Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.”
I’ve never agreed with that quotation, often erroneously attributed to Oscar Wilde; and it’s good that it is erroneous because it makes him seem like the idiot he emphatically wasn’t. Whoever came up with the phrase was probably a Brit who was typically being both self-deprecating and self-congratulatory at the same time; the denizens of Blighty are nothing if not sarcastic, an integral part of their national character that often leaves non-Brits unsure if what they heard was insulting or just confusing. As for sarcasm being the highest form of intelligence, I’ve heard many a dimwitted Brit say, “Lovely weather we’re having,” when it’s pouring rain. Anyone can learn to be sarcastic.
I would refine the quotation to say that sarcasm is the easiest form of wit, but that would mess with the balance of ‘lowest’ versus ‘highest,’ and weaken the saying. I think the lowest form of wit is being snarky, alongside teasing with malice—the two are often companions.
The word ‘snarky’ is a compound of “snide remark.” The Urban Dictionary, itself riddled with muddled and snarky definitions, is somewhat confused about the word’s precise meaning:
[Snarky is] a witty mannerism, personality, or behavior that is a combination of sarcasm and cynicism…. Any language that contains quips or comments containing sarcastic or satirical witticisms intended as blunt irony. Usually delivered in a manner that is somewhat abrupt and out of context and intended to stun and amuse.
Now you see why I kicked this piece off with the subject of sarcasm; it’s a part of snarky, but there is a definite element of cattiness that sarcasm doesn’t need to have, unless it’s a line from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Snarky has also become something of a staple of blogging, and I for one am growing bored with it. Zingers are great if accurate and cleverly worded, sarcasm is fine, too—again, if there is true wit behind it—but snarky has become gratuitous and lurid, especially on influential sites like Gawker and Deadline.
Nikki Finke, who is somehow thought of as the most powerful woman in the entertainment business, even though she isn’t actually in the business, does a live commentary on Deadline every awards season called “Live Snarking the Oscars.” Her blog is admittedly the most up-to-date and useful source of information of the entertainment trade publications, but it’s also for the most part atrociously written (with the notable exception of Pete Hammond). A lot of the poor prose can be ascribed to the sheer quantity of writing that is thrown up there throughout the day as fast as possible, the fact Deadline has a miniscule staff, and that most online “journalism” across the board no longer seems to employ copy editors to proof and fact check. Finke’s own writing style is what might be called ‘early blogger,’ i.e., slapdash and whimsical, written with the arrogance of a CAA agent who is so self-important he looks down on whom he represents, no matter who they are. But the fact is, I would never publish Finke’s writing on this site, I don’t care what she scoops or how many “TOLDJA!s” she comes up with hourly. Her talent is simply not worthy of PFC.
And yet she feels empowered to make snide remarks about Oscar nominees because being snarky quickens the pulse of schadenfreude that fuels much of the Internet and drives hits to her site. The putative most powerful woman in our business—who doesn’t even have the balls to have herself photographed and even got into a massive brawl with Brett Easton Ellis when he revealed where she lived (her privacy was invaded… oh, the hypocrisy!)—can still feel entitled to basically piss all over the people about whom she reports, and who therefore provide her with her bread and butter.
As a content creator, Nikki Finke doesn’t have one jot of the talent of the people who walked that red carpet on Sunday night, even as a writer. I would love to see her go a couple of rounds on a script with some of the producers and directors I work with, forget performing in or directing a picture that actually makes it to the Oscars—again, we are talking about a woman who can’t even have her picture taken.
I thought the worst offender in the world of snarky commentary, Gawker, had actually managed to get through a whole piece without sneering, in a quick post about Jennifer Lawrence backstage after her Best Actress win. But after lambasting the press corps for some stupid questions they asked and praising Lawrence for her responses, Gawker just couldn’t help itself:
All of this is Lawrence being Lawrence, which is to say that the girl’s got moxie…or at least, that’s what she wants us to say regarding her shtick. Oh, and it is shtick, a performance tailored for public consumption and assuming minimum risk despite sounding “raw.” But it at least feels realer than the prissy earnestness of the likes of Anne Hathaway or the awestruck humility of Taylor Swift.”
As a film professional who has known and worked with a few Oscar nominees and winners, not to mention many performers in his life, I assure you, dear Gawker, that you are entirely wrong about Lawrence’s “shtick,” and that it is the bullshit you tailor for public consumption that needs to be examined carefully for its shtickiness.
