What Is Comic Irony?

J.E. Holloway

Comic irony is a literary technique or rhetorical device in which irony creates a humorous effect. Comic irony comes in many forms, and can derive from ironic statements by characters or narrators in a work of fiction. It can also arise from the situation presented in the work.

"The Simpsons" features characters whose plans backfire.
"The Simpsons" features characters whose plans backfire.

Students of rhetoric divide irony into several categories. Any of these categories can play the role of comic irony. Verbal irony, for instance, is a form of irony which arises from the difference between what a speaker says and what he or she means. A classic example of verbal irony used to comic effect occurs in the opening lines of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. The novel opens with the remark that "it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." In fact, however, this statement is intended ironically: the female characters in the novel are predominantly concerned with finding single men of good fortune to marry.

Comic irony can be based on situational mistakes, such as characters believing Juliet has died, when she hasn't.
Comic irony can be based on situational mistakes, such as characters believing Juliet has died, when she hasn't.

Verbal irony arises from a contrast in words; by contrast, dramatic irony arises from the contrast between what the reader or observer knows and what the character knows. A classic example of dramatic irony, used in this case for tragic effect, occurs in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, in which the audience observe characters behaving as if Juliet has died, despite the fact that the audience knows she is alive. Dramatic irony can also be used for comic effect. A similar instance of dramatic irony, used this time for a black comic effect, occurs in Shakespeare's Cymbeline, in which Imogen discovers a headless body which she mistakes for that of her lover, Posthumus. The comic irony arises from the fact that Imogen makes several statements about how she could never mistake Posthumus's body, despite the fact that the audience knows she is actually mistaken.

Shakespeare comic irony foreshadowing in some of his works.
Shakespeare comic irony foreshadowing in some of his works.

A third type of irony, situational irony, arises from the events in a work of fiction. In situational irony, the irony develops from the difference between a character's intentions and the outcome of his or her actions. This type of comic irony usually highlights the vanity or ambition of the characters. Situational irony underlies the plot of many television comedies. Classic examples include I Love Lucy or The Simpsons, the plots of which commonly center on the characters concocting elaborate schemes which backfire with humorous effect.

A classic example of verbal irony used to comic effect occurs in the opening lines of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice.
A classic example of verbal irony used to comic effect occurs in the opening lines of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice.

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Discussion Comments

ZipLine
Unless the writer specifically aims for dramatic or romantic irony, such as in Romeo and Juliet, most situational irony is funny. Even the most serious subjects, like politics and social issues, can be portrayed through satire, which involves a lot of irony. This is what the Simpsons does. The Simpsons uses satire and irony not only to make people laugh, but to also deliver a message about serious issues. They make us think through humor. I think that comic irony is wonderful. It's extremely entertaining.
fBoyle

@burcinc-- Absolutely. As the article said, different types of irony can be comic irony at the same time. It depends on how they are used and whether they are able to create humor.

Cosmic irony is simply when unexpected events are due to fate or some type of divine plan. For example, a story about thief who is later robbed can be a great comic and cosmic irony. In this example, not only does the thief get what he deserves through cosmic irony, but this is quite funny too.

I think that whether these ideas play out as expected and affect the audience as expected depends on the writer. There has to be a certain wit to literary irony. So it requires skill to develop and portray comic irony correctly.

burcinc

Can cosmic irony and comic irony be combined?

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