Meta-Irony: How It Works, How It’s Used and How It Helps
Nowadays, humor is becoming increasingly strange and bizarre. With the advent of meme culture and the rise of social media platforms like Tiktok and Reddit, with their extremely low barriers-to-entry, the proliferation of “Gen-Z Humor” is well under way and it manages to somehow take the world even less seriously than whatever we had before this. Everything from powerful entities like the CCP, real international threats like a World War 3 and even genuinely progressive movements regarding gender, race and sexuality can potentially become a target of satire nowadays and with the anonymity of the Internet, nobody is exempt.
But we also seem to be reacting more poorly to jokes and comedy than ever before. President Xi infamously censored Winnie the Pooh due to memes ridiculing their supposed similarities and comedians are now under constant fire from proponents of cancel culture.
Isn’t it strange that in an era where humor and comedy are supposed to be more ubiquitous than ever before, that there’s now a belief that “there’s no such thing as jokes anymore”? Wouldn’t you say that that’s a little ironic?
Therein lies the key to solving it all, irony. It’s what has transformed humor into what it is today. It’s what so many people just can’t seem to grasp. It’s what causes us to react so negatively to jokes and fail to see that that’s exactly what they are, just jokes. So to better understand Gen-Z era humor, I want to analyze and break-down it’s unique usage of varying levels of irony. Following that, I want to take a closer look at a comedy sketch by Saturday Night Live (SNL) titled “ATM”, with a focus on how it uses irony to transform an otherwise traditional piece of satire on the topics of race and stereotypes into something new. From this, we’ll be able to paint a better picture of what the true intent of Gen-Z humor really is and how we can all go about understanding it so that we can avoid getting sucked into the vortex of vitriol and hate that so many of our peers are unfortunately unable to escape from when it comes to reacting to modern humor.
Explaining The Different Levels Of Irony
Most of the following content is referenced from “What Makes Gen-Z Humor So Interesting?” by Olivia, who goes by the YouTube handle “oliSUNvia”, which goes into much more detail about irony and Gen-Z specifically, so do check it out if those topics seems interesting to you.
Level 0: Pre-Irony
We can start off with Level 0 or, pre-irony. I don’t think much needs to be said about this because it literally denotes any statement that’s means exactly what it’s supposed to mean.
This might not be too helpful now, but I imagine throwing in a little analogy would be important, especially for explaining the higher levels of irony. So back in my secondary school days, there was this trend for my school’s student leaders to drop intentionally bad puns into their speeches. It wasn’t clear back then but, you could actually observe quite a few levels of irony used in some of the reactions this got from kids in my school. The simplest of all being a pre-ironic remark like:
Person A: *comes up with a horrible pun*
Person B: Wow, that was awful.
Level 1: Irony
Now this level is pretty self-explanatory too. In case you somehow haven’t heard of what irony is, it’s when you say something that has an opposite meaning to what you actually want to say.
What kids at my school loved to do when someone cracked a bad pun can be classified as irony:
Person A: *comes up with a horrible pun*
Person B: hahahahhaha….that was so funny…
Honestly, it’s amazing that we can communicate the idea of irony just by using the tone of our voice, our mannerisms and pacing. It’s a really nuanced and complex concept and yet, we’re so used to it that even little children can tell when you’re being sarcastic.
This might be why irony is a little out of fashion these days. I mean, we hear irony used all the time, but when’s the last time you actually laughed when you heard someone make an ironic remark? In the past perhaps, irony and sarcasm would have been an interesting way to react or reply to something. But nowadays, at least in my personal experience, irony is treated no differently from pre-irony, and being overly sarcastic can even come across as being rude or annoying. So how has irony moved on from this?
Level 2: Post-Irony as a “Return to Sincerity”
Gen-Z has already moved past “boomer-like” irony and embraced its crazier, wackier cousin, post-irony.
