A stranger walks into your office, completely overwhelmed by the snow that’s just fallen. He kicks the frost from his boots, wipes the sleet from his beard, and slaps the ice out of his hat. Then, without a beat, he turns to you and says, “Lovely day, isn’t it?” You have just experienced irony in its everyday form: verbal irony. It’s ironic, sure. But is it comic irony?

Meh—it could be funnier. If you want to use true comic irony as a literary device, you’re going to have to look for more extraordinary turns of phrase than making jokes about the weather. Here’s how the professionals do it.

What Is Comic Irony?

Situational irony is a statement or event that contrasts our expectations. Comic irony occurs when you add the element of humor. For example, consider the headline “Anti-Piracy Group Accused of Stealing Photo Used in Anti-Piracy Ad.” Voilá! We have a comedic twist of fate. It works.

What doesn’t work? In Alannis Morisette’s famous song “Ironic,” the true comic irony is that the lyrics don’t provide us with genuine comic irony examples. Consider the first verse:

“An old man turned ninety-eight

He won the lottery, and died the next day.”

Isn’t it ironic? Well, no. Morisette’s stylistic choices don’t go against our expectations to see an old man die at the age of ninety-eight. Comic irony would be if the old man spent his whole life so focused on lottery numbers, he eventually found the winning ones—only to forget the combination of the safe he left the ticket in. Now that’s ironic, don’tcha think?

Comic Irony Examples

Let’s look at how some master writers and comedians pull it off:

  • In Dr. Strangelove, the President of the United States breaks up a fight by shouting, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”
  • In Cymbeline, William Shakespeare has his character Imogen swear she could never mistake the headless body of her lover, Posthumus. But the audience is well aware that Imogen makes this statement while looking at the wrong body. Shakespeare was just as big a fan of developing dramatic irony by giving the audience knowledge his characters didn’t possess.
  • In Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, she opens with a theme about Victorian society: “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” writes Austen, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Then Austen spends much of the novel focused on Mr. Darcy, a man who doesn’t want Elizabeth Bennet as a wife at first.

Making Comic Irony Work For You

To make comic irony work, go beyond the ol’ chestnut of “lovely weather.” Think about the everyday patterns that determine our expectations, then don’t settle on a punchline until it’s completely unexpected.

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