Narratives of all types, from books to cartoons, utilize multiple literary devices in order to craft engaging experiences for their audience. Today, we’re taking a look at one of these literary devices, irony, and we’re using Matt Groening’s Futurama to do it!
Why Futurama? Comedy shows offer many great examples of irony, often taking advantage of this literary device in order to produce hilarious or unexpected outcomes. Futurama is especially good at using it, and even talks about it by name in the episode “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings.”
What is Irony?
You’ll often see irony defined as a situation where the outcome is the opposite of what was expected, or as a difference between expectation and reality. I personally have never found these particular descriptors to be overly helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary offers a fairly comprehensive definition:
“A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.”
The OED also offers wording that calls it a type of “feigned ignorance,” if that helps you get a better grasp on this slippery definition.
Authors and creators use this device in order to add layers of meaning and interest to their work. It is especially useful for creating humorous situations, emphasizing truths, or implying contempt for a situation, concept, or person. Irony also creates situations in the work that make the audience think and use their imagination in order to understand the truth. Sure, the creator of a particular work could come out and say what they actually mean without using it, but that wouldn’t be as fun for the audience.
There are a few different types to familiarize yourself with, the three most common being verbal, situational, and dramatic irony. These three literary devices are similar, while also managing to be fairly distinct from one another. Remembering the differences is where it gets tricky for many people. Today, we’re tackling verbal and situational, but keep an eye out in the near future for a post about the dramatic type!
Verbal Irony: Saying What You Don’t Mean
The Encyclopedia Britannica offers an excellent definition of verbal irony, calling it wording where “the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the literal meanings of the words.”
Bender also offers a fine definition:
Verbal irony is when someone says one thing, but they really mean something else. The “something else” is usually the opposite of the literal meaning of the words used. If I say that my friend’s hands are as warm as frozen lake water, I’m using irony to let you know that my friend’s hands are freezing cold (bonus example: they probably don’t need to see a doctor about that, it’s a completely normal temperature for human hands). As you might have guessed from the(se) example(s), this literary device can take many forms, from things like metaphors and similes to statements.
What About Sarcasm?
Earlier, I mentioned that irony is often used to imply contempt, which really comes into play for sarcasm. Sarcasm tends to be a point of division for many people, however. While some people consider sarcasm to be a form of irony because it is language that means the opposite of its literal definition, others argue that it isn’t related. You’ll have to make up your own mind on where you think sarcasm belongs.
A situation where you expected (or desired) one outcome, and an opposite one resulted is an example of situational irony. It is a reversal of expectations, in a way. As mentioned before, Futurama does an excellent job of using it to pull off memorable gags. Just think about all of the times that Leela suddenly goes from fighting for a good cause to fighting against that cause, or the times when her good intentions result in an outcome that is opposite to what she was aiming for. (Think about the time she tries to save the Popplers and ends up on the menu herself, or that time she made a “save the fox” sign and then tried to murder the fox with said sign after the little furball wrecked her hand-crafted sign.)
In “The Deep South,” we see another example when Dr. Zoidberg finally gets a home of his own. The Planet Express crew is trapped at the bottom of the ocean, but things are finally looking up for Dr. Zoidberg (Hooray for Zoidberg)! Unfortunately, his triumph is short lived. His home mysteriously burns down despite being under water. Of course, an underwater home burning down is the opposite of what anybody might have anticipated.
The episode “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela” offers an example using Zap Branigan. Throughout the whole series, Zap tries his hardest to entice Leela to his bedroom. His efforts are generally always fruitless because Leela has no interest in the captain who is as misogynistic as he is unqualified. When he manages to trick Leela into believing they’re the last humans in the universe, he finally almost succeeds in seducing her before she catches on.
As Zap’s plans fall apart, the V-GINY spacecraft arrives and threatens to destroy the planet unless they consummate what it believes is a relationship based on love. At this moment, Leela begrudgingly accepts, but Zap suddenly develops stage fright despite getting what he’s always after. Given what we know about Zap Branigan, we as the audience would have expected an opposite outcome, where Leela says no and Zap is ready and willing to do what he must to protect the planet.
Let’s once more give a nod to the episode “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings” to see a few other fine examples.
