Ironically Enough

Sometime around 1990, things started getting too ironic. Or at least the media said so. Chevy Chase appeared on the cover of SPY Magazine making air quotes around the title of the big article on irony, "Isn't It Ironic?" while in the 1996 "Homerpalooza" episode of The Simpsons, the writers mocked Generation X's tendency to make sarcastic comments about everything. And of course there was Alanis Morissette's big hit song "Ironic," which is the ne plus ultra of irony primarily because most of its examples of irony (e.g. rain on your wedding day, a black fly in your chardonnay, ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife, etc.) are not examples of irony at all... which is itself supremely ironic.

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The reason "Ironic" is so ironic, of course, is that true irony (at least the sort we're discussing now--situational irony) requires a reversal or contradiction of expectations. If you buy a lottery ticket and do not win, that's not irony--that's just math. You can't reasonably expect to win a fortune at the 7-11 counter, so there's no reversal when you don't. On the other hand, if you DID win $23 million, and in your excitement ran out to your car and backed up over a small child, whose bereaved parents then sued you for $23 million... yeah, then we might be talking reversal.

But situational irony is only one kind. The commonest form of irony is verbal irony, where the expression used contradicts the intended meaning. Sarcasm is by far the most familiar sort of verbal irony--saying "Lovely" when facing a commute-wrecking line of traffic, for example, or creating a deliberate contradiction such as "clear as mud"--but others exist. And yes, verbal irony is still winging around the world like time's winged chariot, its axles only greasier thanks to the internet's facility for bringing meaning and expression into violent collision.

Our subject today, however, is the third of the major categories, that of dramatic irony. First defined by the Athenians (and brought to life by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex), dramatic irony is achieved when the audience knows something that at least one character does not--such as the crucial but to him unknown truth about who his real mom and dad were. Dramatic irony can be used for tragic effect (WE know Juliet's not really dead, which is why we are so pained by Romeo's suicide) or for comic effect (WE know Bottom has an ass's head, which is why we are so amused by Titania's uncontrollable love for him), and it is this second use that caught my attention as I was recently musing on an earworm.

The earworm in question is the theme song to the early-Sixties TV show Mr. Ed, a tune that occasionally burrows into my brain for no good reason other than its insane catchiness, but for once it inspired something other than annoyance. As I listened to it going around my cerebrum for the umpteenth time, I got to thinking about the show's foundation: the dramatic irony of Mr. Ed's ability to speak. Only the audience (and Wilbur) are aware of this ability, and the show's comedy is based almost completely around it. If the audience doesn't know about Ed's talking, there's going to be nothing but confusion in America's living rooms, and if everybody on the show knows about Ed's talking, there's no joke--it's just the way things are.

Thus, in order to keep the show on the air, this bizarre fact must be kept secret from practically everyone; as soon as the knowledge becomes widespread, the series is effectively over. The next trick is to turn this necessity into a virtue by making the central plot device for each episode The Keeping Of The Secret. I'm still somewhat amazed that a show with a premise this narrow (and this silly) actually lasted five seasons (I never saw it until it was in re-runs, and even then I don't recall much about it other than the theme song), but apparently Wilbur was successful in keeping Ed's talking a secret for a good while. And maybe in the series finale, he finally decided to paint "TALKING HORSE" over the barn and charge fifty bucks a head for a five-minute conversation.

But thinking about Mr. Ed led me to thinking about other TV shows of the period, shows where equally ridiculous premises relied just as heavily on dramatic irony. Consider what the viewer knows that most characters on the show do not:

*Samantha Stevens is a witch.
*Jeannie is a genie.
*The Munsters are in fact supernatural monsters.
*My Favorite Martian is actually from Mars.
*My Mother has been reincarnated as a Packard.
*The teenager we think is sophisticated Cathy is often her identical cousin, the rock-and-roll-loving Patty.
*Millionaire Bruce Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson are really Batman and Robin, the Caped Crusaders.

Such Keepings Of The Secret didn't end with the Sixties, mind you--we would later know that Mork is actually from the planet Ork, Sabrina the Teenage Witch is a witch, and ALF is an alien life form--but I don't think there's any comparable situation on TV at the moment. I certainly can't think of a network show (though something may exist on cable) where the entire series rests on the audience's knowledge of a secret. Apparently, once the Age of Irony began, at least according to SPY, there was no need for such an ironic premise on television.

Of course, the irony is that the greatest use of such a premise that I ever saw on television was one in which The Keeping Of The Secret was the exact opposite of the main character's expectation--which is what made it ironic. And oh so very funny.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 2, 2010 2:53 PM.

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