SARCASM IS NOT THE SAME AS IRONY, and it is NOT meant for mere verbal bantering. Sarcasm irony not same thing! Irony is speaking or writing words that mean the opposite of what you think, often with a humorous or rhetorical intent. In literature, irony may be a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected. 1
“Irony must not be confused with sarcasm, which is direct: sarcasm means precisely what it says, but in a sharp, caustic manner.” – Eric Partridge, Usage And Abusage: A Guide To Good English
Irony as a literary device is a different critter entirely: according to Sogang University’s English Resource Center, it “involves a difference or contrast between appearance and reality—that is a discrepancy between what appears to be true and what really is true. Irony exposes and underscores a contrast between:
1. what is and what seems to be;
2. what is and what ought or be;
3. what is and what one wishes to be; and
4. what is and what one expects to be.”
And don’t ask me why a Chinese college is the first listing on Google for a question concerning the English language, but it is . . .
I have never read a book on sarcasm, about sarcasm, or based on sarcasm, so I cannot personally recommend any titles to those readers among my readers. here are a few popular titles that are readily found if more information on this topic is required:
The Official Dictionary Of Sarcasm: A Lexicon For Those Of Us Who Are Better And Smarter Than The Rest Of You by James Napoli.
Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, And The Evolution of Language by John Haiman (Professor of Linguistics Macalester College).
The Illustrated Dictionary Of Snark: A Snide, Sarcastic Guide To Verbal Sparring, Comebacks, Irony, Insults, And Much More by Lawrence Dorfman.
The Goodreads website has a page devoted to Popular Sarcasm Books. I know nothing about these books although the titles appear to be largely fiction.
Hollywood’s most sarcastic characters
In a piece titled “10 Sarcastic Movie Pricks You Can’t Help But Love,” author David Hynes claims that “certain characters exude a rasping, ironic type of wit. What’s more, they are absolutely hilarious-fully-formed, multi-dimensional characters who leap of out the screen and treat the viewer to howling gags and hilarious witticisms.” His selections are:
10. Alan Rickman, Die Hard
09. Patrick Batemen, American Psycho
08. Anthony Hopkins, The Silence Of The Lambs
07. Bill Lumbergh, Office Space
06. Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
05. Peter Capaldi, In The Loop
04. Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove
03. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
02. Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski
01. R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket
Jack Nicholson as the misanthropic (which here includes misogyny and homophobia) Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets is so sarcastic—so damn nasty and self-absorbed—it is difficult to watch the movie and not wonder how he has survived that far into his life with his teeth intact!
But Alan Rickman holds a particularly well-entrenched spot in my heart for his roles utilizing sarcasm. Following Die Hard, I became aware of his ‘wit’ when he portrayed the downright vicious Australian ranch owner Elliot Marston in Quigley Down Under (1990) opposite good-guy Tom Selleck in one of his best roles. 2
A poster for Mr Deeds Goes To Town back in the day when an artist was hired to paint an image for the poster. Here, the rendition of Jean Arthur vaguely resembles her but the guy in the upper right doesn’t look at all like Gary Cooper.
Another glimpse at film sarcasm is in Frank Capra’s 1936 classic Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. In one scene, Gary Cooper, utterly enamored of Jean Arthur (as what man wouldn’t be—as famed screenwriter Arthur Abbott would say, “She’s got gumption!”), is having dinner with her in an upscale restaurant that caters to the “literati.”
The couple are invited to the table of a group of men, all published authors, each as comfortable in the world of society as in their writing quarters. Deeds is unaware that the reason that he has been invited is so that these men of letters—several deep in their cups—can poke fun at him.
Mr. Deeds is a published “poet” specializing in made-to-order greeting card verse, a vocation in which he takes pride. Their banter with him is pointedly sarcastic, but being a small towner, he is at first oblivious to their belittling. He finally catches on and overreacts by . . .
But I won’t spoil that scene for you. Find the movie and watch it!
Ridicule and sarcasm in French film
I would be remiss in my bloggerly duties if I did not recommend the marvelous French film Ridicule from 1996. Ridicule is a French filmset in 1783 at the decadent court of King Louis XVI at Versailles. This is a place “where social status can rise and fall based on one’s ability to mete out witty insults and avoid ridicule oneself. The story examines the social injustices of late 18th century France, in showing the corruption and callousness of the aristocrats.”
While Charles Berling is the star of Ridicule—and he is perfection in the role—it is the lovely Fanny Ardant who takes up our attention on the original movie poster. And few modern movie posters are hand-painted by artists.
The movie is directed by Patrice Leconte and stars Charles Berling, Jean Rochefort, Fanny Ardant, and Judith Godrèche. It is in French with good if not perfect subtitles. It was well received and nominated for a slew of European awards, winning several, notably the French César Award for Best Film in 1997.
