James Poniewozik has an interesting review in Time of the recent Oscar show, looking at the way Seth MacFarlane acquitted himself in his hosting duties. Poniewozik viewed MacFarlane as a flop; the most particular concern was that the host didn’t understand the lines that surround the profligate use of irony throughout the show:
So he delivered an opening routine that was all about inoculating himself against bad reviews, with William Shatner as James T. Kirk returning from the future to warn him against a disastrous performance, including a song directed at Hollywood women called, “We Saw Your Boobs.”
See, it wasn’t a drawn-out, obnoxious Oscar song; it was a joke about doing a drawn-out, obnoxious Oscar song!
The problem — and the problem with his whole table-setting performance — is: . . . a meta-joke about telling an unfunny joke is still an unfunny joke.
Irony, and its near-cousin sarcasm, is the lingua franca of popular culture. The more deeply we tread into this part of our national consciousness, the more we realize the breathtaking vanity of its values. Irony is, in the end, self-referential, so once it becomes self-self-referential, it has created a hall of mirrors that ultimately implodes into meaningless parodies of itself that are, well, humorless even to those toward whom the jokes were originally aimed.
When everything is ironic, irony ceases to be ironic. It lapses into mere meanness, leaving an incredibly bitter aftertaste. Indeed, the life-root of bullying just may be irony. What struck me last night was the utter brutality of much of the attempts at humor. The writers were equal-opportunity offenders, but this is, to some extent, what we find in a worldview where nothing is worth defending or treating as precious. I have a vague recollection that Henri Bergson once said that humor is the first step toward acceptance; I wonder if the corollary is true: if everything is acceptable, is there anything that can be humorous? Do rules, in some rudimentary way, actually generate humor? If comedy is always transgressive and the world (in the interest of tolerance) no longer allows transgression, then have we lost the ability to laugh? Based on the evidence of last night’s show, I have to wonder.
The answer, of course, is not that we have lost the ability to laugh but rather that we no longer knows what true humor is. Humor rightly understood resonates with the joy that should be in our hearts and spirits. Ever since the insult humor of Welcome Back, Kotter! (“Up your nose with a rubber hose!) and even Happy Days (“Sit on it!”), we have continued to debase comedy in a long arc from insults to irony. To update Nietzsche, “Comedy is dead. . . . And we have killed it. How shall we comfort ourselves?” As a good game of Clue might declare, “It was the transgressive comedian, in the family den, with leaden irony.”
A few weeks ago I met with some young scholars who were very interested in Christian apologetics. One of them gushed, “I can’t wait to learn all of the skills of apologetics so I can out-argue anyone and leave them without excuse.” I tried to remind her that Romans 1:20 makes it clear that they already are without excuse; what they lack is the complete Gospel that stands beyond the initiation of general revelation. This is why John (in 1 John 3:16-24) says that we are known by our loving acts, not our argumentation.
In our culture, more now than ever, we need to speak the truth in love, through love, and with love. Without the slightest hint of irony. When we do, we can be sure that we will speak a variety of language that our bruised and broken culture craves.