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The Sophistication of American Irony

The Sophistication of American Irony

The clichéd critique of Americans is that they “don’t do irony” and are thus somehow lacking in sophistication, intelligence, or both. My last post, The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm, prompted Giles Watson to ask me the following question:

Is there any validity to the arrogant assumption that English have a superior instinct for irony?

Short answer. No! The longer answer actually turns the question on its head and suggests Americans, not the British, are the current kings of all things ironic. Why may, or may not, be a good thing!

Do Americans "Get" Irony?

The notion that Americans are somehow irony deficient appears everywhere. For example, the American travel writer, Bill Bryson, after years of living in the UK, relates how his Britishly attuned irony went completely over the head of his American audience and how he ‘could have kissed’ a New York cab driver who replied to the query “Are you free?”, with “No, I charge like everybody else.” In a possibly apocryphal story, the British actor, Tim Curry, on being asked what he most missed about the UK, instantaneously replied, “irony". The song “Ironic” by the Los Angeles based Canadian Alanis Morisette was universally derided for not featuring one example of irony in her list of ironic situations. For Christina Odone, the failure of Americans to appreciate irony is because they

don't like humble pie: they regard themselves-collectively and individually-as Number One; and they approach their selves, their countrymen, and every institution with a corresponding degree of seriousness. History, economics and geopolitics have schooled them in self-importance: every little thing they say, every little thing they do, has worldwide implications. When Americans slip on a banana skin, the rest of the world breaks its legs. Conscious of their global role, Yanks uphold this earnest ethos.

Many commentators have questioned the stereotyped portrayal of the “non- ironic” American dupe versus the “ironic” “sophisticated” Brit or European. As part of this debate, a more nuanced and multi-faceted notion of irony has emerged. At one level, as Zoe Williams argues, America not doing irony is “absolute moonshine, since the consummate and well- documented superiority of US telly over British telly is largely due to their superior grasp of irony”.  I find it hard to disagree, given South Park, the wonderful and horribly under-appreciated Community, the Daily Show with and without Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Real Time with Bill Maher, and the UK-export John Oliver's Last Week Tonight. In contrast, outside some of the work of Ricky Gervais, Simon Pegg, Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci, I find it hard to get enthused about irony on British television.

According to the writer, actor and comedian, Simon Pegg, many American TV shows, whilst having “their own cultural and emotional specificities", “display a highly sophisticated sense of irony”  Pegg sums up the differences between the cultures, saying,

“it is true that we British do use irony a little more often than our special friends in the US. It's like the kettle to us: it's always on, whistling slyly in the corner of our daily interactions. To Americans, however, it's more like a nice teapot, something to be used when the occasion demands it."

Pegg supports his claim with the following example:

Take this exchange that took place between two friends of mine, one British (B), the other American (A):

B: "I had to go to my granddad’s funeral last week."

A: "Sorry to hear that."

B: "Don't be. It was the first time he ever paid for the drinks."

A: "I see."

A Quick Conclusion

A Google Scholar search for “American irony” and “British irony” reveals a similar theme. British irony is interpreted as the sensibility that helps “Britons deal with their collective sense of loss: loss of empire, loss of the moral high ground, loss of economic and military credibility, loss of ignorance."  

Texts on American irony are far more varied, explaining why irony is a useful perspective to employ on American history, democracy and politics, regulatory reform, ethnicity, slavery and federalism. The discussions of American irony reveal it to be a phenomenon reflecting and reinforcing unexpected ambiguities in American life and history rather than being simply understood as culturally absent or embedded as a hardwired coping device. We might conclude that while British irony is rampant, it has lost its cutting edge, meaning everybody gets it but nobody cares. In contrast, American irony is sharply-honed, well-targeted, and employed at critical moments. While not everyone gets it, for those that do it is one of the most powerful critical and transformational tools on the market. 

