The Art of Sarcasm
Profound thinker Anonymous had apparently never encountered sarcasm when he or she said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Sarcasm is a potent oratorical weapon, brandished today by such wits as Stephen Colbert and entertainment juggernauts like The Simpsons. Some people don’t get the irony of sarcasm, prompting others to invent devices to detect it. But overall, sarcasm proves the pen is mightier than the sword. Yeah, right.
One of the early masters of sarcasm was the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Recorded by his protégé Plato, Socrates’s dialogues apply the snarky art to philosophical debate. Socrates used a method—now known as Socratic irony—of feigning ignorance and posing coy questions to uncover faults in his opponents’ arguments. He would offer his detractors false praise, lulling them into complacency; once they were entwined in his web, Socrates dissected and ridiculed their opinions. He was totally a favorite at parties.
According to a contributor to the book Stephen Colbert and Philosophy (2009), television comedian Colbert may be “America’s Socrates.” He has taken up the sarcastic mantle and uses it to brilliant effect. In 2006 Colbert was the featured entertainer at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which traditionally roasts presidents and candidates. Using his trademark satirical irony, Colbert lampooned then-president George W. Bush, pretending to agree with Bush’s platforms while relentlessly deconstructing them. He seized upon the president’s opposition to “big government,” linking it with the failing war in Iraq. “I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least,” Colbert said. “And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.”
Stephen Colbert has elevated sarcasm to new heights. On his faux-news show, The Colbert Report, he pretends to be a reactionary über-conservative committed to unearthing and routing liberal conspiracies. He’s the sarcastic counterpart to conservative Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly. Little Colbert says on the show is genuine: The real Colbert is a liberal. “The Word,” a regular segment in which two ideologies clash, exemplifies his superlative skills. As Colbert spouts absurdly right-wing “truthiness,” on-screen graphics snidely mock him with sarcastic liberal remarks. It’s meta-sarcasm.
Colbert further complicated things when he played yet another version of himself on the 19th season premiere of The Simpsons, “He Loves to Fly and He D’ohs.” Colbert voiced the character Colby Krause, a life coach trying to groom the ungroomable Homer Simpson. Colby is a satirical version of popular motivational speaker Tony Robbins. When hapless Homer asks Colby for help landing a plane after the pilot faints, the expert admits to being a fraud—“I’m not very good”—but he provides Homer with enough confidence to get the plane on the ground. Perhaps there is some truthiness in Colbert’s characters, but good luck finding it within his Russian nesting dolls of sarcasm.
Humans detect sarcasm with the parahippocampal gyrus, a region in the base of the brain. Asymmetry in this area has been linked to schizophrenia—perhaps fittingly, since literary authorities have for centuries been of two minds about sarcasm. The word comes from the Greek sarkasmos, meaning “to tear flesh” or “speak bitterly.” It’s understandable, then, that while some people delight in delivering clever indirect barbs, many dislike sarcasm’s cutting ways. In 1816 a Boston-based religious magazine, The Panoplist, attacked sarcasm in an article titled “On Evil Speaking,” proclaiming it the “mark of an envious, unfeeling mind.” After years of writing satirical prose, in 1834 Scottish author Thomas Carlyle renounced sarcasm as the “language of the devil.” Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his proto-existentialist novella Notes From Underground (1864), called sarcasm “the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people.”
Scientists claim understanding sarcasm requires an elevated mental process—as if we didn’t know that already. Studies of the parahippocampal gyrus have shown the brain is more active when being sarcastic than when sincere. For sarcasm to work, the recipient must get what the other person is really thinking, so those most deserving of a sarcastic quip may be incapable of understanding one.
In 2010 Israeli researchers invented a sarcasm detector—just what the world was missing. The detector is called SASI (how clever), short for Semi-Supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification. To prove its worth, the researchers had the algorithm test tens of thousands of Amazon.com product reviews, searching for snarkiness. It had a 77 percent success rate. The inventors claim the detector will provide more accurate product assessments for companies and better personalized suggestions for customers. But one question remains: If a computer can recognize sarcasm, can it also be sarcastic? The last thing users want is for their laptop to monotone “Nice job, genius” when they misspell minuscule for the hundredth time.
At any rate, the Israeli sarcasm detector was not a novel idea. The Simpsons had beaten the researchers to the punch; in the 10th-season episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” Professor Frink invents a sarcasm detector. Someone sitting near the machine says, “Do I detect a note of sarcasm?” Another snipes, “Sarcasm detector? That’s a real useful invention.” The detector explodes from an overload of snark. If SASI can survive Amazon reviews, it’s probably safe from explosion. But let it try its luck with YouTube comments.
