The Funny Thing About Unfunny Humour

Boy rolling his eyes
Sarcasm by StarMama via Flickr
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Someone on the Nextdoor message feed yesterday was complaining about a homeless encampment near his house. He wrote, sarcastically, “Wow, what a wonderful site!” What he probably intended was to write “sight” not “site.” The message could have been read to mean that he liked the encampment, or that he liked the view, when in fact he intended neither. Sarcasm, like satire, requires the reader or the audience to realize the intent.  It also helps if the writer can spell correctly.

Then I read that a Drexel University professor, George Ciccariola, wrote a satirical tweet which was so misinterpreted that he received death threats. The message was “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” It was not a public tweet, but was sent out to his large group of followers and was picked up by some conservative news media and Reddit, which then encouraged their readers to respond to the professor. He has since tried to explain himself, but the damage is done. Now his wife and children have also been threatened. To make matters worse, his university is not backing up his claim that freedom of speech makes his satire permissible.

Similarly, many of the news articles and commentary surrounding the US election that were denounced as fake news were sometimes actually attempts at humour through satire.  The satirist Andy Borowitz, who writes for The New Yorker, has shown up in my Facebook newsfeed a couple of times from friends who mistook his humour for news, and I notice that he now gives his Borowitz Report column a subheading “Not the News,” just to make it clear. In addition, The New Yorker prefaces the article titles with “Satire from the Borowitz Report.”

The problem with satire is that not everyone knows it’s meant to be a joke.  One of the reasons for this is that satire is often quite unfunny. It is defined by as “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.” So, satire reads as though it means what it says, but in fact it means the opposite.

It’s a kind of intellectual snobbery, because only the initiated get the joke and can then feel superior to all the people who don’t get it.  If you don’t get the joke you are thereby doubly disrespected; first by being excluded from the joke and secondly by being sneered at for your ignorance.

According to Simon Brown, writing on, “Satire is a literary genre which uses wit and humour to stimulate people towards a positive action while sarcasm is a statement or remark which is harshly aimed at a person.” I think Mr. Brown is being quite optimistic here, since neither satire nor sarcasm can be easily recognized in writing without prior knowledge of the writer’s intent. Also, I have real doubts about people’s ability to be stimulated to positive action quite so easily.

In any case, if I don’t get the joke, I’m going to be really pissed when I figure it out; I’ll think you deliberately made a fool of me. That is not going to make me inclined to positive action towards the satirist. In fact, it might make me want to give them a smack—in a “just kidding” sort of way, of course.


  1. I have a fairly narrow definition of what I find humorous. If the joke is funny at someone’s expense, I am not interested in hearing it. And I decided decades ago to leave sarcasm out as a way of relating to people. It’s in the end, hurtful. My biggest issue though, is I need a lot of cues to know if someone is being sarcastic or satirical. I need to see the change in their facial expressions, hear the change in their voice tone to get that they aren’t being literal. And the written word gives me none of that. It’s always been an embarrassment to me, but I need a lot to know someone is not stating something in a literal way. I need lots of cues. I appreciate the ones that put it in the title.
    But maybe all of this is in a bigger context: that we start anything we read from a defensive place and assume the worst about the writer. Or maybe we have lost the skill of understanding allegories and parables. That is unfortunate. Wealso don’t have the generosity of spirit; that assumption of someone just using words in a playful way.

    1. You are absolutely right about the need to see and hear satire in order to get it. That’s why the satirical comedians on TV are so effective. In writing, satire does not communicate so well.

      I’m interested in what you say about us all becoming defensive readers. I’m going to think about that some more, but I’m wondering why this is so. Maybe it’s because, as a society, we all read a lot less than we used to. Or, perhaps it has something to do with being afraid of the news in general. After all, it’s nearly always bad!

      Allegories and parables are definitely literary styles that need to be spelled out, but when they are used well they are most effective. I used to use them in teaching all the time and they helped to explain a lot of complex things.

      But, as you say, when humour is at someone else’s expense, it’s not funny any more. Then it’s just another form of passive aggression.

  2. Well, anytime a global statement is made, it’s an error. So, I would like to back track and not say we all are defensive readers. But there are times we are. Maybe examining those times is the key. Reading less sounds like a likely contributor. I think being scared in general is a big component! To a lot of our behaviors, actually. Fear (unless we are being chased by that proverbial lion) is rarely a helpful palce to interpret anything.

  3. I agree with your thoughts and the comments and would add that, when dealing with defensive people, it matters not much what is written. They will twist it to suit their need for wounds. This age has become one of quips, (mis) quotes, careless banter and knee jerk judgment. And, yes, people do nit read like they used to. Instant gratification has taken center stage, no time for building characters, history or waiting for pivitol moments. Stimulus, stimulus, stimulus! I really miss real news reporting….

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