More at Saturday Night Live
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about parody and satire. A poster on one of the magic boards I follow declared that he doesn’t like satire; and he mentioned that Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller magic fame also felt this way. Penn wants a comedian to just “Come out and say it,” comparing Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal unfavorably to George Carlin’s comedy. Penn feels they make similar points but Carlin is more direct. Well, of course historically, unfortunately, people have paid a heavy price to just “Come out and say it” directly. Now, why Penn, a very intelligent man, would gloss over that point is interesting, but I don’t want to get into that in this essay (maybe I’ll expand on this in the comments area). Instead, I want to share some thoughts I’ve been kicking around concerning how parody and satire actually work.
Satire is often conflated with its humorous kin, parody, but I don’t consider them synonymous. I’m not that interested in making a semantic argument, scolding for misuse—use the words as you wish—but I do want to distinguish between two distinct categories of comedy, no matter what one calls them. And so for convenience, I’ll refer to the two categories as parody and satire. Though they are both categories of humorous critique, there are some important differences.
Oddly, it might be easier to understand my definition of satire, if I first begin talking about parody. Both parody and satire embody a subject of humorous critique presented in a given form. In parody, however, the subject of the critique is the form itself. Let me give a few examples here: Mel Brooks is well appreciated for film parodies such as Young Frankenstein. The pleasure we get from watching Young Frankenstein is in how Brooks takes the tropes of the classic horror movies of the 30s and pokes fun at them: there’s the hunchback, the inarticulate monster, the creepy castle, and so on, which all trigger memories of what we loved about those kinds of films. We laugh because these are familiar elements, but in addition, Brooks jokes with the form by unexpectedly breaking with its conventions: the inarticulate monster, out of genre, puts on a top hat and grabs a cane, performs a Broadway soft shoe dance, and so on. The subject, then, of Brooks’s horror movie is the form of horror movies. We see a similar dynamic occurring in other Mel Brooks movies, such as High Anxiety, Spaceballs, and Blazing Saddles. The subject of each of these movies is a critique of their particular forms—the thriller, the sci-fi movie, the western, respectively—the target being the absurd aspects of their forms.
One more parody example: the current wave of literature parodies which somehow manage to shoehorn zombies into them. So, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, takes the form of a nineteenth-century Jane Austen novel of manners, but subverts the form by importing characters from a completely different kind of genre. The humor is in the discordant clash of forms. Again the subject of the parody in this case is of the form itself. It’s not “about” anything other than the comedies of manners and the tropes of zombie tales.
But satire works differently. While satire takes a form of an already recognized genre, its subject is not solely about the features of that form. The subject of satire is something apart from its form, but talks about the relationship of the subject to the form; and in the best satire, the form indicates how the subject uses elements of that form to gain, consolidate, or maintain power.
To clarify, let’s begin with Penn’s example, Jonathan Swift’s classic satire, A Modest Proposal. The writer proposes that the solution to starvation and poverty among the Irish poor is to let Irish parents sell their children to the rich as a source of food. Now the subject of the piece is clearly the exploitation of the poor by the rich; but the form of that satirical piece is the political statement of a rational man serving the people. Here Swift takes that form and shows how the form of rational political discourse is used to advance monstrous conclusions by proceeding from unjust premises. So the essay is not just a critique of the position of the Irish poor in Swift’s time, but it’s also an illustration of the forms of discourse that had helped to maintain such an unjust power relationship. In other words, in A Modest Proposal, Swift is in effect saying, “This is how rich people think and act. And these are the forms of twisted rationality they use to advance their cruel arguments to make them seem less self-serving.”
Or let’s take another, milder, satirical example, an excerpt from a recent article from the satirical online newspaper, The Onion:
SOUTH BEND, IN—Touting the benefits in tourism and business revenue that such a project had already brought to his hometown, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, IN mayor Pete Buttigieg announced Thursday a bold plan for a 2,500-mile intercontinental riverwalk. “At a time when Americans are more divided than ever, what this country needs is a riverwalk that will provide people from all strata of society with continuous strolling, dining, and festival opportunities,” said Buttigieg, gesturing to a watercolor architectural rendering of the Intercontinental Riverwalk that he described as his “core campaign plank,” which would revitalize the country’s heartlands by attracting sorely needed coffee shops, clothing boutiques, and artisanal cocktail bars in riverside locations stretching from coast to coast. […] At press time, the Indiana mayor went on to unveil diplomatic plans to broker a pact between Mexico, Canada, and the United States for a Transnational Farmer’s Market on Saturday afternoons.”
