Comedy Genre: Satire

Posted on 11 February 2013

What is satire

Satire is mockery for a purpose. People, politics, and social mores through literature, art (esp. cartoons), and performance come under the satirist’s microscope in order to examine foolish behaviour. Through such comic tools as exaggeration, distortion, absurdity, and irony this foolishness is made clear in order to potentially correct it. Satire intends to make people averse to certain behaviours by making them the butt of jokes.

Satire comes in many forms including parody, topical humour, comedy of manners, mockumentaries, and the like. I would argue that some of these are not always satirical. For instance Weird Al Yankovic’s polka medleys are undoubtedly parodic. The songs he is parodying are in no way being criticised. So this is not satire, rather this is a form of play.

Works that are satiric include Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (parody), The Colbert Report (parody & topical humour), Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (comedy of manners), This is Spinal Tap (mockumentary).

Satire in performance

In stand-up we most frequently see satire through character comedy such as Barry Humphries performing Dame Edna Everage or Sir Les Patterson. Other comedians employ irony and sarcasm when relating anecdotes and thereby satirise modern circumstances such as unrealistic expectations in dating or parenting.

Sketch comedy also uses caricaturisation to make its points. Frequently, ironic situations are also set up. The Chaser’s War on Everything did a sketch where one of their members dressed up as Osama bin Laden and attempted to attend the APEC Leaders Summit in 2007. The intended irony was “Osama” expecting to attend an international meeting of world leaders talking about terrorism. The bigger irony at the time was that the comedians were able to make it past two police security checkpoints before they were stopped.

Satire in storytelling often bears some resemblance to distopian fiction. Distopian fiction posits if things continue as they are, what the logical and extreme result will be in the future. Satire does not necessarily look into the future, but uses comic hyperbole in a similar fashion.

A good example of distopian satire would be Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. The story is set in an Orwellian future. The lead character Sam Lowry notices a bureaucratic error that causes an innocent man to be arrested while a terrorist is left free. In trying to fix that error he is seen as an enemy of the state. This could be the plot of a high-tech action suspense film. However, the terrorist is a renegade air conditioning specialist who didn’t want to wade through bureaucratic paperwork to do his job any more. The irony of this comic story is that it may be more oddly truthful than dramatic distopian stories such as The Terminator.

Satiric Pitfalls

Satire does have its pitfalls. At what point does satire cross the line from intending to be curative to being pure ridicule? At what point is a work entirely cynical, offering no effort or hope for change? Shock jocks often serve up this sort of humour.

Longer satirical works have the problem of losing their satiric edge. The Simpsons began life as a short segment during the Tracey Ullman Show. The characters were grotesque exaggerations of members in a dysfunctional family. Audiences were meant to reject what the characters of The Simpsons stood for.

However, the instant you need to repeatedly use characters in a series of stories, you have to give them dimension. With more dimension where we learn of their fears, passions, and needs, they become sympathetic—at least to some of your audience. A certain amount of the satire goes away. I know kids who imitate Bart, rather than viewing him with distaste.

Satire is an important form of comedy. It provides an effective means by which we can all reflect upon issues within our society. Writing a political tract tends to have nowhere near the impact on the public as the comic illustration of a problem. Satirical cartoons have brought down powerful governments. Think about this and go forth and create cutting-edge humour.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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