There’s a great moment in a seventh-season episode of The Simpsons titled “Homerpalooza.” The episode, set (unsurprisingly) at Lollapalooza, checks in several times with the disaffected youth that make up the festival’s crowd. At a certain point, one of them asks another, “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” to which his friend replies, “I don’t even know anymore.”
Flash-forward almost 20 years later, and the same scene could ring just as true for Lollapalooza attendees today. Except the question would more likely be, “Are you being ironic, dude?” Because while sarcasm and irony are cousins in the same family, today, irony has replaced sarcasm as the de rigueur brand of cynicism.
Anyone that’s ever taken a basic English class knows that irony isn’t anything new. In literature, irony has been used by everyone from Sophocles to Shakespeare. But only in the past few years has constant irony become inescapable.
Christy Wampole of the New York Times singles out the rise of hipsterdom specifically as the reason for the influx of irony in mainstream culture. Wampole characterizes a hipster as someone with a tendency of “manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself,” and goes on to observe that “this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone).”
Where did all these hipsters come from? Why are they springing up now? As many do when they are looking for a source of blame, Wampole fixes in on the Internet.
Life in the Internet age has undoubtedly helped a certain ironic sensibility to flourish. An ethos can be disseminated quickly and widely through this medium. Our incapacity to deal with the things at hand is evident in our use of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology. Prioritizing what is remote over what is immediate, the virtual over the actual, we are absorbed in the public and private sphere by the little devices that take us elsewhere.
But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that irony’s takeover of contemporary society began long before the age of the Internet arrived. At Salon, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll noted that the late David Foster Wallace began to dread the rise of irony back in the ‘90s. “In the aftermath of the ’60s, as Wallace saw it, television adopted a self-deprecating, ironic attitude to make viewers feel smarter than the naïve public, and to flatter them into continued watching," Carroll and Ashby wrote.
Indeed, television has gotten plenty ironic overtime. One needs only to watch an episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to see this. Awesome Show is perhaps the ultimate deconstruction of television, comedy, and modern entertainment in general, all filtered through the minds of writer/performer duo Tim and Eric, who’ve literally made a career out of being ironic.
That’s why it was so surprising to see Tim Heidecker, one half of the Tim and Eric team, starring in and directing the 2012 indie film, The Comedy, about a self-aware group of Brooklynites who use irony as their sole means of communication. Most ironic of all though, was how aware Heidecker seemed to be that he was in this movie to begin with. Take a look at this exchange from an interview with Heidecker in the Los Angeles Times.
“Tim Heidecker: I think it’s about how we all use sarcasm and irony and false voices and comedy in general to communicate, or to avoid communicating.
LAT: That's odd to hear from someone whose comedy is layered with all sorts of irony.
Heidecker: [Laughs.] Like I said, there are elements of me in that.”
What makes The Comedy so perversely effective is how it shows the ways we all use irony to avoid making real connections. Taken to it’s extreme, irony is the ultimate shield we put up to prevent ourselves from experiencing genuine emotion.
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, back in 2007, Simon Pegg (then promoting his movie Hot Fuzz) wrote a piece for The Guardian on how people in the U.S. were hesitant to embrace irony the way the British do. “To Americans, however, it's more like a nice teapot, something to be used when the occasion demands it," Pegg declared.
This is, sadly, the problem with our collective use of irony. If anything, we’ve surpassed the British in the last several years. We forgot exactly what Pegg said we were so good at. We forgot that irony is not only something to be used when the occasion demands, but that should only be used when the occasion demands.
Irony is a stylistic choice insofar as its place in art goes. And that’s fine. As Pegg and numerous other British comedians would probably tell you, a little irony goes a long way in comedy.
But we’ve forgotten that unlike being gay, irony is also a lifestyle choice. We’re faced with so much irony everyday that we’ve started to forget that a little sentiment is okay every once in awhile. We’re so scared of looking stupid that we cloak ourselves in irony and forget that we can take that cloak off. God help us if we actually try, because trying looks silly, kitsch, and campy.
In fact, we prefer to be intentionally campy, rather than risk going for sincerity and arriving there unintentionally. It’s gotten to the point where we’re more excited about our favorite bad movies than we are about the good ones.
It’s time for all of us to ask whether we’ve chosen irony as a lifestyle. To get us started, Wampole has a few helpful tips.
Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd? Listen to your own speech. Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly? In other words, is your style an anti-style? The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?
As Wampole suggests above, it’s worth taking a little time to be self-aware about how self-aware we are. But after you finish examining, the best cure for irony is to simply be excited about something. Because life is better when we’re not too ashamed to admit we actually care about it.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.