From Shakespeare to Saturday Night Live, satire has been ingrained in our culture for centuries. In fact, the art of satire dates back to ancient Roman times.
But what is it about this genre that has helped it to endure the test of time? Why do we love to laugh at it in late night television, or share satirical memes with our friends on Facebook?
Perhaps because as much as we love a good laugh, we also love calling out our leaders and society as a whole for all of its shortcomings. Thus, satire generally carries a deeper meaning that most surface-level comedy.
In literature, satire is a genre that employs humor and irony to criticize the stupidity and shortcomings of individuals or groups of people.
Historically, the technique has been particularly successful whenever applied to politics and politicians.
But satire isn’t intended to merely poke fun at its subject; the point of ridiculing a person or population is to, hopefully, inspire them to change their ways.
Modern examples of satire can be found in popular shows such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, and even The Simpsons.
Satire and Irony
Irony is the difference between what is said and what is actually meant, or between our expectations and what actually happens.
Therefore, irony is frequently used in satire, especially when the writer is trying to highlight the more dishonest tendencies of their subject.
Purpose of Satire
Although it can be viciously funny, the primary goal of satire is not to simply evoke uproarious laughter from audiences.
Writers of satire employ humor to expose issues and critique certain elements of society because they hope to change the public’s mind, or to encourage change from those who are being mocked.
Types of Satire
The three most common types of satire each have their own distinct qualities, and even vary in levels of harshness. While some seek to simply poke some innocent fun, others view their subjects as evils that must be stopped.
Of the three types of satire, Horatian satire (named for the Roman satirist Horace) is the most gentle and sympathetic toward its subject.
Through light-hearted (and often self-deprecating) humor, Horatian satirists address issues that they view more as follies, rather than evil.
This kind of satire rarely includes personal attacks, but rather aims to promote morals and teach lessons.
Examples of Horatian satire include:
The second type of satire, Juvenalian, is generally less kind toward its subject than Horatian.
Juvenalian satirists don’t just see their subject’s actions as wrong or silly, but as evil. Their style, then, contains less traditional humor and more sarcasm and strong irony.
It is in this kind of satire that we can really see the writer’s objections and their call for change.
Examples of Juvenalian satire include:
Menippean satire targets mental attitudes and viewpoints, rather than specific individuals.
Though not as harsh as Juvenalian satire, Menippean satirists often target what they see as harmful attitudes, such as racism, sexism, or just plain arrogance.
Examples of Menippean satire include:
Satire vs. Parody
Parody mimics a familiar style or concept, usually by placing it in a new context or giving it a ridiculous subject.
While parody can sometimes be used to develop satire, there is a key difference between the two.
Whereas satire aims to inspire action or change, parody is used primarily for comedic effect.
The Rutles, for example, started as a group that parodied The Beatles. Similarly, Vampires Suck is a film that parodies the popular Twilight films and books.
You should be able to distinguish parody from satire by examining a work’s motives.
Examples of Satire in Film and Literature
Below are several famous examples of satire from film and literature. These writers used a combination of parody, irony, and humor to both entertain and enlighten audiences.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
One of the most oft-cited quotes from the film (and in film history), President Muffley’s concern for the unrest in the War Room illustrates the connection between satire and irony. Dr. Strangelove employs satire to entertain audiences while making a more serious commentary on war and politics.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, farm animals rebel against their human farmer to form their own society free of tyranny. However, it’s not long before the pigs take over, reproducing the same unjust treatment the animals sought to replace, and creating a totalitarian regime.
Orwell’s novel satirizes the breakdown of ideologies and the abuse of power, which was interpreted as an attack on Stalinist Russia at the time it was written.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
“‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first — verdict afterwards.’”
There are a lot of theories out there regarding the “true” meaning behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it’s not hard to see the satirical nature of some of Carroll’s passages.
The above scene, for example, can be interpreted as a satire on the Victorian justice system.
Why Audiences Love Satire
Satire has endured as a storytelling technique for centuries because it offers a brilliant mix of comedic relief and social critique—and we as humans have always loved a good laugh and a clever dig at our leaders.
From literature to films and late night television, it’s not hard to come across great examples of satire in today’s culture. For its ability to combine entertainment with a purpose, it feels safe to say that satire will thrive for a long while.
What’s your favorite example of satire? Share your thoughts in the comments below!