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Is sarcasm really the lowest form of wit?

It’s nice to be part of a club. It’s comforting to feel like the smartest person in the room. It’s life-affirming to laugh at others’ missteps. A sarcastic remark potentially offers all these pleasures, setting a trap for anyone who might not get it. So are people who call sarcasm “the lowest form of wit” just annoyed at not getting it? Or is sarcasm the mark of the mardy teen who used cynicism as a defence mechanism and then never grew out of it?

Certainly, sarcasm is a self-awarded certificate of intelligence, a wry protest from the sidelines. Yet although it suits frustrated outsiderdom, if it’s low wit, it’s also pretty lucrative. Two of TV’s biggest global hits of recent years have been powered by sarcastic characters, in the form of Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, who uses it liberally although he can’t identify it in others, and House from House, who rarely converses in any other idiom. Or, as the specialist website says: “Gregory House rains sarcasm like a rainforest” – which is a truly excellent way of phrasing it. Well done.

Dr House’s sarcasm didn’t just allow Hugh Laurie to spend the rest of his days playing a golden guitar in a bungalow made of diamonds. In season seven, it saved a life when the doc finally realised what really ought to have been obvious: a patient’s inability to detect sarcasm indicated she had a deficit in the right parahippocampal gyrus caused by metallosis, rather than the previously diagnosed fungal endocarditis. Across the world, nerds with a crippling terror of their own feelings, who have Chandler Bing-ed through life avoiding honest self-expression at all costs, cheered at the episode’s affirmation of what they’d always believed: not picking up on sarcasm means there’s something medically wrong with you.

But in our new world of alternative facts, fake news, post-truth and what used to simply be called lies, is it plain irresponsible to add to the humming mound of statements that shouldn’t be taken at face value? Saying something tongue-in-cheek and cackling inwardly when it’s received seriously is, arguably, getting less enjoyable as conspiracy theorists, frauds and authoritarians stride closer to the point of being completely in charge and poking us towards a wall with rifles, as we sarcastically observe how brilliantly everything’s going. Even celebrity credulity is taking on a dark edge. Only two years ago we innocently enjoyed Alan Sugar reading an Onion article and genuinely thinking Taylor Swift had had a swastika tattooed on her face; now we’ve got Robbie Williams trying to revive PizzaGate. It all feels too real.

So should we take a vow of sober sincerity? Yeah, right. All too often, the only sane response to 2020’s latest gush of balls is to repeat it back to the universe with dry weariness. “Well, that was another highly reassuring government pandemic briefing,” we say, before grabbing a smartphone and quote-tweeting a terrible pundit’s statement from a month ago, adding the legend “This aged well”. Replacing one’s whole personality with a Krysten Ritter eye-roll gif has never been more tempting or appropriate. It’s not low wit when new lows keep being hit.

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