The rules of sarcasm
By Steve Tomkins
Sarcasm is so ubiquitous these days, it almost goes unnoticed. But, as David Beckham proved, when he was sent off this week for seemingly clapping a referee who had just booked him, not everyone is a fan. The trick is to use sarcasm intelligently, and sparingly.
They say sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. Yeah, right. Assuming "they" are the same experts who tell us "Look before you leap" and "He who hesitates is lost", then I think we all know how incisive and invaluable their advice is. What would we do without it?
What have these geniuses got against sarcasm? Well, it's rude. It is a put-down, and often unkind. If someone says to you, "That was really clever", you would prefer them not to be sarcastic.
Also, it's crude. It's about as clever as pointing and laughing. Compared to the incisive brilliance of Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, simply saying the opposite of what you mean does not impress anyone with your razor-sharp repartee.
When David Beckham got himself sent off for clapping the referee who had booked him, that so boosted his standing in the nation, didn't it? (Incidentally, the England captain had the last laugh, when it was later judged he hadn't meant to insult the ref.)
But "they" aren't so big and clever themselves, putting down sarcasm. For a start, surely the lowest form of wit is loud flatulence, not sarcasm. It can be a beautiful and impressive thing (sarcasm, not the other, though each to their own).
So may I offer, in all due sincerity, my tips on how to love sarcasm and make it work for you.
Note first of all that we are all sarcastic, often without noticing it. "Oh, very funny," we say, without cracking a smile. When the cat suffers an upset tummy on the lounge carpet: "That's all I need."
Some phrases are only ever used sarcastically: My heart bleeds. Wise guy. My hero. Big deal. Our beloved leader (in Britain, anyway). And any phrase at all that begins "oh so..." ("He's oh so smart").
Some phrases have been used sarcastically for so long they now mean the opposite of what they once did: "Too bad," was once an expression of sympathy, till the sarcastic crowd got their hands on it.
But if you're willing to move on from everyday sarcasm to something bigger and better, you will find it an art, with a noble tradition. Learn from the masters.
Follow the bard
It goes back as far as the Biblical prophets. When the prophets of Baal fail to call down fire from heaven in a contest with Elijah, he cries: "Pray louder! He is a god! Maybe he is daydreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he's gone on a journey! Or maybe he's sleeping, and you've got to wake him up!" (Good News version)
Some of the great figures of comedy, from Beatrice and Benedick to Chandler Bing, have endeared themselves to discerning audiences with sarcasm. "Why, that's spoken like an honest drover" says Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio lies to him: "so they sell bullocks."
"Ooh," says Chandler as Ross attaches his nicotine patch, "I'm alive with pleasure now".
Then there's Eddie Izzard, recounting how he saw a London Underground guard checking an unattended bag by shaking it: "Oh, Captain Clever! Rattle it, if it doesn't go off it can't be a bomb!"
And the king of sarcasm, Basil Fawlty, when Mrs Richards complains about the view of Torquay: "What did you expect to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically...?"
So there is no reason why sarcasm has to be dumb. Just as there are corny puns and inspired ones, and funny and feeble versions of three men going into a pub, so the glories of sarcasm are only limited by your wit. Learn from the examples above: apply a flair for words, wit, a pinch of attitude, and maybe a toilet reference, and the world will marvel. How hard can it be?
Could "they" be equally wrong about sarcasm being especially rude and unkind? As if. Almost all jokes are at someone's expense after all, apart from puns. And if sarcasm is particularly apt for putting the fools in their places, it can equally be self-deprecating, or just a complaint about the outrageous trials of life that beset good people like us.
That said, it can be a powerful anti-personnel device, when the personnel around you really deserve it. But a couple of caveats.
Firstly, make sure you're right. Like all powerful weapons, you don't want sarcasm to blow up in your face. I once worked for an uptight, hyper-organised and over-sarcastic supervisor, and was sent in my first week to an interview. "Still here?" she demanded, shortly before it.
"Do you want to be late?" "No..." "Because you're going to be, aren't you?" "No, it's next door in half an hour." "Oh." She left a humbled tyrant, and I enthroned on the adoration of my peers, which I like to believe was sincere.
Secondly, don't overuse it. It's like chilli. A little here and there spices things up and shows them who's boss, but you don't make many friends by sprinkling it in everything.
Finally, my secret weapon against overly sarcastic people: fail to understand sarcasm - take everything they say at face value. "Well that's just great!" they snarl. "Really?" you reply sweetly, "I thought you'd be upset." Keep it up and they'll be banging their head against the wall. And we wouldn't want that now, would we?