Sarcasm can help defuse tense situations with humor while giving the adept practitioner the power to wield daggered insults. Witness American satirist Dorothy Parker’s stinging retort to her rival Clare Boothe Luce, a writer 10 years her junior, who, when they arrived together at a door, said, “Age before beauty.” Parker’s riposte as she swept through? “And pearls before swine.”
Parker was a 20th-century virtuoso, but ours is a new golden age of sarcasm. Linguist John Haiman says sarcasm is “practically the primary language” for people today. Even so, not everyone can detect political comedian Stephen Colbert’s sarcasm. Some of his viewers believe Colbert’s jingoist tirades against liberals are sincere. An Ohio State University study found “conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said.” Right-wingers may be blind to the real target of Colbert’s ruthless mockery, but they still find it funny; the number of people who laugh at The Colbert Report varies little along party lines. Everybody wins. But a serious medical condition may be behind this phenomenon. In 2011 neurologist Katherine Rankin reported that the inability to recognize sarcasm may be an early warning sign of dementia.
Sidekicks generally don’t save the world or sweep a beautiful damsel off her feet; instead they play second fiddle to somber, resolute heroes. Often cracking jokes in the face of danger, or cowering in exaggerated fashion, they provide comic relief. Harry Potter, from J.K. Rowling’s mildly successful fantasy novels, has Ron Weasley to temper the seriousness of a situation. J.R.R. Tolkien invented a duo of snarky hobbits (Merry and Pippin) to accompany Frodo Baggins on his life-and-death quest in The Lord of the Rings.
In the 1989 film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the goofy title characters travel back in time and commandeer famous figures as sidekicks to help them get a good grade in history class. Among them is Socrates. But instead of playing a typical sarcastic buddy, Socrates is the butt of the sarcasm. As the ancient philosopher visits modern shopping malls and water parks, he is of course completely naive about his surroundings and spouts clichéd phrases from television, such as “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” Or is he really using Socratic irony, feigning obliviousness while awaiting his moment to dismantle the modern world’s hedonistic philosophies?
Stephen Colbert emerged in the late 1990s as a sidekick on the comedy news program The Daily Show, portraying a right-wing zealot, the antithesis of current host Jon Stewart’s outspoken liberal. In one regular sketch, “This Week in God,” Colbert satirically summarized the deity’s weekly work. In a segment spoofing the MTV series Punk’d, Colbert previewed a prank show, Baptiz’d, in which he tossed water in the face of unsuspecting coworkers and filmed their reaction. Colbert became so popular that in 2005 he premiered his own comedy news show, The Colbert Report.
Stewart and Colbert partnered again as presenters at the 2006 Emmy Awards. Before announcing the winning outstanding reality-competition program, Colbert called the celebrity audience “godless sodomites.” In a brimstone jeremiad, irreverent Reverend Fred Phelps, of the controversial anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, took exception to the phrase, accusing Colbert of being Stewart’s “hooligan sidekick.” Phelps failed to see the irony in Colbert’s speech and thought he was celebrating perversion. Phelps believed not only that the room was indeed filled with godless sodomites, but that the entire country teemed with blaspheming perverts, feted by jokesters like Colbert. This was not to be scoffed at. Wonder what Phelps thought about Baptiz’d.
An immediate sign of sarcasm is a vocal inflection, the condescending change in pitch of a snide remark. A sarcastic statement can also emphasize certain words. For instance, to ensure that saying “Thanks so much” doesn’t seem like genuine gratitude, a speaker can elongate the so—“Thanks sooooo much”—and really express some disdain.
In writing, however, sarcasm cannot sneer as noticeably. To rectify this problem, would-be innovators have offered sarcastic punctuation. In 1899 French poet Alcanter de Brahm suggested the pointe d’ironie (“irony mark”), an exaggerated backward question mark. It didn’t catch on. A more recent contender is the SarcMark, which looks like a period wrapped in a lazy backward capital G. And if you’re under the ridiculous assumption that punctuation is free, think again: The SarcMark is copyrighted—it costs $1.99 to download the font. Frugal sarcasts (i.e., users of sarcasm) can simply append a bracketed exclamation point to their sentences, or they can try the “snark mark” used by cell-phone texters—a period followed by a tilde (.~). Of course, special punctuation defeats the purpose of sarcasm. If you have to emphasize that what you’ve written is sarcastic, well, you’re clearly really great at it.~