The Onion is not as sharp as it used to be, having to constantly churn out humor online, but this is a nice low-key satirical example. The subject of the satire is Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign bid. The form is the inbred local newspaper or Pennysaver giveaway press release article. The piece is not just making fun of smalltown papers and Buttigieg’s campaign. What it also does is show how Buttigieg’s campaign (the subject of the critique) deliberately uses the tropes of the SmallTown America® press (the form) as branding to push its candidate forward. In an actual Buttigieg press conference or debate, South Bend, Indiana becomes the center of the civilized world; all knowledge, wisdom, and experience flows from there. Plain old front-porch common sense in partnership with local business leaders will solve all the world’s problems. The Onion piece catches the flavor of the campaign perfectly—by utilizing the form that it does.
Analyzing the differences between parody and satire in this way is useful in that it also allows us to see what factors might make for a stronger piece in both categories. Because in parody the object of humor is the form itself, the best parody tends to exaggerate features of the form, like a caricaturist might do with a person’s features in a cartoon. But satire, on the other hand, works much better when the form is left alone; indeed when the form is a pitch-perfect imitation, but filled with the content of the subject of critique. That way, one can see how the subject uses the form to its own advantage.
So, while like Penn, I much admire the direct form of comedy as exemplified by George Carlin’s work, it’s important to understand that parody and satire allow for other kinds of humorous critique and observation to come into play. Parody and satire allow us not only to understand the subject of its critique, but also to understand the power that form, less visible and apparent, holds over us as well.
And here’s yet one more installment of the humorous news commentary that I wrote a few times a week in 2014/15 for a local radio personality. I don’t know that the references (or humor) hold up anymore, but I thought you might enjoy reading some of them, because remember:
Fame is fleeting, but Bad Jokes are on the Internet forever.
A U.S. federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked President Barack Obama’s plan to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Some 26 states, led by Texas, sued the administration to halt the programs, arguing that Obama’s orders violated constitutional limits on his powers.
Comment: Because the President only has the right to secretly bomb the crap out of foreigners, not to give them asylum.
Hoping to better understand the health effects of oil fracking, the state in 2013 ordered oil companies to test the chemical-laden waste water extracted from wells. Data culled from the first year of those tests found significant concentrations of the human carcinogen benzene, in some cases, levels of benzene thousands of times greater than state and federal agencies consider safe.
Comment: I’ll have my Vodka-benzene martini shaken, not stirred.
Among the items discovered by Neil Armstrong’s widow, Carol, while cleaning out their suburban Cincinnati home was a bag containing long-lost Apollo 11 artifacts. Neil never told anyone on earth about the items and no one knew about the existence of the items during the 45 years since he returned from the Moon.
Comment: Armstrong’s widow declared, “Hey, that’s what happened to all my Helen Reddy, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Peter Lemongello record LPs!”
Five’ll -Get-You-Ten Dept.:
The national debate over so-called ‘education reform’ has come into sharp relief in Philadelphia, where a pro-charter organization has offered the cash-strapped city school district up to $35 million to enroll an additional 15,000 students in new charter schools; but the Philadelphia School District says it would cost as much as $500 million to enroll the new students in new charter schools—about 20 times more than the amount offered by the non-profit.
Comment: It’s the new math: we give you a few dollars with one hand, then take your shirt and pants with the other.
Bacteria that haven’t evolved for more than 2 billion years have been discovered in the ocean floor sediments off Western Australia.
Comment: The bacteria were caught watching Milton Berle re-runs and explaining to their offspring that color TV has not yet been perfected.
The handlers of Pennsylvania’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, said the furry rodent has forecast six more weeks of winter.
A new survey in the U.S. has revealed that huge numbers of Americans reject the theory of evolution and don’t believe that human activity is in any way responsible for climate change.
Comment: They do believe, however, that the weather can be predicted by a groundhog.
Snowden files show that Canada’s electronic spy agency has been intercepting and analyzing data on up to 15 million file downloads daily as part of a global surveillance program.
Comment: In related news, thousands of Canadian intelligence agents reportedly quit, saying they couldn’t stand snooping on one more freakin’ phone conversation about hockey and Celine Dion.
