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Ironic characters are always real people

October 14, 2016

We are who we pretend to be,

so we must be careful who we pretend to be.”

Mother Night,

by Kurt Vonnegut

I would be lying if I said I first came across this quote by reading the book. I have read the book, but only after reading a blog by Mara Wilson, who used this quote to explain her misgivings about people who use characters to get away with harsh criticism.

She was referring specifically to a film reviewer called the Nostalgia Critic, a character written and performed by Doug Walker who specialises in reviewing famously bad movies between the 80s and new millennium.

The Critic took the piss out of what Mara herself described as her “admittedly awkward” performance in one of her later films, much to her initial displeasure. They resolved this dispute quite amicably and both sent themselves up in a later video – the Critic with footage of his youthful video experiments.

It’s testament to Doug’s personality that his reparation included a willingness to make himself vulnerable. Critique is often a harsh, ego-driven medium that doesn’t consider the feelings of the people under criticism. Doug’s decision to bare his humble beginnings acknowledges this.

That said, I share Mara’s reservations that, just because someone is “a character”, that doesn’t mean that they are entirely invented. Doug might be harmless, but others have used a similar justifications for characters who make asinine social commentary, the humour of which seems to come from its completely misinformed nature.

“I was just joking,” is too easy a defence, one which you could use whether you mean it or not. Better still, you can half mean it, and most people do. You say something you actually think with an ironical tone, and technically you were joking even though you weren’t. Socially nervous, clever people use this tactic constantly in order to pass faux pas off as irony, satire, quips and commentary.

The half joke softens a blow to someone else’s ego, but makes it harder to deal with; we can’t help but feel unreasonable when we have a go at someone for a “joke”. Only a few of us have the stones to point out that the joke in question wasn’t really a joke at all, just an opinion with a smirk – a way of avoiding taking responsibility for your opinion, should it transpire that your opinion upsets someone.

My problem with this tactic, and the defence of it, is that it discourages awkward people (and secretly ex-awkward people) from examining the impact of their words, and considering whether what is about to be said needs to be said. Rarely is any great purpose served by it.

If you live your life making constant justifications for the offence you cause, you have no reason to take a utilitarian approach to humour, and realise that the only person served by your jokes is yourself. No one, even amused onlookers, needs you to make jokes. Only you need to make jokes, to minimise your own discomfort. People who don’t know any better may like you for it, but it is a shallow and fickle liking.

A stand-up comedian could change their humour to a less harsh or more self-deprecating form. But if he does this, he makes himself vulnerable rather than others, which is harder; other people are bound to reflect his own insecurities back at him for their own amusement, and he will have to learn to deal with this, using self-awareness and reflection – by breaking down his ego. It’s a process that involves a lot of self-discipline and self-control.

There’s a reason why self-effacing people are often so likeable; they have learned to take a step back from their own ego. This is a long, difficult process with many middle stages and floundering failings. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. You’d have to see the social value in it; to think that society and humour are both better when people expose their inner nature honestly, rather than constantly attempt to strip everyone else.

This style of humour also takes a greater degree of skill. It’s easy to mock other people for a cheap laugh, or to shock an audience into laughing by blurting out something socially unacceptable. We are fascinated by the weird and unexpected, and as a rule we love bitchiness as long as it isn’t aimed at us. We’re not at the point where a majority of people purposefully won’t laugh at a cheap shot, if they can help it.

That sort of thing also involves self-control, the sort that gets criticised as being up-tight. Rightly or wrongly, current mainstream culture tends to think that you should laugh at everything that is intended to be a joke. Take that to its logical extreme, and any format or social science that humour used to have goes straight down the pan. No longer is it required that you attempt to make a cultural comment that an audience can identify with, you only have to be outrageous.

Imagine if Katie Hopkins did indeed come out and say that every time she said something harsh, she’d been joking. Would anyone buy it? Would all be forgiven? If humour mitigates all, then despite all the upset and controversy, technically she should be instantly off the hook with even her fiercest adversaries.

The justification that an audience should understand that the performer is in character doesn’t hold water. Firstly, life so often mirrors satire it’s impossible to tell the difference. Secondly, the statement is frequently just not true. When a comedian expresses a series of opinions for the amusement of an audience, there’s a good bet those are genuinely held opinions. It’s easier to talk at length about something you’re passionate about, and to extrapolate or improvise on opinions you actually hold.

Irony, in particular, can’t be faked. Irony is a form of pretence; you are pretending to think something you don’t, or representing an argument that is clearly contrary to your own. To pretend to be ironic, you would basically be pretending to pretend, something we rarely do. An ironic thought occurs to you, or it does not occur to you. If it occurs, there is a decent likelihood that you think it has some merit.

You may not agree with it completely. But if you choose to share it, it’s likely that you agree with it more strongly. Irony is one of those things which falls like a lead balloon if other people can see the flaw in your premise right off the bat; critical people, the types of people who enjoy ironic humour in the first place, are inclined to do that.

If you were an ironic comedian with a critical audience, you would think twice before expressing an ironic point of view if you thought it had holes in it. Therefore, you’d have to agree with it fairly strongly to say it out loud, or post it on your social media feed.

So, despite the comedian’s wish to hide their real political leanings, they lay them bare. The “character” is their “real” self; the Doug Walkers of the world, not the Nostalgia Critics. When playing oneself, we take the edge off our observations in a social context, in order to function in polite society. A significant proportion of a comedian’s real self is on their public platform, not bothering to self-censor, under the protective shield of humour. The shield is invisible. There’s a reason why humorists get constantly nagged by social justice warriors – it’s because no one is fooled.

Returning to the point that it is not always clear when someone is genuine and someone is being satirical, this can cause problems within social groups. I question the value of mocking your own social group for the sake of highlighting flaws in an opposing group’s perceptions. The mock perceptions and the unchecked real perceptions are sometimes word-for-word identical. Sometimes the real perceptions are purposefully overblown, for the sake of humour-veiling as explained above. Without context, without direct evaluation deconstructing each faulty point of view, no one reading knows what the speaker’s true opinion is.

This matters because the internet, which aggregates every other conceivable medium, can seem like an tsunami of hostility for groups who are irrationally disliked by others. Those sharing the hatred with their in-group (which could be a perceived majority of the internet) may know that their point is overblown and ridiculous but simply not care, knowing that the majority of people will also not care because they share the prejudice.

When people who directly disagree simply express the same overblown points in the same way for the sake of satire, they appear to be contributing to the endless waves of idiocy. It’s enough to make you shut down your Facebook for a weekend.

And wouldn’t it be ironic if the very people who wished to encourage you in your endeavours because they agreed with your politics actually contributed to making you feel alienated and discouraged, because you believed that their ironic viewpoint was genuinely felt.

I have often wondered how much of the crazed anti-vegan sentiment on 9GAG is written by ironical young vegans. To know how many people are falling for it versus how many people have brains, I would have to trawl through the shit storm of the comment section, most of which will probably be in fierce agreement, such is the crowd-mentality of bitchy humour. I’m not that much of a glutton for punishment.

Irony and satire are tools whose usage and effectiveness depend on context. I don’t doubt its value as a way of highlighting the ridiculousness of what people say, by rephrasing it in terms which anyone would know to be ridiculous. I do not think its value is in its ability to disguise what you think, or refuse to take responsibility for what is said in the public sphere.


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