The Power Of Satire

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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:

2020 Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg Announces Bold Plan For 2,500-Mile Intercontinental Riverwalk

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.




Monday morning, Tom Lehrer gets down to basics. Just in case you’ve forgotten a few of them while singing along, here they are:

There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium, And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium, And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium, Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium, And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium, And gold, protactinium and indium and gallium, And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium. There’s yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium, And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium, There’s strontium and silicon and silver and samarium, And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium, and barium. There’s holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium, And phosphorus and francium and fluorine and terbium, And manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium, Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and cesium. And lead, praseodymium and platinum, plutonium, Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium, And tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium, And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium. There’s sulfur, californium and fermium, berkelium, And also mendelevium, einsteinium, nobelium, And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc and rhodium, And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin and sodium. These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, And there may be many others but they haven’t been discovered.

Thanks to YouTuber The Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel