Irony on the Rise


Not so long ago, irony was viewed as a menace on 43rd Street, where the tone was consistently sober and any humor that crept in purely unintentional. But that’s all changed. No one can pinpoint the exact date, but sometime between the arrival of Adam Moss and the departure of Abe Rosenthal, irony has received the imprimatur of The New York Times.

Consider the frequency with which the words “irony” and “ironic” appear in the Times. In fact, the Times‘ use of the I-words has risen steadily through the 1990s, to a record high of more than 1050 in 2000, or an average of three times a day. That’s almost double the irony quotient that Times readers were treated to in 1980.

Irony at the Times can be “dark,” “sad,” “terrible,” or “tragic,” but there are no small ironies and never enough. Long a staple of the arts coverage, irony has been quietly implemented by other Times sections of late, including the once-staid business and national desks. The trend surfaced on November 13, when Linda Greenhouse landed a spot on the front page to broadcast the “delicious” irony that Republicans, traditional defenders of states’ rights, were determined to take the Florida case federal. By the time the case reached the Supremes, Times editorial writers had picked up the cry, writing, “It is ironic indeed to see the very justices who have repeatedly ruled in favor of states’ rights . . . do an about-face in this case.”

Times writers have apparently been instructed to find role models for the institutional pose of choice. Thus in 2000, readers learned that Lauren Bacall won an award for her “ironic look,” that Madonna developed her appetite for irony in England, and that Martha Stewart, Pee-wee Herman, and Chevy Chase are ironic icons. Writer Bruce Jay Friedman is a veteran “irony man,” while former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti can carry off a sinister billboard ad because “there is a string of irony running through his personality.” And let’s not forget Helen Fielding, whose female characters are “complex ironic jokes.”

If you’re being interviewed by the Times, be sure to find something ironic. By doing so, a hotel partner, a psychologist, and a rabbi all got their names in the Times this past year, as did a UN ambassador who noted that “diplomats relish the irony” of political cartoons. Sarah Jessica Parker told the Times it’s ironic that she doesn’t do nudity, given her “politically progressive family,” and Variety‘s Peter Bart called it ironic that a French company had bought Universal Studios, considering the way les auteurs bitch about Hollywood.

In 2000, Times editors blithely dropped the I-word into headlines (“An Irony-Free New Jersey,” “A Vision of Suburban Bliss Edged With Irony”). And on June 3, the Quotation of the Day came from an economist who said, “The irony is that when people believe the economy is slowing, the markets behave in a way that encourages people to spend more.”

It’s as if the Times had detected an irony shortage and responded by flooding the market. In fact, the unofficial decree came down on August 5. The headline on the Arts & Ideas page framed the issue with old-fashioned restraint: “No Kidding: Does Irony Illuminate Or Corrupt?” But the message, from Times literary czar Chip McGrath, was clear as ice. Times writers were to embrace the “jokeyness and self-awareness” of Dave Eggers, whom McGrath dubbed “irony incarnate,” and to eschew the “earnest, impassioned” homilies of anti-irony crusader Jedediah Purdy.

In no time, style writers were noting the “loudly ironic” gesture of wearing a “powder-blue polyester suit.” By year’s end, the “ironic 80’s” were out, fashionwise. But Times writers had already begun surreptitiously tagging their target constituency, by reporting on a cartoonist who won a MacArthur for his irony, a bride whose husband had fallen for her “evolved sense of irony,” a 13-year-old filmmaker with a “gift for irony,” and a dead New Yorker writer known for her “great sense” of same. Thanks to the Times‘ self-fulfilling prophecy, irony is now rampant. The national desk even reported “ironic complications of the cutthroat aircraft manufacturing business.”

Times columnists see the irony in every situation; Anthony Lewis spotted it seven times this year. He found it ironic that Henry Kissinger, who spurned criticism of U.S. foreign policy when he was in office, became “the most nagging of critics” once he was out. And it was ironic when Ted Olson swore he did not mean to impugn the integrity of the Florida Supreme Court, after Jim Baker and Dubya had done exactly that. Lewis didn’t miss the election’s supreme irony, when the nine justices, “by stopping the recount . . . helped run out the time.”

Maureen Dowd is the Ur-irony girl at the Times, the voice that launched a thousand quips. This year, the columnist found it ironic when John McCain decided to raise soft money—as part of his campaign to eliminate soft money. And when Gore canceled a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, she pounced, evoking Clinton’s X-rated White House. Dowd said Gore “would be better off if he had held dinners to discuss the meaning of irony.”

What a concept: irony lessons. Imagine Times staffers being bused upstate for the weekend so Dowd could give them pointers on the art. McGrath could remind them that irony has “become a critical term of nearly infinite elasticity,” and that it can only be used correctly to “refer to strange or untoward coincidence,” or “to indicate sarcasm.” Randy Kennedy could explain the idiocy of a labor organizer who can utter the words “change the world” “without a trace of post 1960’s irony.” Dave Anderson and Felicity Barringer could perform the trick of quoting someone in the lede, then noting how the quotes have become more ironic. William Safire could show how he divines “double” ironies, and Adam Nagourney could explain the irony of being Hillary Clinton. Magazine editor Ariel Kaminer could give an after-dinner talk on irony theory, as seen through psychiatry and TV.

But the master class should be reserved for magazine reporter Alex Kuczynski, who mines every situation for irony. Kuczynski kicked off the year with a profile of Time writer Joel Stein, whom she placed in the “openly ironic” tradition of Seinfeld, and ended it by taking The Nation‘s Caribbean cruise, where she found an irony under every bed. Last spring, she discovered the “terrible irony” that George had a better chance of living after John-John died, then blasted another Kennedy for the “glaring” irony of being a lib who takes soft money.

Now that the Gray Lady is a winking blonde, there have been whispers of dissent. Randy Cohen wrote this year that “it is possible to be too ironic,” and Michiko Kakutani dismissed the idea that our culture suffers from a loss of irony as “debatable at best.” So far, no one’s pointed out how the trend has morphed into a cliché. But it may be too late. As we enter the new year, the Times has turned irony into tyranny.