Let’s get Reality Bites out of the way, shall we? The definition of irony offered to the perplexed Lelaina (Winona Ryder) by the insufferable Troy (Ethan Hawke) is “It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.” Well OK, cheers Troy, but it’s not that simple.

Hawke, who’s a reasonable writer, might have objected to the line. While the definition’s not incorrect, it’s far from complete; what he’s presented there is basically sarcasm, which is the root – but not the whole – of rhetorical irony. You know what a rhetorical question is, right? Well, rhetorical irony combines the rhetorical question’s implicit shared knowledge with Troy’s meaning-opposed-to-the-statement form. By wearing that violet DEBBIE GIBSON ELECTRIC YOUTH TOUR 1989 t-shirt, the hipster in the corner is saying “You know, and I know, that Debbie Gibson was rubbish. So it’s highly amusing to wear this t-shirt, which suggests I actually like her music. Aren’t we clever?”

That’s the easy version. His t-shirt’s ironic, he’s wearing it ironically, he’s being ironic.

Let’s take a closer look. The Debbie Gibson t-shirt, which the hipster thinks is cool, smacks of trying too hard. Was it a lucky charity shop find? Cool, but it probably wasn’t. Did it come from nearby “vintage” mecca Beyond Retro? Probably. Did he shuffle through the racks to find just the right hilarious ironytastic shirt? I think he did. And now he’s all self-conscious in the corner, hoping the right people will get it. However, I’m grateful to the hipster for introducing a second, more complex variety of irony: He planned to achieve cool, but the plan’s execution and result were anything but.

This second variety, which I think of as situational irony, is a trickier proposition than the rhetorical type. It’s much easier to provide examples: Yes, we know the situations portrayed in Alanis Morissette’s song aren’t ironic. They’re bummers (Isn’t it a bummer? Don’tcha think?), although the spoons/knife business comes close. Yes, the fact that the situations portrayed in Alanis Morissette’s song aren’t ironic is itself ironic – isn’t it? Or is it just another bummer? Anyway, here’s a real life true story that actually happened.

Around 1996 I was admitted to hospital after spending most of the night puking blood. An endoscopy showed that I had two duodenal ulcers, and the answers to a few questions explained their presence. I had my first professional job after graduating from an industrial design course, working for a packaging design company; I was a modelmaker, and the other basement boys and myself were always the last people to work on a project, producing mock-ups to present to clients when the “creatives” upstairs had finally finished fiddling about. Sometimes we worked late into the evening or even overnight, with little room for error. Sharp blades, hot vacuum-formings, toxic fluids and whirling lathes and mills were the tools of our trade, and for some reason I’d taken to chewing gum all day. So my stomach thought it was going to get filled, I was understandably tense, and acid was eating away at my duodenal lining.

And the job – what was the precise nature of the work in progress at the time of ulcer diagnosis? Developing new packaging for Zantac. As you may or may not know, Zantac is the world’s number one ulcer cure. How’s that? I think that’s a pretty good example. Bit of a shaggy dog though. Zantac gave me ulcers.

Actually Zantac cures ulcers caused by the Helicobacter Pylori bacterium, which is most ulcers, but not stress-originated ulcers. Is that ironic? It’s certainly a bummer.

That’s my personal example, but my absolute number one ne plus thingummy is at the end of Nick Broomfield’s documentary Kurt and Courtney. Attending the annual American Society for Free Speech convention, he gets up on stage to ask the society’s board members why they’ve invited Courtney Love to be their keynote speaker, when she “…has repeatedly cajoled and threatened journalists…”

Aaand…he’s escorted off the stage. By the Society for Free Speech. I was at home on my own when I saw this, and I still applauded. Partly because of his supreme ballsiness, and the way he used his mild-mannered Britness to do something so outrageous, but mostly for the perfect situational irony.

(Right now, the music here in the coffee shop is Hole’s Malibu. Appropriate? Coincidental? Yes. Ironic? No. I like that song, in a non-ironic way.)

