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Against sarcasm

Everyone loves Ted Lasso, both the character and the show, in great part because he manages to be funny without being sarcastic. It reminds me of what made Frasier so good: that the writers never took the easy jokes. Smart humor is hard, smart humor without sarcasm is even harder.1

The past few years have made me sarcarsm-intolerant. I can still appreciate professionally done satire — Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report years comes to mind — but you, my Twitter friend, are no Stephen Colbert. Good satire takes some effort to create, but is easily understood. Casual sarcasm is the opposite: it is easy to say or write what you don’t mean, but recognizing sarcasm requires knowledge of the context, the author’s prior writings, the subject in question, and even then, often, it is missed. Queue the author’s indignation and musings on how the Twitter sheeple can’t recognize a joke, though sometimes the indignation itself can be self-consciously funny.

The exchange above was notable for erecting a barrier between people who some time ago would have considered themselves part of the same ingroup.2 If there is one thing sarcasm does well, it is to erect barriers between smaller and smaller groups until everyone is at a war of wits with everyone else. It turns a tool of communication capable of spreading great knowledge quickly into a French court-style spectacle for the masses, fueled by the algorithm.

Dropping sarcasm would not make the internet excruciatingly boring. Note @10kdiver of the Markov chain thread from the paragraph above, or @wrathofgnon, @Gwern, @craigmod, @BCiechaowski… all brilliant, not an ounce of sarcasm between them (half an ounce from Gwern, perhaps). There is in fact an infinite number of ways to be interesting online without being sarcastic, and sarcasm itself permeates the online life so much that it is, well, boring.

Offline, the distinction blurs between being sarcastic and having plausible deniability. Sarcasm may be the highest form of intellect in teenage years, where plausible deniability helps save face, but before the end of adolescence saving face quickly turns into gaslighting. Small wonder that the most sarcastic character on Friends was also the one to catfish a woman.3 So if there ever was a quick and easy litmus test, it is this: after the horrible year we’ve had, and a decade that was not much better, whom would you rather hang out with and who would you rather be: Ted Lasso or Chandler Bing.

  1. This is also why in the great Seinfeld versus Frasier debate I will always choose Frasier. Don’t @ me. 

  2. Yes, ingroups of days past still had factions and civil wars, but what used to be confined to the university cafeteria or the sparsely attended conference session is now right there for the world to see, and pile onto. Somewhat paradoxically, meatspace barriers are as ephemeral as an academic’s memory; online barriers, while not set in stone, are quite a bit more solid. The algorithm remembers. 

  3. This is also one of many reasons why Friends will never be in contention for the best of anything, except maybe the best show to reveal the 90s to be the backwards decade it truly was. 

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