Debating American Irony

A debate on whether American irony was rampantly undermining America or a critically important cultural tool emerged from the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attack, when the prominent American critic Richard Rosenblatt proclaimed

“One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony.”

The feeling that irony had stopped America taking serious threats seriously was widespread. Graydon Carter, of Vanity Fair, announced, ‘There's going to be a seismic change. I think it's the end of the age of irony. Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear.” Camille Dodero echoed the prevailing feeling in the Boston Phoenix, stating “Maybe we've just witnessed the end of unbridled irony. Maybe a coddled generation that bathed itself in sarcasm will get serious. Maybe we'll stop acting so jaded and start addressing the problem.”

Even the iconic ironist, Jon Stewart, opened his first post-9/11 show with an earnest, tearful and non-ironic speech. However, he followed his sincerity with a statement that drew a line in the sand,

“Even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wise cracks... which is really what we do. We sit in the back and throw spitballs-but never forgetting that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that. That is, a country that allows for open satire.”

Stewart’s identification of satire and irony with Western freedom and democracy was paralleled in other sections of the media. David Beers hoped that the tragic events of 9/11 would wipe away shallow, nihilistic irony and instead replace it with “a golden age of irony. The real stuff. The kind of irony that drove Socrates' queries, the irony that lies at the heart of much great literature and great religion, the irony that pays attention to contradictions and embraces paradoxes, rather than wishing them away in an orgy of purpose and certainty.” Jebediah Purdy, famous for denouncing irony in the USA, seemingly paradoxically joined the side of the pro-ironists in calling for a serious irony to quell the overzealous passions of an angry America, arguing that “in peaceful and prosperous times, [irony is a way of] keeping the passions in hibernation when there is not much for them to live on, but another kind of irony can also work to keep dangerous excesses of passion and self-righteousness and extreme conviction at bay.” Graydon Carter also backtracked and, claiming misquotation, stated that what he really said was “Ironing is dead. Not irony. Ironing.”

This brief debate perfectly captured the ambivalence towards irony in the contemporary USA. One side believes irony is a danger to cultural values, taking nothing seriously, blurring the distinction between joke and menace and a stance of vain stupidity, whereas for the other it is a fundamental ingredient of Western freedom. Whereas, in the UK, irony so saturates the culture that any form of sincerity is interpreted as naive foolishness, in the USA, irony and sincerity co-exist in fascinating tension. 

American Irony Today

Writing in the New York Times in late 2012, the Assistant Professor of French and Italian at Princeton, Christy Wampole, claims that the contemporary “age of irony” informs a deep aversion to risk, being a function of fear, pre-emptive shame, cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. Arguing that contemporary irony is of a deeper hue than its historical counterparts, Walpole claims irony has “leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself”, resulting in the “vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche”, “rampant sarcasm and unapologetic cultivation of silliness” and a “self-infantilizing citizenry.” She was immediately challenged by the writer, John D. Fitzgerald, who argues that the current generation “prioritized being close to God and having a good family life above anything else”, whereas the previous one prioritized “making lots of money." For Fitzgerald, the contemporary ethos “is a joining together of irony and sincerity” that, when combined, “form a movement of astonishing power.”

The tension between cultural irony and emerging forms of sincerity is what we are seeing now. America has lost faith with current forms of cultural existence, having mocked everything that was once taken so seriously for so long that it is too jaded to mock anymore. That leads to the rise of the post-ironic politician, the demand to return to almost Biblical ways of living as a reaction to the ongoing collapse of traditional cultural values, and the enthusiastic search for better ways to live and work, as illustrated by trendy ideas such as disruption, authentic leadership, positive psychology, spirituality and resilience in the journey. Whilst the tensions are fascinating to watch and explore, a worrying side thought emerges from those who have traced such developments in other cultures, who regard them as the precursor to inevitable and violent civil collapse.

These are interesting times indeed.


The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm
The Long, Slow Death of Organisational Culture

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