Who Killed Sarcasm?
We’re trapped in an era of sincerity. Let us out!
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.
Bring back Sarcasm. It’s really quite refreshing.
Is there anything more boring than somebody banging on in endless detail about a TV show you have yet to see? An old pal was bending my ear recently with descriptions of some new low-brow reality-show obsession. One particular character had caught his attention: When he described her as “a blousy, braying, tackily dressed plastic surgery victim,” I simply could not resist. “Must be like looking into a mirror,” I said, with a concerned look.
The TV enthusiast winced visibly and strode off. He was later heard telling pals that I had been “hating” on him. Suddenly I felt a chill wind. Could it be that sarcasm, one of the greatest achievements of mankind—or “unkind” as I prefer to call it—is in danger of extinction?
From the Greek sarkasmos, meaning to sneer at or taunt (and derived from a term for rending the flesh), sarcasm is one of the building blocks of civilization. The ability to express an unwelcome observation in a wickedly passive-aggressive manner is, at the very least, a great alternative to old-fashioned fisticuffs, or rape ‘n’ pillage. When I think about those ancient Greeks and the carte blanche they enjoyed to say horrid things to one another, I get quite jealous. For example: If you were strolling through downtown Thebes and you ran into a pal who was looking particularly soiled and unkempt, you might say, “Going somewhere special?” to which the other Greek might good-naturedly reply, “Oh! You and your flesh-rending ironic observations!” It’s sad to think that such a remark would, in our squishy and oversensitive age, be met with accusations of “hating.”
If sarcasm is dying—it’s now such a rare commodity that when the Republicans decided to insert a little snark into last week’s proceedings, they were obliged to exhume an octogenarian entertainer, hello!—what, pray, will become of the little children of today? Sardonic irony is as critical to healthy child development as vitamins and tick-checks. Raising your brats on an exclusive diet of sincerity is a recipe for disaster. The current mania for relentless positivity and self-esteem building leaves me convinced that we are in real danger of turning out an entire generation of inspirational speakers.
I am happy to say that I was barraged with sarcasm during my formative years. My teachers specialized in subtle-but-withering verbal assaults. Many incidents spring to mind: After jackhammering my way through an entire page of Ulysses in a robotic monotone—how was I supposed to know that James Joyce expected the reader to insert the lilts, pauses, and commas intuitively?—my English teacher announced that he was overcome by the “sensitivity” of my reading and would need to “nip out for a fag” in order to compose himself. While the entire class roared with laughter, I flinched and cringed. But I eventually recovered. Better to be verbally humiliated than whacked upside the head, an outcome that was also on offer, and the benefits of which will doubtless be the subject of some future column.
My home life, I am happy to report, was equally sarcasm-riddled and sincerity-free. When I began to embrace the satins and velvets of glam rock, my parents began pointedly tracking the movements of any traveling circuses and keeping me posted on their whereabouts.
Pops and Mamma saved their best sarcasm for each other, often after drinking vats of homemade sloe gin. Like many dudes of his generation, my dad had a tendency to treat his kids, the fruit of his loins, like some random encumbrance that fate had been seen fit to inflict upon him. My mum was quick to nip this line of thinking in the bud with a little gin-fueled faux-gratitude: “It really was so good of you to take me in off the street, especially with these two children in tow. Have I ever thanked you formally?”
The magic of sarcasm finds exquisite illustration in a naughty new book titled Dear Lupin … Letters to a Wayward Son. English upper class ne’er-do-well Charlie Mortimer wisely saved the lifelong correspondence he had received from his unflaggingly sardonic writer dad Roger Mortimer, and has now compiled it into a thigh-slapping mini-tome.
The amount of sarcasm in père Mortimer’s letters increases as son Charlie’s life disintegrates. After getting thrown out of Eton and then deserting the Coldstream Guards, Charlie goes back to the land, unleashing the following congratulatory missive from his dad: “I trust you are not yet disenchanted with your work as an agricultural laborer, a calling for which your costly education has no doubt suited you.”
He is always full of compliments about his son’s appearance: “… a sweat-rag coiled around your neck is a somewhat unattractive form of evening dress. You’re hands looked as if you had been greasing a No. 19 bus. …”
With the approach of Charlie’s 30th birthday, papa Mortimer heralds the new decade with an uplifting note: “It is an unlovely age: receding hair, shortness of breath, growing pomposity and in general a feeling that life has singularly failed to bring you your just rewards. However, Cheer up! Forty is better as you then tend to give up caring …”
If you were raised with sarcasm, as opposed to sincerity, you have no choice but to seek out kindred spirits. It’s a tribal thing. If you attempt to consort with sincere types it can only end in mayhem and bloodshed—metaphorically, of course. I knew my Jonny was the one for me when I met his lovely old dad. When I told him I wanted to take Jonny white-water rafting, he responded by dead-panning, “Where do you both wish to be buried?”
Sustaining a healthy sarcasm-based relationship is no easy matter and requires effort and creativity. I am fortunate to be married to somebody who is always prepared to go the distance. A couple of months back my Jonny presented me with a greeting card. Naturally I smelled a rat. He had never given me a card before. Why now? And why was he watching me with such sincere anticipation?
My suspicions were confirmed when I opened the envelope. The inscription, emblazoned across a mumsy floral vista à la Thomas Kinkade, began as follows:
I know how trapped you must feel
In that traitor of a body of yours …
I don’t recall the rest of the verse. I know that it contained sympathetic commiserations regarding the imprisoning effects of the aforementioned body. I had to admire his ingenuity: Repurposing a sincere sympathy card into a lacerating insult is an impressive feat of sarcasm.
Delivered via email, Jonny’s assault would have lost much of its lethal malevolence. The digital age is no friend to sarcasm. Sarcasm relies heavily on verbal delivery and face-to-face contact. Emails, texts, and Twitter are not the best canvas for wicked insincerity. J and ; ) and LOL are all fine and dandy but they are no substitute for a curled lip or a rolled eyeball. If you disagree then prove me wrong by hurling some sarcastic gems into the comments box.
Have a “nice” day.
Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.(Photo by Roxanne Lowit.)