Next, we have irony. Irony is a type of humor that is very close to sarcasm, and often confused with it.
Here’s the official definition from Dictionary.com, just because it’s something that people can struggle with nailing down: “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.”
This is different from sarcasm in a few ways. First, irony is generally about situations and incidents, not about people. Something happens which is the opposite of what you expected. When you’re presented with an irony, like a fire station burning down, it will quite obviously be ironic, and not sarcastic. However, sarcasm is usually more derogatory in nature. You’re saying things you don’t mean. The definition of sarcasm is “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.” Thus, you can see how saying “You are very observant” when someone says “This road is very long” is sarcasm, not irony, because of the element of mockery inherent in the former remark.
Ironic humor is when something that is the exact opposite of what you might expect occurs. Another way to define irony is when you say something, but mean the exact opposite of what you expect.
In other words, the words that come from your mouth are the opposite of the emotion you are feeling. If you’re starving, an ironic statement might be something like, “I’m so full I need to unbuckle my belt. It’s like Thanksgiving in July.”
Ironic humor draws its power from contrasts. There is a contrast between literal truth and perceived truth. In many cases, ironic humor stems from frustration or disappointment with our ideals. The way we imagine the world should be produces comedy when it clashes with how the world actually is.
Ironic humor is usually used to make a funny point about something or to point something out. For example, when you see a bird landing on a sign that says “No birds allowed,” that’s ironic humor. The sign bans birds, but the bird is there sitting on the sign. The expectation that the sign ensures there will be no birds in the vicinity failed.
Another example is when you see a car with a logo on the door saying “Municipal Traffic Reduction Committee,” and the car, along with everybody else, is stuck in two hours of bumper to bumper traffic. There is a profound ironic comedy there, as you would expect the traffic management planning committee would do a better job so they wouldn’t be stuck in traffic themselves.
Irony is all about finding contrast and drawing some interesting and creative judgment out of it. As the examples indicate, ironic humor is more a matter of observation than one of spontaneity or creativity. You’re more likely to find and point out things that are ironic than come up with something that is.
Ironic humor, on the other hand, is when you intentionally imply the opposite meaning of what you say. When we think about how to use irony conversationally, what we’re really asking is what ways can we convey two messages at one time?
Words Versus Tone
Remember, irony is more about observing contrasts. As a point of distinction, if you observe this, it’s likely to be irony, but if you use it, it’s more likely to sarcasm.
“I’M A PEOPLE PERSON! PEOPLE LIKE ME!”
“I am very happy right now. I am ecstatic,” said in a very grumpy and exasperated voice.
“I’m going to kill you. You are so annoying,” said with a saccharine and overly sweet tone.
You can go both ways on this: positive words with negative tone, or negative words with positive tone. You know you’ve done it correctly if it’s apparent to the other person what you’re trying to say. If you cause confusion when you try this method, it means that the tone of your voice isn’t obvious enough.
Words Versus Body Language
This is where you use your words to say one thing, but your body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues scream something different. Imagine the same examples from the previous variation, but instead of your vocal tone, your body language and facial expressions are the opposite of your words.
“I’M A PEOPLE PERSON! PEOPLE LIKE ME!” would be said with a huge scowl, and making a knife motion across your neck to indicate that you hate people.
“I am very happy right now. I’m ecstatic,” would be said while shaking your head, gesturing that you want to jump off a bridge, all with a disgusted face.
“I’m going to kill you. You’re so annoying,” would be said while smiling angelically, attempting to hug the other person gently, and stroking their shoulder as if to calm them down.
Ironic humor uses different elements that clash with each other to produce contrast in the mind of your audience. It creates a sense of the unexpected and excites the people you are speaking with. Its reason for being funny operates in a similar way to misconstruing. It is all about the contrast and creating an unexpected moment.
You can go both ways on this variation as well. You can pair positive words with negative non-verbal expression, or negative words with positive non-verbal expression. Of course, you can combine your non-verbals (body language and facial expressions), tone of voice, and actual words for greatest effect.
A simile is a literary device where you say one thing is like another thing. At least, that’s a normal simile. Some examples include “as smooth as velvet,” “as clean as a whistle,” and “as brave as a lion.”
An ironic simile is a comparison between two things that are not similar at all, except for one shared trait or descriptor.