Crikey. I had a scare there; I looked up Kurt and Courtney on YouTube, and couldn’t find the scene I just described. Did I invent it? Surely not, I definitely clapped. Has Love’s legal team suppressed it? That would be the cherry on the icing on the delicious irony cake. But no, I found it, and thankfully it was pretty much as I remembered. A great relief, actually, because, well – I’ve recounted that scene a few times over the years, citing it as my favourite example of an ironic situation; imagine if I’d been getting it wrong all this time. You know what that would be, right?

It wasn’t The American Society for Free Speech, because that doesn’t exist. It was the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Broomfield’s words were “…unless it is considered appropriate behaviour to threaten, or cajole, or manipulate journalists who have written unflattering reviews, I find it a strange decision on the part of the ACLU to choose Courtney Love as a special guest here tonight. And to Courtney Love I would like to just ask what you feel about…” – after which he is lead away. He claims that the voice clearly shouting “Get off the fuckin’ stage!” is that of the ACLU’s president.

Examples, yes, but we’re no closer to a definition. Even if I stick with the situational type it’s still going to be unwieldy; it’s quite hard to define without actually using the word ironic. Nevertheless, how about:

The character of the statement made or the outcome of the situation is opposed or tangential to the supposed principles of the person/people making the statement or the situation in which the action takes place or to its intended outcome.

Snappy eh? (That was sarcasm which, although it may be the lowest form of wit, is sometimes just the job.) Troy Dyer was a monumental smartarse, but that line would have been a bit much even for him.

Let’s go back to examples; the simplest I can think of is: Getting run over by an ambulance.

Reality Bites, which I was going to get out of the way right at the start, is a rotten film. And yet we still have affection for it, probably because of the bit where they dance in the petrol station. Well, grumpy Troy doesn’t, but let’s leave Leilana, Vickie and Sammy in the scene’s final shot, jumping around to My Sharona, surrounded by darkness in their Edward Hopper lightbox.

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Formerly a professional modelmaker, STEVE SPARSHOTT turned to writing after brain damage sustained in a 2003 road accident removed much of his physical function. Typing with the three middle fingers of his left hand at a blistering fifteen words per minute, he has had work printed in London literary magazine Smoke, and various academic publications have featured his design-related social criticism. He has reviewed films for Screenjabber.com and Nude Magazine, and because his life just isn't difficult enough, he's writing a memoir called Get Well Soon. He is well chuffed to have an essay called Fin in the Nervous Breakdown compilation The Beautiful Anthology.

58 responses to “Irony, Man”

  1. “Hawke, who’s a reasonable writer”–talk about damning with faint praise.

    I now want to get a Debbie Gibson tee shirt. All the chicks I knew at the time liked Debbie Gibson. I was more of an Amy Grant fan, myself, which may be even more ironic. Although I tend not toward irony; I’m an absolutely sincere fan of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, among others.

    All of which may be why I never really get along in Brooklyn.

    • I called Hawke “reasonable” to distinguish him from the likes of…who was that guy you tweeted about a while ago? James Franco? The “ketchup randomness” bloke. You’re right though, “reasonable” isn’t really very complimentary is it?

      I live in what may be London’s Williamsburg. T-Shirt Hipster was real, and the pub he was in is the epicentre of hipster London. Reviews invariably say “Nice food, rude staff, OK beer, full of wankers.”

      Here’s some Def Leppard for you: http://www.flickr.com/photos/frazernash/3438585411/in/set-72157605834428831/

  2. James D. Irwin says:

    I was only thinking yesterday that it had been a while since you’d posted. Unless I missed something.

    Everytime I see that Alanis Morissette argument come up I always consider that the *true* irony is, as you suggest, that nothing in the song is ironic.

    Malibu is a great song. Perfect pop.

    My favourite definition of irony was during Euro 2004 when Pavel Nedved was injured, a situation described as ‘ironic’ by the commentator. I forget who said it, but the next day it was commented on. It might have been David Baddiel. The words were something like ‘there wasn’t anything ironic about Nedved being injured. It would only have been ironic had he been injured after getting hit by a bus with a huge picture of Pavel Nedved on the side, full of Czech fans wearing Pavel Nedved shirts all chanting ‘we love Pavel Nedved”.

