The loss of Irony, by Jason Ivey
A piece I just read about Letterman retiring got me thinking again about irony. Irony for irony’s sake’ has gotten to the point where communicating ironically has become the norm, and that presents a problem.
When Letterman was at the peak of his talent, what made him so funny was the fact that his humor went against the cultural grain. Up to then, people said what they meant. What was funny in the years before the ironic revolution were word plays, double-entendres, insult humor, pointing out uncomfortable truths.
Think about any joke, and we laugh because most of them bring something to the surface that we otherwise suppress out of fear, embarrassment, or maybe hidden deviancy. The juxtaposition of two things that don’t go together in an organized world also produces laughter, and that’s where irony resides.
Letterman flourished when he took cultural norms and turned them on their heads, with things like stupid pet tricks, asking guests absurdly moronic questions, the monkey cam, and sending Bud Melman into the Port Authority Bus Terminal to hand out hot towels to new arrivals to New York. He was making fun of normalities by turning them upside down, all the while standing back like an innocent bystander.
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In the early 80s, Letterman was the epicenter of hip, albeit in an entertainment world that was much less vast, but also one in which it was just as hard if not harder to rise to the top. If you stayed up late during this period and you ‘got it’, then you were part of that (perceptibly) small, hip crowd. Young people especially wanted think of themselves as being in some sort of cultural elite, because of the idea that their cleverness and being ‘in the know’ separates them from the philistine masses. When it comes to comedy, by the late 80s everyone had become ironic, and at that time there was still a dominant common culture to make fun of.
At some point however, irony feasts upon itself.
Over time, the Left became successful in destroying the common, traditional culture. When you’ve destroyed all that there is to rebel against, you must find something new to rebel against. For Letterman, I think that ship sailed years ago. I stopped watching late night comedy, or much of anything on TV, around the early to mid 90s.
In the few times I checked in on Letterman over the last 15 years or so, I saw an aging man who was tired of his own schtick, didn’t really enjoy talking to guests, and was simply going through the motions out of a commitment to his own ego. It’s no surprise he waited until Leno’s retirement to announce his own. His less dangerous followers are now left with the pieces of a severely diminished medium (traditional television) and a world that people like them have left fragmented, where there’s less and less of anything we’d call ‘traditional’ to make fun of. Or so they said.
Irony is an elitist pursuit by nature, and it’s currently most prevalent in things like fashion and food (which has become fashion). Irony is irony when it’s small and separates itself from the masses, and by the time everyone is doing it, it’s no longer hip, and the hip crowd has to move on to something else.
Take the new highly annoying restaurant trends.
First it was organics, and now it’s “farm to table.” I have to suppress a maddening scream every time I go to a trendy new restaurant and read on the menu some version of the restaurant’s “philosophy” regarding sustainable food, locally produced. How about just making it good! Annoying as that is, now practically all restaurants do it.
I’m also amused at the hipster culture, which I seem to be around so much of the time. I myself appreciate nice clothes and accoutrements that stand out from the pack, but at some point the hipsters all became a part of the same pack. They all have their tight jeans, tattoos, and ironic beards. Over time, the beards became more ironic, as men are now waxing their mustaches into pointy or twirly shapes, 19th Century-style. When I read a story a few weeks ago about hipsters now spending thousands of dollars on beard implants for that extra-hipster look, I immediately knew what would happen next.
I see a new trend: extremely clean-shaven faces, head shaved on the sides, slicked-back hair on top. This will be the new trend, because it’s so anti-scruff. Too bad for the beard implant crowd, but they had it coming.
And this is what I mean about eating themselves. At some point, the ironic elite became the mainstream. Remember the late night comedians lamenting that Obama was too cool to make fun of? The irony, right.