Pope Francis will push for climate change policies, in a year when global warming is shaping up to be a central issue both for the Vatican and Washington. He’ll push United Nations leaders to write an international agreement to reduce emissions and help poorer countries adapt.
Comment: His Holiness will recommend green farming methods such as compost heaps and home-made fertilizers. However, he warned, Catholics may only use the fertilizers the three days a month when there is no danger of conception.
Jonathan Swift’s brilliant satirical proposal regarding the dual problems of poverty and famine still feels fresh and apropos. Here’s a version I performed and produced that was broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC.
Thanks to Mary Murphy for directing the piece.
Click on the grey triangle to listen.
Mr. Laurie’s splendid Dylan-like folk singer imitation in which he tells us “All We Gotta Do Is.” In such trying times as these, we can only be thankful for his clear vision.
Thanks to Youtuber thereallalablue
I don’t know if this makes any sense to anyone under 60, but I found this SCTV send-up of a small-town Lawrence Welk-type polka music television show hilariously true to form. John Candy and Eugene Levy lead the proceedings.
“There’s Rhythm in My Lederhosen.”
More at SCTV
The gang at SCTV present the world’s greatest mentalist: The Amazing Kretin. Any resemblance to any other world’s greatest mentalist is an amazing coincidence–“Is that not wild?!”
SCTV-er Dave Thomas is doing the excellent Kreskin imitation.
Thanks to YouTuber vagabond
And yet another installment of satirical commentary vignettes I had written for a local radio personality back in 2014-15. I’d set up the premise with a true news story from the day, and then add a comment punchline. Some of the jokes are dated, but some unfortunately still make too much sense.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has established a research and essay competition in honor of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz. Army General Martin E. Dempsey said the essay competition is a fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch.
Comment: It’s the shared values: torture, the death penalty, elites beyond the rule of law, and the worship of oil.
Days After Government Approved Free Speech Rally, France Arrests 54 People for Offensive Speech
Comment: In related news, scientists have defined a new unit of time called “the hypoc-ri-second”: it is the amount of time elapsed before government officials make complete hypocritical asses of themselves. Scientists say it is the smallest unit of time known to humankind.
At sundown Dec. 16 this year, Jews usher in the Festival of Lights.
Comment: Or as Jews call it, the holiday where you have to decide if eight days of small presents are as good as one day of big presents.
Dr. Margaret Chan criticized drugs companies for turning their backs on markets that cannot pay for super-expensive drugs. She said a vaccine to protect millions from the Ebola virus does not exist, only because the disease previously only affected poor African nations.
Comment: The drug companies responded that their previous actions had been misinterpreted, and that henceforth they looked forward to seeing many more epidemics in Africa.
According to Senator wannabee Scott Brown, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) has voted with Obama “over 100 percent of the time.”
Comment: We’ve checked the authenticity of this story and we are 500% sure it’s true
President Barack Obama met with over a dozen prominent columnists and magazine writers Wednesday afternoon before calling for an escalation of the war against ISIS that same night. The group included New York Times columnists David Brooks, Tom Friedman and Frank Bruni.
Comment: Never has such a powerhouse of idiots been seen in one room since the time Bill O’Reilly dined alone.
Smooth jazz star Kenny G just paid a surprise visit to support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
Comment: Hong Kong Communist Party officials deny it was part of a plot to clear the area of protestors.
Last week, I posted some current events gags I had written for a local radio personality back in 2014-15. I’d set up the premise with a true news story from the day, and then add a comment punchline. Here are a few more of those from that time:
You- Always-Hurt-the-One-You-Love Dept.
One hundred years ago this week, on Sept.1, 1914, the last Passenger pigeon died in a Cincinnati zoo, ending the reign of a species that numbered in the billions until American settlers wiped the birds out.
Comment: And to think we didn’t even need smallpox blankets to do it! Progress!
In what observers are calling a classic example of “bait and switch,” after months of promising to take executive action on immigration reform this summer, President Barack Obama is now further delaying legislation until after midterm elections.
Comment: In other news, Obama revealed that the five-bedroom Park Avenue luxury apartment for $700 a month he had offered was no longer available, but there was still room in a trailer under the wino bridge for rent.
General Mills Inc. has agreed to acquire Annie’s Inc., one of the largest producers of natural and organic branded food, in a deal worth $820 million.
