem and that still solve it, to be of greater intelligence than those with less internal biases. Satire is a problem that does not typically involve religion, so religion is not usually a factor in whether or not a person “gets” it. It does require high-end problem-solving skills (critical thinking is what most in education know of it as). Many people do not flex these muscles enough, resulting in the British public thinking that Swift wanted the country to start eating Irish babies, or the Jewish community protesting Cabaret, and lots of current outrage at satirical attempts to examine our society, such a PewDiePie’s attempt to show how a person can get anything on the internet, no matter how ridiculous and morally repugnant. Intelligence isn’t the accumulation of facts. Intelligence is the use and examination of the world around us in ways that are beneficial to ourselves and others. Look the definition up and it says that Intelligence is an ability, not a collection of information, involving acquiring and applying skills and knowledge. Education can give skills and knowledge to a person, but just as you can lead a horse to water, it can miss teaching a person on how to apply those skills and knowledge because that’s harder to teach and some people don’t put in the effort as students to learn it or do not have the capacity to do so. Satire, I believe, is a good litmus test to see if a person can apply those skills and knowledge adequately. It is, of course, not the only way to test for intelligence, because I believe there are many different kinds of problems to solve.

      • R Davidson

        January 23, 2018 at 9:12 pm

        Loved your post on this subject. My thirst for this type of knowledge and understanding of this particular subject is of great interest to myself and timely because of the search to understand an individual that is particularly hard to deal with. The person is my wife’s daughter who could not get the verbal irony in a comment I made. It was frustrating but I understand a great deal more after reading this post and others of how peoples thinking works or doesn’t work for that matter.


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