    • Yeah, I’ve been…er…I feel like Woody Harrelson in Kingpin, trying to account for his time – “Then there was…the eighties…”

      As Greg suggests down there, it’s possible that Alanis is playing a character who’s trying out different examples of irony; in which case, the true irony is us thinking we’re clever for (incorrectly) pointing out the irony of the presentation of non-ironic situations in a song called Ironic…at which point the argument collapses into some sort of super-dense post-modern meta black hole. After all, she does ask “Don’tcha think?”, which allows us to say “No.”

      Malibu, yes. I’m Spotifying it right now. It’s splendid.

      There’s sometimes too much Baddiel in the British media – oh look, it’s World Cup time, here he comes again – but that Pavel Nedved bit is very, very funny. When I read it last night I L’ed OL into my Coke Zero can.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        I haven’t posted, or even commented much of late. It doesn’t help that my home interent has been cut off. The bastards.

        As with anything, if you think about that song too much it just causes headaches. I prefer ‘You Oughta Know’ anyway. I love a good catchy 90s pop song… Earlier this year I was listening to a lot of 90s music and that and Malibu were staples of my playlist. Great stuff.

        David Baddiel, for the most part, annoys me. I don’t really know why. He’s okay with Frank Skinner, but then Frank Skinner is funnier on his own. Either way, Three Lions is a pretty perfect pop song. Last week at a friends birthday I got incredibly drunk. At one am they started playing Three Lions. It was beautiful.You have to be drunk to truly appreciate it…

  3. Matt says:

    Reality Bites is indeed an utterly rubbish film, one that I took a dumptruck load of shit for not liking when it was first released.

    Americans struggle with irony, I think; both as a concept, and as a source of humor. Irwin and I once had a conversation in which we agreed that you Brits do irony much better than Americans, whereas we’re much better with sarcasm. Probably because we’re all assholes.

    • Mary Richert says:

      You know what was also an awful movie, which was sortof oddly and very briefly popular when I was in college? The Rule of Attraction. It was truly terrible. It had that skinny girl in it who looks like she has always wanted to be the next Winona. Apparently about once every 10 years, someone has to make a really awful, pseudo-insightful movie about college kids. It just contributes to the annoying habit of college kids pretending to be far more interesting than they really are.

      • Matt says:


        I look at movies like that hope I never came off like one of those douchebags during my immediate post-college years.

        • I think the fact that you thought the Reality Bites kids were bungholes suggests that you probably weren’t one. I can’t imagine you picking up the phone and saying “You’ve reached the winter of our discontent.”

          I still have to send you those cards. They’re Greetings from Hackney/London things, so you can post them from San Diego and be, you know, totally ironic.

          As well as the hipster knitting shop, we now have a hipster sewing shop. Really.

      • Is that the one with the reverse puke in it? Is the puker Dawson from the creek? Am I totally wrong?

    • Are you sure you’re not a British? You speak fluent Englandish, and the idea that Brits do irony better than Americans is popular over here. I’m not sure though – there was a lot in programmes like Seinfeld, Larry Sanders, Curb… and Six Feet Under for instance. I reckon you chaps are better at sincerity, we don’t like to get caught doing anything as gauche as being genuine.

  4. Joe Daly says:

    Thank you for calling out the “ironic t-shirt” culture. They print them up and sell them in Target now. They are no longer ironic. Unless worn by a seventy year old- then they become ironic.

    And Alanis is to grammar what William Tecumseh Sherman was to the fields of Georgia.

    I like this:
    >>The character of the statement made or the outcome of the situation is opposed or tangential to the supposed principles of the person/people making the statement or the situation in which the action takes place or to its intended outcome. <<

    Although it could also apply to hypocrisy, perhaps?

    What about

    A situation where the literal meaning of the statement or event lies in substantial opposition to the way in which it is delivered.

    I.e., Keith Richards delivering a public service announcement on the dangers of drug abuse.

  5. I swear I did not capitalise The Situation in the tags. WordPress is to blame. I did, however, almost post this with Morissette spelled incorrectly.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, folks – proper responses tomorrow! There will be t-shirts, Def Leppard, and other stuff.