To create an ironic simile, first make a statement that is the opposite of how you actually feel, and then compare it to a situation that is also the opposite of how you feel. Explaining an ironic simile is like trying to explain what a color looks like, so here are a few examples.
“I’m as likely to vote for that candidate as I would set up an appointment with a proctologist with uncontrollable muscle spasms.”
You say that you would vote for the candidate, but then you introduce something that is supremely negative. That’s ironic simile—a comparison to something that is the opposite of what you mean. Notice that the sentence typically starts with a deceptive description such as, “likely to vote for that candidate.” Then, the latter part of that statement does a backpedal on its initial message by introducing a comparison that would evoke an opposite sentiment, i.e. “set up an appointment with a proctologist with uncontrollable muscle spasms.” The end result is a declaration of just how unlikely you are to vote for that candidate, the complete opposite of the initial impression the sentence made.
Let’s take another example:
“I’m as sad as a dog with a bone.”
In terms of the formula we reviewed above, the deceptive introduction is “as sad as,” then the backpedal happens when you say “a dog with a bone.” Usually when a dog has bone in his mouth, the last emotion you would describe is sadness, as dogs with bones are quite happy. Thus, such an ironic simile has you ending up with an expression of utter happiness regardless of your initially mentioned descriptor, “sad.”
Now how about the following example?
“That person is as flexible as a brick.”
The humor here is that you highlight the fact that this person is not flexible at all. The ironic simile works by first deceptively describing the person as “flexible,” but then backpedaling on it by comparing his flexibility to a brick. Unless you are dealing with a brick made of super-conducting jelly, chances are, the brick in question is extremely inflexible and rigid.
Here are a few more examples of ironic simile:
“Our teacher’s discussion of Heisenberg’s principle was as clear as mud.”
“She has all the social graces of a steamroller.”
“Being the third wheel on their date was as enjoyable as a root canal.”
Can you create some ironic similes yourself too? Practice putting together your own every time you want to describe an experience or a memorable feeling. This way, coming up with amusing ironic similes in casual conversations will be about as difficult as counting to ten.
This is when you say something negative about a positive statement, or you say something positive about a negative statement—in a hyperbolic and exaggerated way.
“Flat tire? Best news of the week.”
Negative occurrence, then positive statement.
Usually when people say something to this effect, they draw your attention to how negative or positive something actually was. Now that they got a flat tire, they have a new worry on top of the previous minor irritations and annoyances this week has delivered.
“It’s not a problem, I’ll probably run four miles later. It’s only my injured ankle and foot!”
This is hilarious precisely because you are making light of the fact that you have a serious medical condition.
Irony is funny, but you shouldn’t overuse it, otherwise people won’t know what you’re saying, and people might not take you seriously at all. You’re conveying a mixed message intentionally, so at some point people have to get to know your baseline personality and set of reactions.
Yet another way to use misdirection to your advantage is to answer questions in the opposite. If someone expects you to say yes, say no, and vice versa. The more obvious the better. Like so many tricks we’ve covered before, this one also relies on the element of surprise that comes with an unexpected answer.
Jennifer Lawrence uses this one fairly often. When she was on Ellen Degeneres’ show after rising to fame thanks to Hunger Games, she was asked whether she’d gotten used to all the fame and attention that came with being a celebrity. Since she was only around twenty at the time, most would’ve expected a clear “No” from her. Instead, she went the other way and said “Yes!” Her demeanor made it apparent that she hadn’t actually gotten used to it, essentially turning her remark into a sarcastic one.
To generate the most laughter, use this technique only in the case of yes/no questions where the other person already appears to know or expect your answer.
Here’s another great example. The losing football team of a World Cup final was once interviewed immediately after the match and the interviewer asked them, “Are you disappointed?” One of the team members wittily replied, “No, not at all. This is exactly what we hoped for—to get to the finals of the World Cup, and then lose.” As you can see, the wit and hilarity of such a response derives from the fact that a resounding “yes” was expected, and yet the total opposite landed on the interviewer’s ears.
These are questions that generally have an obvious answer, but the reason behind asking it is to receive an elaboration on the expected answer. This is why saying the opposite of what’s expected is so effective. By giving the opposite answer, you completely throw off the other person. After a few moments, you can then give the real answer and say more about it.