Situational irony occurs when something happens that is the inverse of what is intended or expected.
It’s human nature to find irony a little funny. We tend to laugh when the unexpected occurs. It catches us by surprise and we see humor in the unexpected.
A common example of situational irony is a traffic cop being caught speeding. We see this as ironic because the traffic cop is supposed to enforce the very law that he’s breaking!
Situational Irony Examples
1. A traffic cop gets caught speeding.
2. A brain surgeon needs a lobotomy.
3. A librarian yells across the library: “keep your voices down!”
4. A tailor wears an ill-fitting suit.
5. A man drops his contact lenses and can’t find them because he can’t see.
6. A mortgage broker defaults on his loan.
7. A “family first” politician is caught cheating on his wife.
8. A marriage counselor gets a divorce.
9. A man complains loudly about how everyone around him is too loud.
10. A hunter gets eaten by a bear.
11. A firefighter’s house burns down.
12. A wedding planner’s own wedding turns out to be a disaster.
13. A teacher sends a letter home to parents about the students’ poor spelling, only to have spelling mistakes all through the letter.
14. A lifeguard drowns.
15. A man’s internet breaks during an online job interview for a job as a computer technician.
16. A pilot skillfully crash lands a plane, saving everyone on board, only to get injured as he walks off the plane.
17. A husband complains to his wife about how she never does anything for him while she’s cooking him dinner.
18. A man is afraid of flying so he drives instead, only to get injured in a car crash.
19. An anti-corruption politician gets caught accepting dirty money.
20. A socialist politician turns out having three holiday homes in Canada.
21. A free speech warrior sues someone for saying something mean.
22. A 24/7 diner is closed.
23. A tow truck gets into a car crash.
24. A prison guard returns to his prison – as an inmate!
25. A butcher turns out to be a vegan.
26. A man impatiently explains to a woman that “mansplaining” means “man explaining”.
27. A dolphin is found washed up on the beach. The autopsy finds it died from drowning.
Situational Irony in Film and Literature
1. The Sixth Sense
In The Sixth Sense, the main character is a boy who can see dead people. He seeks help from a therapist who tries to talk him through all of his problems.
The boy and his mentor develop a close relationship. The irony occurs when a twist at the end makes us gasp. It turns out that the mentor himself is a dead person and nobody can see him (except for the boy). The intended audience isn’t privy to this issue until right at the end, but when we finally figure it out, everything suddenly makes sense.
It’s ironic because the therapist, who is skeptical of the boy’s claims that he sees dead people, suddenly realizes that he is, in fact, dead.
2. Romeo and Juliet
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo attends a ball to see a lady, Rosalyn, he thought he was in love with.
But at the ball, Romeo sees Juliet, a beautiful woman who he falls head over heels for. Here, the irony is that Romeo turned up for one thing and left with something else completely. It’s not only something unexpected, the outcome is the opposite of what he expected.
This twist is a form of situational irony. What we expected didn’t occur, and something unexpected occurred instead.
3. Planet of the Apes
In Planet of the Apes, an astronaut flies his plane into an unknown planet where apes rule the world. Humans are on this planet, but they’re oppressed and enslaved.
The astronaut struggles to survive in this unknown world where everything is upside down. He wants desperately to get back to earth.
The situational irony occurs right at the end of the film when the astronaut stumbles upon a buried statue. It’s the statue of liberty.
Suddenly, the astronaut finds out that he’s been on earth all along.
This is situational irony because the situation isn’t what we first thought. It’s ironic that he embarked upon a whole journey to get back to earth only to learn that he was here all along.
Situational Irony in Real Life
1. Fire Station Burns to the Ground
In 2021, a fire station in Ontario, Canada, burned to the ground. The fire engines were inside the fire hall when the fire broke out and were burned as well.
A neigboring fire brigade had to come to put out the fire.
This is an example of situational irony because the fire brigade’s job is to put out fires. They’re the last people you would expect to have to deal with a fire in their own home!
2. Police officer gets Convicted
In 2022, a Calgary police officer was convicted for conducting an “indecent act” while off duty.
This example of situational irony occurs far too often. And it doesn’t just happen when they’re off duty. It’s even more ironic when police are caught on body cam breaking the law while enforcing the law against others!
This is obvious irony that the person whose job is to enforce the law ends up being the person who breaks it.
Other Types of Irony
Situational irony occurs when something unexpected occurs in a scenario. It’s a type of irony that’s common in situational comedies like the classic Seinfeld.
The show sets up a situation then creates humor out of it by making relatable or unexpected events occur. Audiences laugh and cringe at the scenario. They can either see themselves doing this silly, ironic, thing; or, they laugh because the same characters continue to get themselves into hilarious and ironic twists in otherwise everyday situations.
As we have seen above, situational irony occurs in real life as well as in film. By contrast, dramatic irony tends to be (but isn’t always) a literary tactic rather than a real-life situation.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows more than the character in a storyline. This is a method used in storylines to create suspense and build tension.
An example of dramatic irony occurs in Romeo and Juliet when the audience knows Juliet isn’t dead, she’s just in a coma. But Romeo has no idea.
So, Romeo proceeds to take his own life out of grievance. The audience is worried, shocked and saddened: they know that Romeo should just wait for her to wake up. It’s ironic that Romeo is doing this, particularly because he’s ruining their chances of being happy together as a couple. If only he had the whole truth!
Verbal irony occurs when someone says something that they don’t truly believe.
Politicians are experts at using verbal irony with a straight face.
For example, a politician stands up and advocates for lower taxes even though he doesn’t really want them. He’s lying. Je and his confidantes know he doesn’t truly believe what he’s saying.
The people in-the-know think it’s ironic that the politician is saying this. They all know he doesn’t really believe it! It’s ironic that he’s up there saying one thing when, in truth, he believes the complete opposite.
For more, see my 12 types of irony article.
Situational irony is a great literary technique for writers and film makers. It causes the audience to laugh and draws them into the storyline. It can also improve retention on videos (e.g. YouTube videos!). The other types of irony (verbal and dramatic) are similar but slightly different and can be used in their own ways in literature and film.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.