  6. Nicely done, Steve. It’s hilarious you’d point that scene from Reality Bites out. I saw it in the theater when it came out, and when the blousy prospective employer asks Winona in the elevator what irony is, I was silently furious with myself for not having a ready answer. Later, when Winona asks Ethan, I leaned over to my date and said “The firehouse burned down.” Bang. She thought it was clever, I leaned back with pride, and it was another tiny victory in the world of self-congratulatory bullshit. Then a month ago my wife and I watched Bites on cable. The same scene came up and I leaned over in the pregnant pause and said “The firehouse burned down.” She looked at me incomprehensibly, covered her nose, and said “Brush your teeth.”

    So, yeah, I hated Bites then as an extended, self-indulgent riff on whiny post collegiate ennui, and I hated it a month ago as an inescapable reminder of how dumb I was then.

  7. Greg Olear says:

    I loved Reality Bites at the time, because I had a big thing for Winona. It doesn’t hold up that well, but it’s a pretty good time capsule of what life was like at that time for people of that age (ie, a few years older than me).

    But to hell with that. I love this piece, Steve. Really funny, and really accurate.

    My own theory about Alanis is that the narrator of the song is trying to define irony, and she’s throwing examples out and asking whether or not they comprise irony. So she really is asking “Isn’t it ironic?” We have to imagine the wise teacher saying, “No, Alanis, try again.”

    The one element that’s absolutely necessary for irony is the sense of opposite meaning. A pet peeve of mine is when people claim something is ironic when it is, in fact, apposite. The best example I can come up with now: the alpha male cop with the crew cut and the mirror shades who pulled me over last year, his last name was Manley. That’s not ironic. Nor is “Jolie” as Angelina’s last name.

    Next time, define “satire.” To me, that can be distilled to the moment in Dr. Strangelove when the president says, “You can’t fight in here! It’s the War Room!” Which is also ironic.

    My head hurts…

    • Joe Daly says:

      >>“You can’t fight in here! It’s the War Room!”<<

      Wait- I thought the prohibition against fighting in the War Room was a paradox.

    • I never had much interest in Winona Ryder, but Reality Bites definitely kicked off my lengthy Janeane Garofalo crush. It finally fizzled out around early 2009: http://www.flickr.com/photos/frazernash/3549989270/

      I like your theory regarding the song, even though it makes my brain itch. Quoting myself from earlier:

      As Greg suggests down there, it’s possible that Alanis is playing a character who’s trying out different examples of irony; in which case, the true irony is us thinking we’re clever for (incorrectly) pointing out the irony of the presentation of non-ironic situations in a song called Ironic…at which point the argument collapses into some sort of super-dense post-modern meta black hole. After all, she does ask “Don’tcha think?”, which allows us to say “No.”

      I hope Officer Manley’s first name is Butch.

      • Greg Olear says:

        What is it about this site that everyone holds Janeane is such high regard, particularly our contributors from the Commonwealth?

        You explained my theory much better than I did. Much better. You’re Malcolm Gladwell and I’m the dull academic stats dork whose research he’s appropriating.

        Butch Manley. Ha!

        When I was in college, one of my housemates donated sperm. The guy who worked at the sperm donation place — the “spank bank,” as my friend called it — was named Mr. Bronco. Again, not a shred of irony.

        • I think the Janeane Garofalo thing is just me and Simon. Just Simon, in fact.

          I think I over-analysed your theory ’til it disappeared up its own arse. But thanks!

          Butch Manley’s middle name is Petal. Or Rainbow.

  8. Andrew Panebianco says:

    I use this example when I teach my students the difference between irony and coincidence:

    Imagine a man who is so afraid of flying that he only takes trains. Now imagine that this man’s train derails while he’s traveling from one place to another, causing him to die horribly. Is this ironic? No. This is coincidental. This, as you might put it, is a bummer.

    If, however, the train did not derail… but was instead smashed to bits by an airplane whose engines failed, causing it to fall from the sky… THAT would be ironic.

    Great essay.

    • And who was in the plane? Mr. Play-it-Safe.

      I think the first scenario is slightly ironic because the supposedly safe transport option is the one that does him in. But the second’s great!

  9. Brianna Barcus says:

    Is it ironic that I can’t think of anything ironic to write after reading a piece on irony?

    I think people often confuse the terms ironic, sarcastic, sardonic, coincidental, and perhaps now, bummer.

    Found this definition that’s a pretty neat package:
    “Incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.”

