December 24, 2005


Years ago when I was still new to California, I'd sit in tech meetings and occasionally make a poker-faced suggestion or response that seemed -- to me -- obviously absurd or ironic, usually to defuse a tense situation or to gently point out that some plan or idea was unlikely to work. Trouble was, while this sort of thing worked well in Britain or Australia, you don't usually do humour in California (or the States as a whole, for that matter) with a straight face. Like all those laugh tracks on US TV that tell you when something's supposed to be funny so you can laugh at the right place, in person you have to signal the funnyness with suitable facial expressions or other physical or verbal markers (subtitles for the humourless, as a certain friend would say...). So my suggestions were often taken seriously, and I'd end up spending a large amount of time slowly explaining that I hadn't really meant it literally, and patching up the damage.

So my colleagues built me an Irony Hat, a big over-sized spangly baseball cap with the word "IRONY" on the front in bright multi-coloured paint. The new rule was that if I were going to be ironic or sarcastic or sardonic with a straight face in a meeting I had to put the Irony Hat on first. It was immediately effective -- there's nothing like sitting there with a silly hat on in a straight tech meeting for making it impossible for the people around you to take you seriously. It became addictive, and people around me started using the phrase "I've got my Irony Hat on now..." when they chanced a bit of irony or straight-faced humour.

A few years later I was selling t-shirts, jewellery, and photos (etc.) up on Telegraph in Berkeley. It gets hot and sunny on the street, and one day I realised that (subconsciously?) I'd brought along my Irony Hat rather than the usual little Giants cap. I put it on and thought "this'll be interesting...". A few minutes later a tourist wanders along and stops at my stall. He squints at my hat and reads it off slowly "I ... Ro ... New York? What the hell does that mean?" I didn't know either, unfortunately, but it spawned yet another new local catchphrase.

I still have the hat. It's a lot less useful nowadays, what with all the irony outbreaks infecting California lately.


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