Based on what I’ve gathered from Olivia’s video as well as my own inferences, there are two main applications of post-irony. The first is something known as a “return to sincerity”. It involves adding an additional layer of irony on top of a normal, ironic statement. Think of it like a reverse card in Uno, or rather, when two reverse cards are played back-to-back. If you reverse the flow of play in Uno twice, everything just goes back to the way it was originally. Post-irony works similarly. When you use two layers of irony, what you’re doing is saying something and making it appear as if you’re being ironic and actually mean the opposite of what you’re saying when in reality, you do sincerely mean what you’re saying, hence a “return to sincerity” because you are returning to the original, pre-ironic meaning of a statement. How would the kids at my school have responded to a bad pun using post-irony then? Well it would look something like this:
Person A: *comes up with a horrible pun*
Person B: hahahahhaha….that was so funny…(Irony)
Person C: omg guys stop laughing hahahah, it’s not like it’s that funny or anything (Post-Irony).
Person B’s statement implies that they thought the pun was funny when in fact, they didn’t. Person C’s statement on the other hand, implies that the pun isn’t funny in a sarcastic manner when in fact, they meant it literally.
Level 2.5: Post-Irony as a “Satire of Satire”
The second application of post-irony is something I call, “satire of satire”. It literally means, to apply irony onto an already known piece of irony. How is this different from the “return to sincerity” variation? In “return to sincerity”, you’re using two levels of irony at once to replace a statement that you technically could have made with just a single level of irony. In this case however, you’re using irony as a way to satirize something that’s already known to be ironic. Here’s an example in the same vein as the previous few:
Person A: *comes up with a horrible pun*
Person B: hahahahhaha….that was so funny…(Irony)
Person C: hahahhahaha, yes that was absolutely hilarious, everybody please laugh sarcastically to let everyone else know how funny you thought that was (Post-Irony).
What’s interesting here is that if you didn’t know that people like Person B tend to respond to a bad pun with irony, then Person C’s post-ironic remark wouldn’t make much sense. If I removed Person B’s remark from this example entirely, Person C comments just sound weird and out-of-place because you can’t use post-irony in this way if there’s no source of irony to begin with.
Level 3-??: Meta-Irony
Now get to meta-irony, which is the most confusing one out of the bunch. Meta-irony involves layering your statement with multiple levels of irony to the point where the truth becomes difficult to determine. Here’s my attempt at meta-irony in the same context as the previous examples:
Person A: *comes up with a horrible pun*
Person B: HAHHAHAHAHAHA…what? Stop looking at me weird, it’s not like I found it funny or anything like that ok (Meta-Irony)?
I apologize in advance if this one sounds a bit more awkward than the previous few, meta-irony is hard and I’m no expert.
What I tried to do here was to mask the true meaning or intent of Person B’s statement. When Person B seemingly laughs genuinely instead of sarcastically (hence the HAHAHs instead of the hahahahs), it obfuscates his true intent. Did he genuinely find Person A’s pun funny even though it was obviously not? Or is he still being sarcastic? And if so then why did he seem to laugh genuinely? Person B’s follow-up remark also directly contradicts his genuine laughter, telling Person A that he didn’t find it funny… or anything like that. The whole remark itself is ironic and contradictory and you have no idea who Person B is mocking. Is it his own response, Person A, the act of making a pun, or nothing at all? You can’t tell because there are too many layers of irony here. Meta-irony aims to confuse you to the point where you can’t even ascertain what the meta-ironic statement is trying to say and that confusion is, itself, the whole point of the joke.
Assigning meta-irony to Level 3 on the irony scale is a little misleading because it implies that 3 levels of irony is equivalent to meta-irony, which isn’t true. That’d be post-post irony. Meta-irony needs however many levels it takes to muddy the waters of truth so to speak. My example used 3 levels (I’m not even entirely sure myself) but you could definitely use more.
Owing to my lack of experience in the subject matter, if you’ve read up to this point and still don’t quite understand how to differentiate between the different levels of irony, here’s another set of short examples taken from Olivia’s video which she herself referenced from a YouTube comment from a user named “Eli Salas”:
How “ATM” By SNL Crafts a Meta-Ironic Sketch
We’ve gone over how post-irony and meta-irony can be used in one-liner remarks and jokes, but to really see these concepts applied skillfully, we need to examine a sketch like “ATM” because it isn’t just a meta-ironic joke or line, it’s a sketch containing numerous post-ironic and meta-ironic conversations and themes. It’s higher-order meta-irony.