    Really enjoyed the piece, Steve. I love moments of irony in life, but not the forced kind like the hipsters wearing the overpriced “I look old, but I’m new” tee-shirts. I like the moments that seem to be played by the hand of a bigger force, the moments that can’t be explained, that make you say, “just when I thought I figured out the rules of the universe, an ironic thing like that happens, and it all goes out the window”. It’s humbling really.

    • When I was writing this I protested on Twitter “Essaying an essay about irony and there’s nothing ironic going on at all. Come on fate, pull your finger out!”

      I like the way that successive comments are leading us closer to a tighter definition. I didn’t look anything up when I wrote the piece (Can you tell? Can you?), just sort of splurged; it’s nice to see people picking up on it.

      There’s a lot of overlap – and therefore, understandably, confusion – between irony, sarcasm, paradox, satire, misfortune and so on. I don’t think there are definite boundaries, I just thought I’d have a go and see what came out.

      Here’s my t-shirt “philosophy”: http://www.flickr.com/photos/frazernash/2269938208/

  10. Mary Richert says:

    I actually owned and wore the bejeezus out of Debbie Gibson Electric Youth t-shirt during high school. Why? Because it was comfortable as hell. The irony pretty much escaped me. Also, my sister and I were both fans of Debbie Gibson as kids… I was probably more a fan than she was because I was younger and had less discriminating taste in music. I think she went because her friend wanted to go for her birthday in junior high, so by the time I wore the shirt, I think it was outdated enough that most people forgot who Debbie Gibson was, but it wasn’t old enough to be ironic. I’m pretty sure I really thought that shirt was awesome.

    So back to the rest of your essay.

    Irony as a concept bothers me. I feel like most of the time when people refer to irony, what they’re really trying to point out is a disappointment or perhaps a case of hypocrisy. Irony is how jaded people label things the rest of us find objectionable. Irony says, “It’s not wrong to escort someone off stage for speaking negatively at an event all about free speech. It’s just ironic. I’m not calling you jaded, by the way.

    Perhaps the greatest (and only) irony is the fact that irony itself is essentially meaningless. Or maybe that’s just me making stuff up again.

    Oh right, lovely piece. Very enjoyable read, and thought provoking, too. 🙂

    • Mary Richert says:

      Correction: “I think she went [to a Debbie Gibson concert] because her friend wanted to go…”

    • Was the shirt violet? Did it have zappy “electric” text? Like it.

      You’re right, people use a lazy application of irony as an excuse for being, well, lazy and unsubtle. Arguments can go back and forth – “You’ve missed a whole level of irony”, “You’re not as clever as you think you are”, “You don’t know what irony is”, “The real irony is that you don’t” and so on.

      Irony and hypocrisy are very close aren’t they? In fact, isn’t all hypocrisy ironic?

      Oh God, now I’m thinking. Damn it.

      • Mary Richert says:

        The shirt was white, but it totally had zappy electric text. When I wore it, I was pretty much thinking of how awesome my big sister was. I figured the awesomeness transferred to me through the shirt.

        • As I said to Matt earlier, we Brits aren’t great at sincerity. But I must say “When I wore it, I was pretty much thinking of how awesome my big sister was.” is really sweet.

  11. I have a far too wide, encompassing take on irony. Thanks for this piece. Although now I have that Alanis Morissette song stuck in my head. I know, I know. That’s not ironic, purely coincidental. Not even necessarily a bummer.

    • There’s a lot more to irony – it has many more forms, and what I’ve written here is neither definitive nor comprehensive. There are probably books and theses aplenty, but let’s not investigate too deeply, eh? I wrote this piece for a laugh, and there’s no better way to spoil something than to analyse all the fun out of it.

      Has anyone recorded a catchy song thats actually called “Earworm”? That would be…postmodern or something.

  12. TammyAllen says:

    Exactly. Thanks for using bummer instead of coincidence. I bought tons of t-shirts from indi-bands and sub-pop bands with anticipation of pulling them out someday for the somewhat ironic effect. But calculated irony? It’s been the artist’s or intellect’s job to pull it off, though it’s often comes from no attempt at all. Unrecognized and then it’s instantly euthanized when pointed out.

