I. What is Satire?
The formal definition of satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.” It’s an extremely broad category. The “or” in the definition is key – most satires are humorous, ironic, and exaggerated, but they only have to be one of these things to count as satire.
There are two important things to remember about satire:
- It makes fun of a person, idea, or institution
- Its purpose is not just to entertain, but also to inform or make people think.
II. Examples of Satire
The famous comic strip Calvin & Hobbes was renowned for its satire. The comic takes on everything from politics and science to parenting. Calvin himself satirizes selfish, lazy, media-saturated Americans, while his father satirizes the opposite extreme.
Most political cartoons are satirical – they use humor, irony, or exaggeration to make a point about politics. For example, one particularly famous cartoon from 2013 shows a homeless man using newspapers as a blanket; the headlines on those papers all say things like “Wall Street Soars” and “Corporate Profits Booming.” The ironic juxtaposition in the image calls attention to the gaps between a successful stock market and the lingering poverty and joblessness experienced by many Americans today.
III. Types of Satire
This is the strongest type of satire as it attacks a single target in a vicious way. The most common form of this satire is political satire, which attacks politicians and pundits.
This type of satire is similar in harshness to Juvenalian, but it attacks a more general target. An example is religious satire, which attacks sacred figures or religious beliefs.
This type of satire makes fun of things in a soft or even loving manner. It’s usually a form of parody that is intended to make people think.
IV. The Importance of Satire
Satire has been called the oldest form of social commentary. For many people, the injustices and problems in their society are too big to confront directly – it’s hard to know where we would even start! So, one approach has always been to start with comedy. By laughing at something, we can acknowledge its reality while denying it power over our emotions.
Satire also gets people to pay attention to social issues when they might otherwise ignore them. People may pick up a satirical book or watch a satirical movie hoping to be entertained, but end up thinking about issues and perspectives they never thought of before. Satirists hold a mirror to the flaws of society, helping people think critically about things they might otherwise just take for granted.
V. Examples of Satire in Literature
The Greek playwright Aristophanes was one of the first satirists that we know of. In his plays, he made fun of religious figures, politicians, and philosophers, all with humor and irony. His play The Clouds, which made fun of the revered philosopher Socrates, was taken so overly seriously by the authorities in Athens that it may have contributed to their decision to execute Socrates (something Aristophanes almost certainly never intended).
The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce is a scathing collection of satirical definitions. Many tackle ideas that society holds to be important, such as prayer, marriage, and friendship; all are portrayed in a darkly humorous light. A few notable examples include:
Love, noun. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.
Patience, noun. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a dark satire of Soviet Communism and the Russian Revolution. While the book is not meant to be particularly humorous, its plot definitely ridicules the way that the Soviet government perverted the original principles of Communism. For example, the animals begin with the basic belief that “All animals are equal.” But by the end of the book, they have changed it to “All animals are equal…but some animals are more equal than others.”
VI. Examples of Satire in Pop Culture
The Warhammer games were originally meant to be satirical – they were poking fun at tabletop fantasy war games. But many fans either ignored the satire or didn’t notice it at all. Today, the games are typically played “straight” as if they were not satire at all.
Psy’s popular song “Gangnam Style” (the most popular video on YouTube in 2015) is an over-the-top satire of high-class Korean lifestyles. Those who don’t speak Korean might have a hard time understanding the satire from the lyrics, but the video speaks for itself – Psy’s absurd dances, his antics, and the whole concept of being “badass” while living in the posh Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam all make fun of Korean popular culture and the behavior of rich people in that country.
The Truman Show makes fun of reality television and the excessive invasions of privacy that it is often based on. Ironically, though, the movie was the inspiration for the show Big Brother, which was wildly successful and sparked a new birth of reality TV.
VII. Related Terms
The concept of satire is very close to that of verbal irony, or saying the opposite of what you mean. It’s extremely common for satirists to use verbal irony or sarcasm to make their point. For example, Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report often pretends to be defending politicians that he actually disagrees with. He mimics their arguments and tone of voice to show how ridiculous they are. Although irony is often a part of satire, however, it is not a necessity – think of John Oliver, whose fake news program Last Week Tonight is similar in many ways to Colbert’s. Oliver is also performing political satire, but he uses dry humor rather than verbal irony.
Parody (also called “spoof”) is imitating someone or something in order to make fun of them. For example, when Weird Al Yankovitch makes fun of a popular song, he mimics its musical style and writes lyrics very similar to those in the original song. It’s very close to satire, but it’s missing one of the key elements. Whereas satire is intended to make people think, parody is intended just to entertain or make people laugh. The precise line between parody and satire is somewhat subjective, and some people might argue that Werid Al is, in fact, doing satire rather than parody – whether or not this is true depends on whether you think he’s making a point or just being silly.
When someone (like a stand-up comedian) spoofs a particular person, it’s called impersonation. This is one of the most common tools of satire, but like other forms of parody it has to make a broader point in order to be considered satire.