When the Robot Devil grows tired of watching Fry’s opera, he leaps up onto the stage and exclaimed “You can’t just make the characters say how they feel!” It is apparent that in addition to disliking being made a mockery on the stage, Robot Devil holds a fine appreciation for the arts and might tell Fry a thing or two about how to write a play. That is the expectation, at least, but then the Robot Devil follows up his statement with “That makes me feel angry!” His outburst demonstrates situational irony because the audience likely didn’t expect him to express how he feels after saying that characters shouldn’t do that.
My favorite example from the whole episode occurs near the beginning. As Fry and Bender wait for the Robot Devil’s massive wheel of misfortune to finish spinning and tell Fry what poor robot he will get hands from, there are many hints that Fry will receive Bender’s hands. Audiences familiar with this type of scenario might assume that Bender and Fry will switch hands because that’s usually what happens when this type of plot plays out. The expectation is further solidified by the verbal and visual hints dropped throughout the scene.
Unfortunately for the Robot Devil, an ironic twist leads to him switching hands with Fry instead. Frustrated with the whole outcome, he shouts about the irony of the situation, to which bender responds “that’s not ironic, it’s just coincidental.” Bender’s line here adds multiple layers to the irony that’s just been dropped.
Bender is both correct and mistaken when he says it is just coincidence. From a narrative perspective, Bender is wrong. The situation is absolutely a reversal of the expectations built by the episode and other stories following similar plots. The audience likely expect Bender and Fry to swap hands, and the results are the opposite of what is anticipated.
In what way is Bender right, you might ask. Let’s imagine being in Bender and Fry’s shoes. The pair have no expectations about the outcome of the Robot Devil’s wheel because they are unaware of the narrative techniques and hints telling the audience what to expect. They don’t have any expectations, so the outcome isn’t ironic in any way for them, and comes off as mere coincidence. This detail might say something about the Robot Devil’s awareness of how their narrative-driven universe works. (For audience members who didn’t pick up on the hints about Fry receiving Bender’s hands, or who thought that Fry would receive the Robot Devil’s hands due to the title of the episode, this scene might not come across as ironic either).
That’s Not Ironic, It’s Just Mean!
Keep in mind that irony isn’t just the occurrence of something unfortunate as the result of something else. It is important to remember that situational irony is specifically a situation where there is a reversal of expectation, and the result of a situation is the opposite of what was expected.
Let’s take a look at an example from “30% Iron Chef,” where Bender tries to turn his horrible cooking skills into something noteworthy. While on his quest, Bender meets an elderly hobo who used to be a well-known TV chef. Bender makes a meal for this man that ends up killing him.
If this was all there was to the scene, this would not be an example of irony at all. It’s just a depressing outcome of a situation. There is no reversal of expectations to be had here, other than the expectation that eating food won’t usually kill people.
There is irony to be found in the scene, however, when you add in the details that I left out! Prior to the deadly meal, the elderly ex-chef trains Bender on how to be a better chef. Usually, a lengthy montage like this brings about improvement in the trained skill, which leads audience members to expect this type of change to occur. The fact that Bender’s skills don’t improve at all (and might even have gone backwards) is a reversal of what we would ordinarily expect. The hobo’s death is not ironic on its own, but it is ironic that even after all of that training from an experienced and confident teacher, Bender’s food is deadly.
I Was Being Ironic
People often use irony in the real world as well. It is most often used in order to prove a point or make a bold statement. If someone wrote a song about how horrible music is, their song would be purposefully ironic because they used music to make their statement. Likewise, someone who creates an infographic about how worthless infographics are is purposefully using irony to make their point.
Take a Breather
Irony enhances narratives so that creators and authors can express comedy, contrast reality and expectation, or make memorable statements about what they believe to be true. It’s a useful tool, and does a lot to engage the audience and make them think about the intended meaning.
Today, we looked at two common types: verbal and situational. These forms appear often in narratives, but they can also be used in real life. These aren’t the only types of irony that you’ll need to know, however. Keep an eye out for a future post talking about a third type: dramatic irony.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for other resources to help you gain a stronger understanding of this literary device, I’d like to point you in the direction of a clever infographic by The Oatmeal.
Do you have a favorite example of irony from Futurama or other pop culture works? Share them in the comments! You can also connect on Twitter at @Popliterary, or send a message on the “contact me” page.
And as always, if you have a literary device you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!