IN RECENT CONVERSATIONS and in reading articles, blogs, and comments on the internet, I hear the word ‘sarcasm’ used interchangeably with ‘irony.’ I point out that irony ain’t the same as sarcasm, which requires a caustic intent. Since we are now at a time when everyone thinks themselves as right as the next guy and no one likes their delusions challenged, I don’t think I make much headway.
While there are several meanings and uses for the word irony, for this article the definition is “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.” (Merriam-Webster) 1
Sarcasm, a caustic utterance designed to give pain, is not the same as irony, although the can two overlap.
According to Merriam-Webster, sarcasm is “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain” and “a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual.” 2
So when you do something really bone-headed, and your best friend quips, “Well, you’re in fine form today,” he is being humorously ironic.
On the other hand, if your arch nemesis happens to observe the same boner and observes, “Not the brightest crayon in the box now, are we?” then he is being sarcastic. 3
This is not to say that irony cannot be used derisively, or even sarcastically—the two can overlap.
Still, to know how and when and why to use which, you need to what each means.
And, frankly, it’s easier to keep the two in separate compartments of your mind.
Cartoon by John Darkow for The Columbia Daily Tribune.
Sarcasm works best when spoken
Sarcasm is not irony and it is not meant for mere verbal bantering. Irony is speaking or writing words that mean the opposite of what you think, often with a humorous or rhetorical intent. “Irony must not be confused with sarcasm, which is direct: sarcasm means precisely what it says, but in a sharp, caustic manner.” 4
Sarcasm usually works best when spoken: most of us know when another is being sarcastic when speaking to us. Exceptions exist, notably people with Asperger’s syndrome and Sheldon Cooper (see below). Sarcasm does not translate as well to the printed page.
As sarcasm is often based on inflection, it is also of the moment: it translates poorly in retelling. Sarcasm usually requires context for it to be both effective and recognizable as sarcasm. This has been the topic of research:
“The findings show that the target sentences, when presented in isolation, were not seen as being conventionally sarcastic in nature. These same target sentences however, when surrounded by contextual information provided by the participants asked to create a sarcastic context, were later coded as being sarcastic by a naïve rater.” (John D. Campbell) 5
Now that that’s squared up, we can move on to the use of sarcasm effectively in ineffectively in movies and on television!
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.
Hollywood and sarcasm
In a piece titled “10 Sarcastic Movie Pricks You Can’t Help But Love,” David Hynes writes, “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
9. Patrick Batemen, American Psycho
8. Anthony Hopkins, The Silence Of The Lambs
7. Bill Lumbergh, Office Space
6. Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
5. Peter Capaldi, In The Loop
4. Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove
3. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
2. Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski
1. R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket
Jack Nicholson as the misanthropic 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 survived that far into his life with his teeth intact and bones unbroken!
Alan Rickman holds a particularly well-entrenched spot in my heart for his roles utilizing sarcasm. Following Die Hard, 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.
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, 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 published authors, each as comfortable in the world of society as in their writing quarters. Deeds is unaware that he has been invited so that these men of letters—several deep in their cups—can poke fun at him as a country bumpkin.
Deeds is a “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. But I won’t spoil that scene for you—find the movie and watch it!
Perhaps the most popular sarcastic character in the history of American television was Chandler Bing of Friends. As he was portrayed by Matthew Perry, Bing’s sarcasm was often so poorly conceived and executed it just made him look pitiful—which didn’t stop the beautiful Monica Geller (Courteney Cox) from falling in love with him.
Sarcasm and television
Several characters in successful television series are noted for their sarcasm, my favorites being Chandler Bing and Gregory House. The hapless Bing may qualify as the Least Effective Use of Sarcasm by a Leading Character in a Television Sitcom Award! As brilliantly portrayed by Matthew Perry in Friends, Bing was perhaps the most ineffectual character on television.
For the staggeringly insecure Chandler, sarcasm was his first line of defense. His sarcasm is childish and defensive was rarely more debilitating than a paper cut.
Sarcasm was used much more devastatingly by Dr. Gregory House in House. The role was played by Hugh Laurie, who made the testiness and nastiness of the doctor seem so natural it’s hard to image the man isn’t like that in “real life”!
The funniest use of sarcasm on television today is on The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon’s inability to grasp sarcasm is hilarious.
House is so awful as a human being that many people couldn’t watch the show! He got away with his endless foulness because of his brilliance in diagnosing conditions in his patients that escaped other doctors. His sarcasm is tolerated because he and his team saved dozens of patients a year that would have died in any other hospital.
The funniest use of sarcasm on television is on The Big Bang Theory, where Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) has an IQ out of reach of 99% of humanity, but he also has an Asperger-like inability to grasp the most common social convention. A big one is sarcasm, which he rarely understands but is a cause for notice when he does ‘get it.’
Both his roommate and best friend Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Leonard’s girlfriend Penny (Kaley Cuoco) try to educate Sheldon, pointing out when sarcasm is being employed against him. As the series progresses, Sheldon gets better at deducing the use of sarcasm, and even tries to wield it on others occasionally. The sarcasm issue is now a long-running joke in the long-running show.
HEADER IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is a fabulous caricature of Sheldon “Green Lantern” Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard “Sarcasm” Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) for the television series The Big Bang Theory. Despite his lofty IQ, Sheldon has difficulty grasping certain social forms, notably sarcasm. Leonard will hold up signs alerting his friend to its presence when it’s being used against him—even if it’s Leonard being sarcastic.
Finally, the piece above was originally published here as two separate articles in 2013, “sarcasm is not synonymous with either irony or ridicule (part 1)” and “sarcasm is not synonymous with either irony or ridicule (part 2).” I have excised about one-third of the text, rewrote the rest, changed the typeface from san serf to serif, and added images.
1 Irony as a literary device is a different critter entirely, where 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: what is and what seems to be; what is and what ought or be; what is and what one wishes to be; and what is and what one expects to be.” (Sogang University’s English Resource Center)
2 The word originated in the 1570s from the Late Latin sarcasmus, from late Greek sarkasmos (“a sneer, jest, taunt, mockery”), from sarkazein (“to speak bitterly, sneer,” literally “to strip off the flesh”), from sarx (“flesh,” properly a “piece of meat”). The current form of the English word is from 1610s. (Online Etymology Dictionary)
3 Dictionary.com is the most clear: “In sarcasm, ridicule or mockery is used harshly, often crudely and contemptuously, for destructive purposes. It may be used in an indirect manner, and have the form of irony … or it may be used in the form of a direct statement.”
4 Quote in that paragraph from Eric Partridge, Usage And Abusage: A Guide To Good English.
5 From Investigating the Necessary Components of a Sarcastic Context, the title for the paper of Campbell’s research “designed to investigate the contextual components utilized to convey sarcastic verbal irony, testing whether theoretical components deemed as necessary for creating a sense of irony are, in fact, necessary.”