Here’s a link to “ATM” by SNL. It’s only 4 minutes long yet perfectly encapsulates everything I’ve mentioned above. You can watch it at my pace as I break it down, or you could just watch the whole thing to see how SNL uses irony for yourself.
The sketch starts us off with a couple played by Kate McKinnon and Sam Rockwell. Sam’s character stops the car near an ATM so that he can withdraw some money. Kate remarks in dismay:
“In there? I just — I wouldn’t stop in this neighborhood.”
Alright, pause the video right there. The beauty of this line from Kate McKinnon at just the 16-second mark of the sketch is that it achieves two important things.
One, it sets up the background of the entire sketch. Even if you don’t live in the United States, I’m sure everyone has an idea of what a “seedy part of town” is. They’re places you don’t wanna find yourself wandering around in at night. Simply by having Kate say that something in a tone and manner that implies: “I don’t wanna be that guy, but you know what they say about these parts of town”, it lets us know immediately that this sketch is set in a stereotypically “rough neighborhood”. Add to that the fact that we have two white characters being uncomfortable in a neighborhood and it should be more than enough for someone to infer that this sketch is likely going to be talking about race.
Secondly, the manner in which Kate delivers her line is without a doubt, pre-ironic. It’s serious and matter-of-fact. Which is how I know that this is going to be the lynchpin of the entire sketch. Why? Well because it’s made by SNL and so I know for sure that the video I’m watching is a comedy yet, the first important line of dialogue is delivered pre-ironically with no hint of a comedic tone. It then stands to reason that this must be the lynchpin of the entire sketch because it’s too serious for a comedy sketch and so it has to be made fun of at some point, otherwise it wouldn’t be a comedy sketch at all. It also conveniently sets up a great foundation for the sketch to start stacking up more layers of irony later on as well.
A Black Man and A White Man Walk Into an ATM Booth, What Happens Next?
The next bit of the sketch establishes its first layer of irony. Sam says to Kate:
“Relax, it’ll be like two minutes”
What does this say about Sam’s character? Well it implies that he doesn’t fully buy into the whole stereotype of the neighborhood being dangerous or, at the very least, isn’t bothered enough by the stereotype to stop him from going to the ATM anyways.
This changes when Kenan Thompson’s character is introduced. He enters the ATM booth right after Sam and it’s visibly clear that Sam isn’t comfortable about being first in line to use the ATM. This is ironic because we were led to believe that Sam’s character isn’t exactly one to believe in stereotypes. But when he’s put in a position when he, a white man, is trying to withdraw money from an ATM while a black man is standing behind in a supposedly “rough neighborhood”, now all of a sudden he’s uncomfortable with the situation and tries to make up an excuse for Kenan to go first instead. Kenan’s character in fact, actually calls Sam out for profiling him based on his race, which is the writers explicitly stating the irony of Sam’s character’s behavior for us to see.
Now remember how I said earlier that nowadays, a single level of irony often isn’t enough to make a joke funny anymore because it’s treated more like an alternative way of saying something pre-ironic. It’s the same thing here. Sam’s behavior in the sketch so far is ironic, but it’s not funny yet. Granted, I don’t think the writers intended for this part to be the punchline of the whole sketch but still, I don’t think it would’ve been that funny even if they did.
Where the sketch really takes off is when, in a post-ironic twist, Kenan’s character tries to rob Sam and even reaches into his jacket for, what any viewer could only assume to be, a gun.
This is then immediately subverted again in a post-post-ironic fashion, Kenan reveals that he’s only kidding. So just to recap what we’ve seen so far, Sam is presented as someone who isn’t a racist, who then appears to be slightly racist when him and Kenan enter the ATM booth, but then apologizes and affirms that he’s not a racist, only for him to give the “dammit, I knew it” look when Kenan pretends to rob him, which is then again ironic because Kenan was kidding and Sam finally affirms yet again, that he’s not a racist. Looking at it now, you could make a case that the sketch has already become meta-ironic.