Let’s not even go into what else Gawker has to say about Anne Hathaway and how hated she is, how worthy of everyone’s snide remarks this other extremely talented young woman is. Just take a look at today’s piece, Anne Hathaway Knows That You Hate Her. Actually, I for one don’t hate her, at all, so I don’t know who this ‘you’ is about whom Gawker speaks. On the contrary, I think she’s awesome—okay, maybe not in those Disney princess movies, but it would be a little creepy if I did like those sorts of films. But my rockin’ nieces love them, so there.
Gawker even takes on Seth MacFarlane, of course, who I thought was quite funny given the parameters under which he was working, and a good choice for the Academy to have made. The man is supremely talented, and all the outcry over the “sexist” boob song just underscored what this subversive artist has devoted his career to: Showing how small-minded and nauseatingly puritanical Americans can be, both liberal and conservative. Having the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles sing the last refrain of the boob song certainly elicited a belly laugh from this Ghey, but Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast was outraged enough to say that MacFarlane “bombed terribly.” As Marlow tweeted to me when I accused his reaction of being over the top, “[MacFarlane was] completely tone-deaf, bad. Did not laugh at one of his jokes.”
Bad? Really? I thought he was as smooth as ice. But I must not know what I’m looking at after all these years in the business.
To me, someone like MacFarlane isn’t snarky. He is irreverent, audacious, puerile, willfully un-politically correct, and an astute observer and satirist of the bipolar American gestalt. Again, he is also preternaturally gifted, and therefore entitled to stand before the Academy and the nominees and all of Hollywood and make fun of them. They are his peers, and believe me they see him and treat him that way. No matter her influence with the executives in our business, Nikki Finke is not a peer, nor are most of the contributors at Gawker. They should keep their pissing to the bathroom and not online. But that wouldn’t generate hits, and it’s not in my nature to been an unrealistic idealist.
In his opening number at the Oscars, MacFarlane poked fun at the online snarkitensia, but in a satirical, non-snarky way. When I pointed out to Marlow the irony that one of the most influential young entertainment journalists—i.e., Marlow himself—came out with a headline almost exactly like the one MacFarlane predicted, Marlow replied, “Eh, that was a lame attempt to cover himself, imo. I didn’t think that was clever at all.” Well, if you’re the butt of the joke, I suppose it doesn’t seem clever. How does it feel, though?
I could be accused of being hypocritical because a lot of my own commentary in this blog might be construed as snarky, but it’s not. Sometimes I am satirizing by writing articles as Tom Cruise or Lady Gaga, or offering a ten-thousand-dollar reward for any man who has verifiable proof of having had sex with Marcus Bachmann, or turning a demon tyrant like Gaddafi into a disgruntled black drag queen. My writing can be scathing, but it is directed at people or countries or organizations who deserve it, not at a talented actress who knocked that performance in Les Misérables out of the ballpark and around the world, who is so snarkified simply because she tries too hard to please, to be liked, and so she gets on everyone’s nerves and somehow deserves to be hated.
One might also haul me up for being snarky in my film critiques, especially my relentless assault throughout the awards season at the adorable, cuddly Beasts of the Southern Wild, which I dubbed That Bathtub Movie. But I gave my reasons from a filmmaker’s standpoint in a rather in-depth review of the film, and much of my ire was directed at non-filmmaker critics, who gave the film more attention than it deserved and forced its nominations.
While my talent is nowhere near MacFarlane’s, I feel I have the right to have a sort of one-sided discourse with my peers when I critique film: my work is rejected, shredded, sent back for revisions on a daily basis, just as theirs is. And I even hosted a televised show once, the Miss India Pageant, which was also seen by a billion people, albeit across Asia, and I was much, much worse than MacFarlane was last night. I was then raked over the coals on India’s equivalent of Oprah, and, yeah, it hurt. In other words, I know what it takes to get up there and do it, so beneath my sometimes scathing commentary lies an innate compassion and experiential empathy. Call my opinions provocative, vitriolic, whatever, but snarky in the sense of what the word has come to mean online they are not.
The Internet has given everyone a voice; I don’t need to list the reasons it is an astounding boon to civilization. But the inevitable downside has been that it has shown just how ugly the human spirit can be, and to me nothing exemplifies that more than snarking.