Comment: And in related news, Annie’s Organic Green Kale Salad Dressing will be re-branded as Count Chocula’s Lucky Charm Bits Mayonnaise Syrup.
Ben Affleck is reportedly in negotiations to star in a new action thriller called The Accountant.
Comment: It’s Affleck’s first in a series of “ordinary people” thrillers including The Barista, The Gas Station Attendant, and The Guy Who Scrapes The Bubble Gum Off the Bottom of Third Graders’ School Desks.
Comedy in the Age of Terrorism Dept.
A comedy club in Barcelona has introduced a computer fitted to the back of each seat, which reads audience members’ facial expressions. It runs up a tab of smirks, chuckles and belly laughs. Each laugh is charged at €0.30 per laugh.
Comment: Does that mean you can watch Bill Maher for free?
DNA testing has raised questions about the nobility of some of the royal family. A spokesman said England’s current royal family should not be worried. “We are not in any way indicating that Her Majesty (Elizabeth II) shouldn’t be on the throne.”
Comment: Yes, because symbolic rule by one family over millions of people should never be challenged. Think of all the PBS television series that would have to be cancelled.
I had forgotten, but was recently reminded, that I had spent some of 2014 and 2015 writing little satirical one-liners a few times a week for a local radio personality. I would scan the day’s newspapers and websites in the morning, pick out the most absurd articles, and then affix a humorous comment for broadcast in the afternoon. It was a lot of fun to do. Four years later, I don’t know that the references (or humor) hold up anymore, but I thought you might enjoy reading some of them.
Yes, it’s almost like comedy!
“Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell indicated its continued desire to drill in the Arctic waters off the coast of Alaska by submitting new plans for exploratory operations to federal agencies. Despite previously failed attempts to perform such drilling the company appears committed to pushing forward.”
Comment: A spokesman for Royal Dutch Shell assured protestors that he promised to put it only part of the way in.
“A nightmarish cannabilistic cricket from Asia is apparently invading homes throughout the Eastern United States. The greenhouse camel cricket, which is known for its voracious — and sometimes cannibalistic — appetite, has been in the US for decades; however, the insect was believed to be quite rare outside of commercial greenhouses. Until now, that is.”
Comment: But the worst thing about it is the constant buzz of “Let your conscience be your guide.” (okay, obscure Jiminy Cricket reference, but I maintain there’s a joke in there somewhere, by God!)
“Researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, estimate that there are at least five huge garbage patches polluting the world’s oceans, some as big as the state of Texas.”
Comment: On closer inspection, scientists have concluded that one of the garbage patches actually is Texas.
“Biden vows retribution against ISIS: ‘We will follow them to the Gates of Hell!’ Staking out a hard line against the vicious jihadist group ISIS, Vice President Biden vowed Wednesday that the U.S. “will follow them to the Gates of Hell!” “
Comment: A Biden spokesman clarified that in the event of a busy schedule, the Vice President would at least follow ISIS to that lousy Middle Eastern restaurant on Route 95.
The Museum of Lame Excuses Dept.
“The city has dispensed a sweet settlement to three Brooklyn men who sued the NYPD after cops bizarrely mistook Jolly Rancher candies for crystal meth, the Daily News has learned. Despite the $33,000 settlement, the city admitted no wrongdoing on the part of the cops, arguing they couldn’t be sure whether the red and blue rocks were illicit drugs or candy.”
Comment: And in other news, the NYPD is still determining whether a confiscated jump rope is really a 13-foot man-eating Zorch Snake from the Planet Aroos.
“The police department for San Diego’s public schools recently revealed that they have acquired a large armored combat vehicle from the U.S. military which is designed to withstand blasts from improvised explosive devices and mines.”
Comment: Unnamed sources say a record amount of homework was turned in the next day.
Bob and Ray were generally gentle in their humorous swipes at American culture and media, but probably never was their satire more cutting and Swiftian than in this routine, The Great Lakes Paperclip Company.
Thanks to YouTuber A Blast from the Past, and thanks to Marilyn Vogt-Downey for the suggestion.
The satirical online and print periodical The Onion has been at it for over two decades now, and sometimes I take it for granted. But over those years, it has given me plenty of laughs with its pitch perfect satire that never breaks character. My wife recently emailed me a link to an Onion article that made me literally laugh out loud so many times during reading the piece, that I had to share it.
Here it is. If you’re a man and it doesn’t crack you up, you’re a better man than I am: