Satire uses sarcasm, humor, and ridicule to poke fun to draw attention to an issue. Whether it’s racism, politics, human behavior, human nature, or some other subject, satire aims to push people to take notice of an issue or subject and make people think or change their ways.
There are three main types of satire. They are Horatian satire, Juvenalian satire, and Menippean satire. Satirical writing goes back to the days of ancient Rome, and is more popular than ever in today’s contemporary culture.
The History of Satire
The Greek writer and poet Aristophanes wrote what is considered to be the earliest satire. It was a comedy meant to entertain audiences but was laced with satire. This Roman satirist wrote a story about women denying men sex to get them to end a war. While funny, this light-hearted comedy was also a social commentary on the prowess of men and the animalistic and primitive manner in which men behave, especially in times of conflict and war.
The definition of satire is applying humor, exaggeration, sarcasm, and ridicule to point out and raise the issues in society and within people. This is a genre with a long history, and as long as there are problems in society, it is likely that satire will remain a literary device, tool of late-night television, and subject of art and film.
The word satire derives from the ancient Latin word “Satur,” which translates to “well-fed.” Even back in the days of ancient Rome, the word satire was associated in much the same ways that it is today. The satire definition hasn’t really changed throughout the centuries, and it remains an effective tool in social commentary.
Types of Satire
The three most common types of satire are Horatian satire, Juvenalian satire, and Menippean satire. Political satire is now possibly the most popular type of satire. It pokes fun at political figures and policies, snubbing its nose at government in various ways.
Horatian satire, named after Roman satirist Horace, is light-hearted and humorous. Its goal is to poke fun at things in an attempt to draw attention to them. Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels as a political satire about the government of England. There were also jabs at human nature itself included in the story. The story was light and had bits of humor but was actually satire.
This style of satire is also seen often on late-night television. Hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, and Trevor Noah aim personal attacks at politicians and celebrities through the use of irony and humor on their television shows. The Colbert Report, an award-winning political satire television program, is enormously popular, proving a satirical approach to news and politics.
Juvenalian satire has much darker satire; famous examples of this sort of satire George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the setting is a farm, and the characters are the farm animals. The satire of this literature focuses on communism and the inappropriate use of control in communism. While you can take the story at face value, there is much more depth to it.
In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is the main character, who turns murderous while competing with other men he knows. You can take this exaggeration of violence and anger at face value and just read the story, or you can see it for the satire that it really is; a grim parody of toxic masculinity.
Writers use this genre and style of satire to draw the reader in with the story and then make them think about the issue that is lying just beneath the story’s surface. Dystopian fiction often falls into this category of Juvenalian satire.
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury begins with an irony right from the start with his opening line of “It was a pleasure to burn.” Firemen in this dystopian novel start fires rather than put them out, destroying any books they find and punishing those who have and harbor books. Books are forbidden contraband, and people are only supposed to learn what the government and media tell them to learn and force them to believe. Heavily satiric and very dark, it is laced with a lot of irony and ridicule.
This form of satire is present in some television as well. The irreverent cartoon South Park uses dark humor to tackle issues such as racism, homophobia, sexism, and politics. This show, which is just one example of such media, is part of the satire genre because while it does entertain the viewer, it also starts conversations about the issues it brings up and calls to attention.
Menippean satire is perhaps the most humorous of the three types of satire. It uses humor, jokes, and parody to draw attention to concepts and beliefs like race, political, social, and economic issues.
Saturday Night Live, the long-running and top-rated sketch show, has writers who write parodies to entertain people, all while using this humor to give examples of the things wrong with the world or the country. For example, Will Ferrell’s impersonation of George W. Bush involves a parody in which Farrell barely opens his eyes to speak, makes up words that don’t mean anything, and can’t do anything without the help and direction of his father.
Alec Baldwin performs the same type of style in his parodies of Donald Trump. Letting his mouth hang open when he’s listening to someone speak, having wild hair, calling people names that are particularly sexist or racist, and being a womanizer are all exaggerated so that while they’re funny, they’re in your face. You have no choice but to see it for what it is.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is also a type of light and fun satire. While telling the story of a girl who follows a white rabbit because she’s curious, she encounters all sorts of people and creatures along the way, ending her journey with an episode that features the Queen of Hearts.
The Queen is a power-hungry and deranged socialite who sentences people to death for simply disagreeing with her. This satire is about the class system and how those with money and influence treat people without money or influence.
While Saturday Night Live qualifies as this sort of satire, shows like the Colbert Report do not. This is because SNL is light and doesn’t come right out with the issues. Instead, it mocks them via parody and tries to make the audience laugh while also showing the issue or social wrong. On the other hand, Stephen Colbert gives his direct satiric opinion of things going on in the world and in government.
If you are engrossed in satirical writing, below is the list of satire authors and their satirical works, which you can examine to get ideas from:
- Anton Chekhov: The Lady with the Dog
- Charles Dickens: Hard Times
- Edgar Allan Poe: Never Bet the Devil Your Head
- Evelyn Waugh: Sword of Honour
- Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales
- George Orwell: Animal Farm
- Jaroslav Svejk: The Good Soldier Svejk
- Joseph Heller: Catch-22
- Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five
- Mark Twain: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
- Matt Groening: The Simpsons
- Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote
- Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest
- Terry Pratchett: Discworld series
- Theodor Seuss Geisel: The Butter Battle Book
- Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49
- Timur Vermes: Look Who’s Back
- Tom Wolfe: The Bonfire of Vanities
- William Makepeace Thackeray: Vanity Fair
Satire Vs Parody
While satire sometimes uses parody to get its message across, the style of parody is a bit different, setting it somewhat apart from satire itself.
Parody uses gimmicks like humor and exaggeration to point the finger at someone and see them as ridiculous. Some political cartoons use parody without even having to use the English language to do so. A simple image with enlarged features or striking details can get the message across.
Writers for shows like SNL often try to stick with parody rather than direct satire. This is done because these writers don’t want to drive away part of their viewing audience who may support the figure that is being mocked. So rather than delving too deep with direct issues, they poke harmless fun at a person using things like body language and speech patterns instead.
You may like Donald Trump, but even his most devout followers know and understand that he has unique speech patterns and phrases that distinctly tell him apart. Because SNL is after high ratings more than political awareness or justice, they try not to offend those opposed to their own viewpoint. Satire doesn’t care who it offends.
Literature like Slaughterhouse-Five and A Clockwork Orange don’t care who they offend with their satire. These examples of literature get right to the dark content and hold you there to intentionally make the reader uncomfortable. They aren’t necessarily interested in ratings. These writers had something to say, so they said it without worry or concern about who may be offended.
Satire can be a useful tool to draw attention to a specific issue or situation, but it also needs to be used in the correct context as otherwise, it could come off as offensive. It’s important to know your audience and be clear about the outcome you expect when writing Satire.