What is Sardonic? Meaning, Definition & Examples


Definition: Sardonic is a type of grimly mocking or cynical humor. It is characterized by disdainful or skeptically humorous remarks, often revealing a scornful or pessimistic attitude toward human folly and pretensions. The term implies a cutting, scornful derision deeper and more contemptuous than mere sarcasm.

Sardonic humor, characterized by its mocking, cynical, disdainful, or skeptically humorous tone, often pointing out the absurdity, hypocrisy, or foolishness in individuals, situations, or institutions, has been a prevalent tool in various cultures for centuries.

Different ways Sardonic Humor can be seen in Film and TV

Sardonic humor is often used to critique or provide commentary on societal norms, cultural absurdities, or human behavior.

It manifests in various forms in film and TV, meaning it can be seen in everything from the witty dialogue of a particular character to entire genres.

Here are different ways sardonic humor can be seen in film and TV:

Deadpan Delivery

Characters deliver lines with a serious, unemotional demeanor, making the humor more striking. The contrast between the delivery and the content of what is being said creates a sardonic effect.

Shows like “Arrested Development” and the character of Ron Swanson in “Parks and Recreation” are prime examples.


This format itself is sardonic, as it pretends to be a serious documentary while subtly mocking the subject it covers.

“The Office” (both UK and US versions) and “What We Do in the Shadows” use a mockumentary style to add a layer of sardonic humor to the mundane and the supernatural, respectively.

Dark Comedies

Films and shows that blend humor with dark or taboo subjects often use sardonic humor to navigate these themes.

“Fargo” (both the film and TV series) and “In Bruges” are examples where sardonic humor is used to deal with violence, crime, and existential angst.

Animated Series for Adults

Shows like “BoJack Horseman”, “American Dad,” and “Rick and Morty” use animation to explore complex themes with a sardonic twist.

They often feature flawed characters who view the world cynically, making sharp observations about society, mental health, and the human condition.

Anti-hero Storylines

Films and shows centered around an anti-hero often employ sardonic humor to flesh out these complex characters.

“House M.D.” with the brilliant but misanthropic Gregory House, or “Dexter,” featuring a serial killer who targets other killers, showcases how sardonic humor can provide depth to morally ambiguous characters.

Read more about anti-heroes in movies and see examples.


Some films and shows use sardonic humor to comment on themselves or their genres.

“Scream” for horror and “Deadpool” for superhero movies break the fourth wall and mock genre conventions with a sardonic tone.

Situational Irony

Many comedic plots thrive on the irony of a situation where the outcome is contrary to what was expected. Sardonic humor often highlights these ironies, revealing the absurdity of certain situations or decisions.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” places its protagonist, Larry David, in absurdly ironic situations navigated with sardonic wit.

Read more about the use of situational irony in film.

These various manifestations of sardonic humor across film and TV entertain and provoke thought, challenge societal norms, and reflect the complexities of human nature.

Examples of sardonic humor across different cultural platforms

Naturally, sardonic humor isn’t limited to movies but can be seen across most popular cultural formats. Here are some examples:


  • “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” – Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film uses sardonic humor to critique the Cold War’s paranoia, the absurdity of nuclear deterrence strategies, and the incompetence of political and military leaders.
  • “Fight Club” – A film that employs sardonic humor to critique consumer culture, the emasculation of men in modern society, and the emptiness of corporate jobs.


  • “The Simpsons” – This long-running animated sitcom uses sardonic humor to comment on the absurdity of family life, politics, and societal norms in America.
  • “House, M.D.” – The protagonist, Dr. Gregory House, exemplifies sardonic humor with his cutting remarks about the flaws in the medical profession, human nature, and his patients’ and colleagues’ imperfections.


  • Voltaire’s “Candide” – This 18th-century satirical novella mercilessly mocks the philosophical optimism prevalent in society at the time, suggesting that people are foolish to believe they live in “the best of all possible worlds.”
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s works – Vonnegut’s novels, such as “Slaughterhouse-Five,” use sardonic humor to critique war, society, and human nature, combining dark humor with serious philosophical inquiries.

Stand-up Comedy

  • George Carlin – Known for his critical and sardonic stand-up routines, Carlin addressed issues like politics, the English language, psychology, religion, and various taboo subjects, often pointing out societal hypocrisies.
  • Bill Hicks – Hicks used sardonic humor to tackle subjects such as consumerism, superficiality, mediocrity, and the absurdity of American culture.

Political Satire

  • “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” – These television programs have used sardonic humor to dissect political events, media, and personalities, blending comedy with critical commentary to highlight the absurdities within American politics and media.

Online and Social Media

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  • Memes and Satirical Websites (like The Onion) – The internet is rife with sardonic humor, particularly in memes and articles that parody news, societal trends, and cultural norms, offering a cynical but humorous take on current events and human behaviors.

By its nature, sardonic humor serves as a reflective mirror of society, encouraging audiences to question norms, recognize absurdities, and perhaps change their perspectives while entertaining them with a sharp wit.

The difference between Sardonic humor, Sarcasm, and Irony.

Sardonic, sarcasm, and irony share similarities in that they all involve forms of verbal wit, often used to convey contempt or ridicule. However, they have distinct nuances and are used in different contexts.

While sardonic, sarcasm, and irony involve forms of wit that can convey contempt or ridicule, they do so in different ways and contexts. Read more about verbal irony in movies.

Sardonic humor is more grim and scornful, sarcasm is direct and often cutting, and irony involves contrasting expectations and reality, often with broader applications.

TermDefinitionKey Characteristics
SardonicA grim, mocking humor or disdain. It’s a form of bitter, scornful derision that is often more severe than sarcasm.Grim, mocking, disdainful, often more severe and scornful than sarcastic remarks.
SarcasmA sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt, often involving irony or stating the opposite of what is intended for humorous or emphatic effect.A cutting, mocking tone intended to ridicule or show contempt. Often involves stating the opposite of what is meant.
IronyExpressing one’s meaning by using language normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

It can also refer to situations that end up in quite a different way than what is generally anticipated.
Use of words to express something other than, and especially the opposite of, the literal meaning.

A situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems the opposite of what was expected.
The differences between sardonic, sarcasm, and irony.

Read more about sarcasm in film.


Sardonic humor, with its distinctive blend of wit, irony, and dark amusement, has long held a unique place in various cultures across the globe.

It serves not just as a means of entertainment but as a portal for social commentary, enabling writers, comedians, and everyday individuals to critique societal norms, political absurdities, and human follies in an engaging and thought-provoking manner.

By inviting audiences to laugh at the contradictions and absurdities of life, sardonic humor fosters a shared sense of resilience and camaraderie, even in the face of adversity.

Moreover, it provides a safe space for exploring taboo or sensitive subjects, pushing the boundaries of conventional discourse in a way that is both accessible and impactful.

Ultimately, the enduring appeal of sardonic humor lies in its ability to challenge us, to make us reflect on our own beliefs and behaviors, and to connect us through the universal language of laughter, proving itself to be an indispensable facet of cultural expression.

Up Next: What is Jocularity? See the definition and examples from literature and film.


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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