The Plot Thickener
The plot thickens when Chris Redd, playing the role of an uncouth leader of a gang of unfriendly-looking men, enters the ATM booth just as Sam is leaving.
First things first, putting irony aside, whoever wrote the interaction between Chris and Kenan is brilliant. It’s crude humor, but it’s still absolutely hilarious and would’ve worked even without any irony involved. But the usage of meta-irony here is what really takes the cake. Notice the parallels between the first interaction we see between Sam and Kenan and now between Kenan and Chris. Sam and Kenan react almost identically, with a look of trepidation when they see someone following them into the ATM booth. Only, in Sam’s case everything played out more traditionally because it’s an interaction between a white man and a black man in a context of a sketch about stereotypes and racism. But it is ironic that Kenan, a black man who was preaching to Sam earlier about not freaking out and letting your stereotypical impressions of someone get the better of you, is now equally terrified of group of other black folk because he believes stereotypes about his own race. Kenan even repeats Sam’s earlier line by asking Chris if he wants to use the ATM first and uses Sam’s excuse of “grabbing the wrong card”, which is… the fourth or was it the fifth layer of irony that we’re on now?
It gets even better when you notice some of the intricacies in Kenan’s acting here. There’s a specific line of dialogue between Kenan and Chris that subtly adds a hidden layer of irony for those who notice it.
Chris: “What? You nervous a black man walkin’ in here just wanna use the ATM bro?”
Kenan: “No, my brother!”
To understand this, we have to take a little detour into the realm of linguistics. Kenan, Chris and a sizeable portion of African-Americans living in the United States speak in a dialect of sorts that sounds quite distinct from the manner in which say, a White American would speak. This dialect is officially termed as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and it’s contains a very intricately crafted, alternative system of grammatical rules and tenses and phonology compared to what’s known as General American English. For example, phrases like “I ain’t gonna do nothin’ about it” with a double negative, has a completely opposite meaning in AAVE compared to General American English.
But in this particular case, we need to examine a concept known as rhoticity. Rhoticity refers to whether or not speakers of a certain dialect or language will drop the ‘r’ sound if it comes right after a vowel sound and isn’t followed by another vowel sound.
When I put it like that it sounds obtuse and confusing, but it’s actually really simple. For General American English, speakers are mostly rhotic, so they will pronounce the ‘r’ sound in words like “brother” as in “brotherrr”. AAVE speakers on the other hand, are usually non-rhotic, so they’ll drop the ‘r’ sound at the end of “brother”, which makes it sound like “brotha”. Non-rhoticity isn’t all that uncommon, with British accents like the Received Pronunciation (think Harry Potter movies and how the actors spoke in there) and even my own native creole language, Singlish, also exhibiting it.
What makes Kenan’s pronunciation of “brother” both ironic and hilarious is the fact that even though he was speaking in AAVE earlier on in the sketch, he not only pronounces the ‘r’ sound in “brother” when talking to Chris, he actually exaggerates the ‘r’ so that it sounds something like “brotheR”. It’s as if, when faced with another black person who’s stereotypically more black than he is, Kenan becomes whiter because he’s now in a stereotypically white role from Chris’s perspective by being afraid of a black man just because of his stereotypes.
The Closer and The Moral of The Story
So we’ve ascertained that the writers at SNL have successfully incorporated meta-irony into the punchlines in “ATM”. But how about its themes? How does meta-irony alter the way we’re meant to perceive the sketch as a whole? It’s clear at the start of the sketch that SNL wanted to satirize racism and stereotypes, with the end-goal of saying: racism is bad. In the first section of the sketch, they poke fun at Sam’s character and people who behave like Sam. Between him and Kenan, we’re mean to side with Kenan and laugh at how easily people can succumb to believing stereotypes. But in the latter half of the sketch, while Sam’s character learns a lesson and leaves the scene on a good note, Kenan’s character, who’s supposed to have the moral high ground, is now the butt of the joke.