    I found a fantastic Vanilla Ice T in a sleazy thrift store but I can’t seem to wear it. But one of my all time favorite shirts is from the movie “Showgirls.” It totally rocks for me. I think it’s hysterical, because I am as serious as I’m really not. I love that movie.

    How about: Lost in Translation.

    Great post, lots of fun. I hated Reality Bites for all the obvious reasons. Singles however was funny.

    Time is very ironic.

    • Actually “bummer” in the sense of “an unfortunate situation” is more of a US usage, but it served a purpose nicely; in Britain it’s a very childish term for a homosexual gentleman. These days it’s generally used, yes, ironically.

      I will admit to having giggled when (probably) Ross or Chandler said “Bumming SO hard now!”

      Finding the Vanilla Ice shirt in a grotty thrift joint is much groovier than buying it from some big “vintage” warehouse place (or – ugh – a repro from Urban Outfitters). But what can you do? Leave the $2 tag dangling down the back?

      I’d love a Smokey and the Bandit t-shirt, ’cause that film’s the best. At least I think it is – it’s in my Sofa Cinema (=Netflix) queue, but I haven’t seen it in twenty years. I could be in for a savage disappointment.

      • Richard Cox says:

        I would love a Smokey and the Bandit shirt as well. I actually own the DVD of that film. I watch it maybe once or twice a year and laugh every time. It’s not high art, but it nevertheless entertains as long as you have realistic expectations. I love it.

  13. Richard Cox says:

    Irony is one of my favorite concepts and I love that the meaning of a word in English is so difficult to pin down. We know it when we sit it, even as our interpretations may differ, but (apologies to yours and Joe’s admirable efforts) no one can write a single sentence definition that perfectly captures the concept. Which is why we always end up using examples, and even then the smartest among us don’t always agree on those.

    Is it irony when someone calls you out on IM for grammar mistakes but spells it “grammer?” Because a misspelled word isn’t necessarily bad grammar. Either way, it always makes me laugh.

  14. OK, well, it’s nearly 1 AM. That 15 WPM typing speed quoted in my profile is my flat-out “quick brown fox” rate. More replies tomorrow, meanwhile, good night from London!

  15. Aaand…once again it’s late, and my back aches. This is why I don’t participate in TNB’s comment conversations much; typing is hard work and takes ages. Also I seem to be fouling up the comment-reply-nesting structure. Really, though, I greatly appreciate your comments and you’ll all get replies eventually.

  16. Has anyone seen anything of “Deborah” Gibson’s acting career? Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus is Jaws-dropping. http://www.screenjabber.com/mega-shark-giant-octopus

  17. dwoz says:

    What was truly ironic about Jagged Little Pill is that she sings about hitting the kneepads to further her career…after spending the last few years wearing out kneepads.

    • OK…I’m assuming these are metaphorical kneepads…I’m interpreting this in many ways, none of which is correct (probably). Perhaps I’m being dim, but I don’t know what you mean.

  18. dwoz says:

    I’m just thinking that you have to amp your game a bit if you want to achieve irony with tee shirts.

    I’m thinking, like, “O-town” or maybe Menudo with a 12 year old Ricky Martin on the back.

  19. angela says:

    really enjoyed this piece! and i’m so glad you, and others here, have called out ms. morisette on her lack of irony in her irony song – a black fly in our chardonnay is NOT ironic, it’s just gross – which is in itself ironic i guess (and which may be someone else has already pointed out).

    • Thank you!

      Fair play to Alanis, she’s always happily admitted that the ironic situations, er, aren’t. Although I don’t think she’s ever offered an alternative explanation. I like Greg’s take:

      My own theory about Alanis is that the narrator of the song is trying to define irony, and she’s throwing examples out and asking whether or not they comprise irony. So she really is asking “Isn’t it ironic?” We have to imagine the wise teacher saying, “No, Alanis, try again.”

  20. Ben Loory says:

    saw this today and thought of you:


    • I like that Oatmeal bloke, he really makes an effort. So discussing irony is a waste of time, is it? How about discussing it and illustrating that discussion? Oh, the iroSHUT UP SPARSHOTT

      Also, he included a rubbish joke I sent him in a Rubbish Jokes page:

      What game would you play with a wombat?


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