Sarcasm, Contempt, and the Piranha Brothers (Not Necessarily in That Order)

Posted on November 14, 2013


I don’t know if this still applies, but it used to be that being able to recite Monty Python dialogue was good for some nerd creds (back before the coining of the phrase “nerd creds”).  When my daughter was about seven or eight, she used to quote Monty Python complete with the English accent.  She had also seen four of the five Beatles films (I never could find Let It Be on VHS) so I figured I was doing my job as a father.  But I digress.

In the Monty Python sketch of “The Tale of the Piranha Brothers,” the guys presented a mockumentary on the notorious gang leaders, Dinsdale and Doug Piranha.[1]  Despite his extortion and violence, Dinsdale was generally well regarded by his victims.  Following is an excerpt from an interview with one of his victims.

Presenter: Another man who had his head nailed to the floor was Stig O’ Tracy.

Interviewer: I’ve been told Dinsdale Piranha nailed your head to the floor.

Stig: No. Never. He was a smashing bloke. He used to buy his mother flowers and that. He was like a brother to me.

Interviewer: But the police have film of Dinsdale actually nailing your head to the floor.

Stig: (pause) Oh yeah, he did that.

Interviewer: Why?

Stig: Well he had to, didn’t he? I mean there was nothing else he could do, be fair. I had transgressed the unwritten law.

Interviewer: What had you done?

Stig: Er… well he didn’t tell me that, but he gave me his word that it was the case, and that’s good enough for me with old Dinsy. I mean, he didn’t want to nail my head to the floor. I had to insist. He wanted to let me off. He’d do anything for you, Dinsdale would.

Interviewer: And you don’t bear him a grudge?

Stig: A grudge! Old Dinsy. He was a real darling.

Interviewer: I understand he also nailed your wife’s head to a coffee table. Isn’t that true Mrs. O’ Tracy?

Mrs. O’ Tracy: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Stig: Well he did do that, yeah. He was a hard man. Vicious but fair.

Despite Dinsdale’s extreme and perhaps arbitrary violence, his brother was viewed as much worse.  Another man told of the horrors of having to see Doug when he wasn’t able to pay his extortion money.

2nd Interviewer: How much did they want?

Vercotti: They wanted three quarters of a million pounds.

2nd Interviewer: Why didn’t you call the police?

Vercotti: Well I had noticed that the lad with the thermonuclear device was the chief constable for the area. So a week later they called again and told me the check had bounced and said… I had to see… Doug.

2nd Interviewer: Doug?

Vercotti: Doug (takes a drink) Well, I was terrified. Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug.

2nd Interviewer: What did he do?

Vercotti: He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious.

Presenter: By a combination of violence and sarcasm, the Piranha brothers by February 1966 controlled London and the Southeast of England.

For those who enjoy Monty Python, the humor (or should I say humour since they are British) often relies on absurdity.  Suggesting that having one’s head nailed to the floor is a logical and acceptable consequence of some unknown transgression is absurd.  The further humor is the idea that Doug Piranha’s use of sarcasm is far worse than having Dinsdale nail one’s head to the floor.  Even the man with a short fuse and capable of great acts of violence was afraid of his brother’s use of sarcasm.

There’s an analogy to couple relationships coming.  You know there is.

Of the negative patterns of interaction which are so damaging to the relationship that they are viewed as predictors of divorce (see Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), contempt is the most damaging.  Contempt can also be the most subtle to identify.  When it involves name calling and insults, it is pretty easy to identify.  But it can also involve body language and facial expressions which can be just as damaging but substantially less objective and therefore, easier to pass off as inconsequential.  Sarcasm also falls into this category.  Sarcasm is both insulting and shaming in that it suggests that your partner’s experience is so ridiculous, inane, and stupid, that is does not even warrant a sincere response.  If sarcasm comes naturally to you, this may be an area on which you want to work.  See if you can stop either the sarcastic comment or sarcastic tone of voice before you speak and note how it changes the interaction.  Beware also of sarcasm trying to sneak in as facetiousness.  Humor that attacks your partner’s sense of self is damaging to your connection.

Gottman (1994) offered this test for contempt in your relationship.

Try to recall your feelings, behavior and thoughts after an actual argument when answering these. The more honest you can be, the more helpful the test results will be.

  1. When we were discussing an issue in our marriage, I couldn’t think of much of anything I admired in my partner.

Yes                         No

  1. When I got upset I could see glaring faults in my partner’s personality.

Yes                         No

  1. I just don’t respect some of the things my partner does.

Yes                         No

  1. I tried to point out ways in which my partner was inadequate in a particular situation.

Yes                         No

  1. I found it hard to have much pride in my partner’s qualities.

Yes                         No

  1. During the discussion I found myself putting my partner down.

Yes                         No

  1. There’s not a whole lot to look up to in the way my partner goes about things.

Yes                         No

  1. My spouse can be pretty arrogant at times.

Yes                         No

  1. When my partner got negative, I found myself thinking of insulting things to say back.

Yes                         No

  1. My spouse can be pretty smug at times.

Yes                         No

  1. My spouse was too stubborn to compromise.

Yes                         No

  1. When my partner was upset at me I wanted to turn the tables and counterattack.

Yes                         No

  1. I can’t help feeling that there’s a lot of stupidity in my partner’s behavior.

Yes                         No

  1. It’s hard for me to see my partner’s point of view when I don’t agree.

Yes                         No

  1. I often have no respect for my partner when we are discussing an issue.

Yes                         No

  1. I just get fed up with all of the negativity.

Yes                         No

  1. I felt disgusted by my partner’s attitudes.

Yes                         No

  1. My spouse can be pretty stupid at times.

Yes                         No

  1. I disapprove of my partner’s behavior.

Yes                         No

  1. My spouse can be pretty inept at times.

Yes                         No

  1. It was hard to respect my partner when they were being so incompetent.

Yes                         No

  1. When my partner is upset with me I think of all the ways that I’ve been let down in this marriage.

Yes                         No

  1. My spouse can be very selfish.

Yes                         No

  1. I often feel a sense of righteousness indignation when my partner is expressing something negative.

Yes                         No

  1. When I get dumped on I think of ways to get even.

Yes                         No

  1. When I see a glaring fault in my partner, I can’t recall my partner’s positive qualities.

Yes                         No

“A “Yes” on more than 7 indicates that you are probably a good candidate for expressing contempt in the relationship.” (Gottman)

If this is resonating for you, it would be important to take a look at it.  Contempt can be very damaging.  Even the negative self-talk about your partner can undermine your valuing of your partner, and hence, your connection and intimacy is undermined as well.  The good news is that we can always change our way of interacting (if it were not so I would be in a different line of work).  Often when we are looking at behaviors, it is helpful to ask if the behavior has a positive or negative effect on your life.  If it fits in the healthy life plan, let’s keep it.  If it doesn’t, we probably should work on changing it.  Such is the case with sarcasm and contempt.  Old habits generally don’t go away without a fight.  If you need help changing patterns, a therapist can help you work on it.



Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail and how you can make yours last. New York: Simon & Schuster.



[1] The brothers were born on probation.  Doug was born in February 1929, and Dinsdale 2 weeks later.