Ridicule was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The IMDb website gives the movie a rating of 7.4 out of a possible 10 and includes a 77 second trailer for the movie. See it and enjoy . . .
Sarcasm and one of television’s biggest wusses
Finally, my nomination for “Least Effective Use of Sarcasm by a Leading Character in a Television Sitcom” goes to Chandler Bing of Friends. As brilliantly portrayed week after week year after year by Matthew Perry, Bing was perhaps the most ineffectual character on television.
While sarcasm was a normal part of the show (none of the characters was above it but Joey), for the staggeringly insecure Chandler it was his first line of defense and was rarely more debilitating than a paper cut . . .
His Sarcastic Majesty Requests
In my first year at Wilkes College in 1969, I had somehow found myself the center of the orbit of a small cast of disparate characters. This after years of abuse and insult and bullying at the hands of classmates and especially the bullies—and there are always the bullies—and essentially being ignored by the “important” girls in the in-crowd (alas, usually the only ones that matter to the immature male ego) had reduced me to a walking mass of insecurities.
Most of these people were “just guys” who were equally disaffected from the mainstream (Wilkes was jock-oriented, it was the height of the Vietnam War, Nixon had just taken office, many Americans were just turning on for the first time, etc.).
At the campus commons—a building devoted mostly to taking a break for food and beverage but mostly for conversation—I had a more or less “permanent” table in one corner of the building where my group met and I reigned!
Long story short (for once!), college is a great leveler: guys who were captains of their football baseball basketball teams and used to adulation found themselves surrounded by a host of other such local stars who were just as good as they and just as spoiled by the attention.
Similarly, there were countless attractive young ladies who were head cheerleaders or who held “the most popular girl” status who found themselves just another pretty face in the new environment.
Such a pretty face approached my table one day, incredibly to flirt with me. (Although calling what most Americans do as flirting is perhaps a disservice to the concept of real flirting.)
She did this with the sense of superiority to which she was accustomed from high school but which no longer mattered in this milieu. I should simply have been flattered and responded positively by asking her out or negatively by somehow mentioning that I was already attached (whether I was or not).
Alas, I did neither . . .
I can’t remember why, but I felt the need to remind her that she was no longer among the “select few” but now “merely” “just” another nice looking member of the hoi polloi. To my shame, I did this by resorting to the most insidious sarcasm, much of which was above her pretty head but which was not missed by my mates.
I relished the opportunity to reduce a member of the “upper class” to a more plebeian level, she slowly catching on to what was happening.
At some point, something I said struck home and she walked away in tears. My friends—each and all a victim to the condescension that such girls often treated nerds losers (like we were)—thought it I was great. That I was, in fact, brilliant!
When I saw the tears, I was stunned by my thoughtlessness. I went after her, apologizing profusely. Fool that I was, I thought that I could make up for it by doing what she had wanted in the first place: I asked her to go out with me.
She had more sense than that and—with a dignity that proved my assessment of her so so wrong—politely declined and continued walking away from the scene of the massacre.
I had been brutal, unfair. And the girl wasn’t from my high school, so I didn’t really know her. I had been as mean-spirited as the kids that had picked on me for years. Hell, I would not have been out of place at Louis XVI! 3
The worst part was she was almost as lovely as she thought she was! And older, wiser me would have accepted the attention, asked her out, shown her a marvelous time—I have been assured that I give good first date!—and you never know what might have been, heyna?
Chaste-souled people and sarcasm-induced orgasms
I thought that I had cleverly coined the term “sarcasmic” that I used above. Not so: the Urban Dictionary has six definitions for the word (the first two combining sarcastic with orgasmic), of which I have selected three:
• explosively sarcastic; generally denoting sarcasm that has been building and kept inside and is suddenly released in a shower of rudeness;
• a sarcasm-induced orgasm; sarcastic remarks that are so cunning and witty that it is pure sex to the ears and makes one feel euphoric once heard; and
• when the sarcasm is just that good.
Unfortunately. None of these match my use—all I intended was it to be an adjective indicating things that involved or used sarcasm as an essential element.
HEADER IMAGE: Chandler Bing in his brief attempt at being in a New Romantics-type pop band: combine the worst Flock of Seagulls haircut with the worst shirt/jacket combination, place them atop a staggeringly insecure guy who must defend himself at all times with sarcasm, and see what kind of luck he has picking up chicks at parties. Chandler was brilliantly portrayed by Matthew Perry.
1 The two definitions are adapted librully from Merriam-Webster.
2 My favorite role for Rickman is Love Actually (2003) as Harry, a man sorely tempted to cheat on his harried wife (Emma Thompson) by a secretary who would sorely tempt almost any man (Helke Makatsch). Rickman’s need to be sarcastic is held in check through most of the film but I can sense its presence and keep waiting for its appearance.
3 Having been bullied from grade school into college, I hate all f*cking bullies! That I was capable of acting in any way shape form as such a creature then horrifies me now, forty years later!