Sam, who’s now contrasted against Kate’s character, is now the one lecturing others on how it’s not nice to judge others using stereotypes, meaning he’s now the “good guy”.
Meanwhile Kenan, who’s now contrasted against Chris, is getting beaten up and says:
“Why didn’t you just rob the White boy, I would’ve helped you guys!”
which paints his character in a totally different light because now we know that Kenan is a hypocrite and a walking example of irony. He doesn’t want to be judged using stereotypes yet he judges others by the very stereotypes he claims to loathe, making him the “bad guy” in all this.
But before the sketch could end, the writers at SNL just had to throw in one last ironic twist as if the entire sketch wasn’t confusing enough. Sam the “good guy”, after managing to change Kate’s views, is riding on every good beat in the narrative so far. He leans in to give Kate, who we’ve presumed thus far to be his girlfriend or wife, a kiss to end the sketch off on a good note. Only, Kate stops him and reminds him that prostitutes have a no kissing rule. You’d be forgiven for getting a little confused at this twist because it seems like it doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the sketch. You might even say that it was just thrown in there to trade in some extra shock value for cheap laughs, or that Kate McKinnon in all her years at SNL has never played a normal character and so she just had to have some gimmick or it wouldn’t feel right. I think that it serves a more meta-ironic purpose.
The reveal of Kate’s character being a prostitute is, I think, a way to poke fun at the trope of a sketch about race having to have a good “moral of the story”. The writers have already torn down Kenan’s characters’ image as the “ good guy” and now they turn to Sam’s character as well where we get to see that Sam’s character isn’t this paragon of virtue. We were painted a picture of a man who’s maybe a little wary, but not a full-on racist. A man who loves his wife/girlfriend who’s willing to educate her about the lessons he just picked up. Except, he’s not with his significant other, he’s with a prostitute which, as a lifestyle choice, is perfectly alright for anyone to indulge in if they choose to do so, but isn’t exactly the first thing you think of when you look for a hero of the story you know?
The Purpose Of Meta-Irony
To the untrained eye, meta-irony can definitely come across as disruptive and destructive in a way. I mean, as we have just seen from “ATM” as an example, we get a comedy sketch that, while funny, may not necessarily be interpreted as sending a meaningful message to audiences. And comedy and humor, when done professionally at least, have traditionally been seen as a medium for doing just that.
Take Dave Chappelle for instance. He’s an African-American comic who’s traditionally been seen as a great example of someone who’s able to use his status as a widely-known comedian to talk about important issues like racial equality. He wraps up great observations about the injustices that he’s had to face with his comedic energy and puts them out there on the stage to not only generate awareness, but hopefully discourse as well. Contrast that with something like “ATM” which again, to someone who’s not used to seeing meta-ironic humor, might be construed as a sketch that says “white guys are racist, black guys are also racist, racial stereotypes are all true”, which is no doubt a horrible message to be preaching to the public. Except it’s not about that.
To be truly meta-ironic is to be unbiased as well. You have to be comfortable with satirizing everybody because, as mentioned earlier in the article, the confusion over who is the real butt of the joke is the joke. You can only achieve this if you are willing to make everyone in your joke and sometimes even yourself, the butt of the joke. What I can personally take away from “ATM”, is that obviously, judging someone based on stereotypes and especially their race, is never a good thing to do. But unlike Kenan’s character, when we call someone out for stereotyping others, we should be careful not to end up becoming the butt of our very own ironic joke. After all, nobody’s perfect, so don’t be too quick to judge others without recognizing that you might be guilty of the same flaws. And in the event that you do mess up, treat the situation like you would a meta-ironic joke, look at your own mistakes for what they are and don’t be afraid to have a laugh at yourself.
That last point to me, is the most important thing that I believe people should try to pick up. Like what I said at the very start of this article, it seems as if it’s so easy for people to get angry or offended over comedy these days when sometimes, we overlook the fact that if we’re willing to stay open-minded we could maybe learn something new about ourselves. I think it would be a huge shame if, in the golden age of meta-irony so limitless in its potential for creativity and evocation, we always look to take offence instead of taking a joke.