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What the . . . Oh, it's satire?

The Green Dragon

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Mar 27, 2012, 12:13pm Top

Hi folks.

I'm wondering if anybody else has problems with satire? I very often don't get it. I am thought to have a good sense of humor, and don't generally have to have things explained to me, but I seem to be missing the "satire" gene.

I took a class in college called "Satiric Fiction" (passed it with a B), but was bewildered by the stuff we read. I got the story lines, and I kept up with them, but I could never figure out what was supposedly making them "funny."

I think maybe I take those sorts of things too literally.

Anybody else missing the "satire" gene?

Mar 27, 2012, 12:19pm Top

Sometimes I "get it" and sometimes I don't.

I recall watching a movie called "The Missionary" with Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. In one scene, they are out in the countryside, and in the distance beyond a small lake, you can see some men dressed in white running while the theme from "Chariots of Fire" plays in the background.

I've never seen that movie, but I'm familiar with it, and I chuckled. My sister-in-law said "I don't get it!".

Maybe understanding satire depends upon your experience and whether or not the topic being satirized is familiar to you.

Does that make sense?

Mar 27, 2012, 1:01pm Top

fuzzi, that sounds exactly right. I think I'm very good at recognizing satire. I also enjoy it. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is very literal-minded, and often misses jokes.

Mar 27, 2012, 1:01pm Top

I often don't get it either, but then satire is like other forms of humor, everyone has a different sense of what is funny.

And then there is the quality of the overall quality of the satire, if it's poorly written it can be harder to get.

I would be interested in knowing what books they had you look at in this class.

Edited: Mar 27, 2012, 1:23pm Top

One of my favorite websites is The Onion (CAUTION: contains lots of political humor and profanity) and I can't remember how many times I've sent out links in emails or posted them on FaceBook and had people think the items were serious. So, recognizing the issue/situation being mocked is a huge contributing factor. (As is the realization that such websites exist!) But if you're reading a passage or watching a movie that you are told ahead of time is satire and you still aren't getting it, well then there is also the possibility it is just poorly done.

Mar 27, 2012, 1:31pm Top

I love The Onion.

Mar 27, 2012, 1:38pm Top

>5 clamairy:

LiterallyUnbelievable has some great comments from people taking The Onion seriously.

Edited: Mar 27, 2012, 2:09pm Top

I actually dislike The Onion and other such sites. The reason is I don't believe mockery to be an effective form of argumentation - it might be funny to those who agree with you but to everyone else it's an insult and as a consequence builds prejudice and a culture where sane discourse is discouraged as a method.

That said it IS an old tactic. By now many of the early medieval texts we thought of as factual sources has been identified as smear texts. I don't have to like the method, though, just because it seems to be deeply rooted in human behaviour.

Not to say that I won't laugh at satire. I do. But to me the main appeal of a show like ST TNG was it's reliance on diplomacy and respect for the other as a way to solve disagreements - it envisioned an age of reason, which I much prefer over hate campaigns and fear-mongering and populist scare tactics.

But that's just me.

(Edited for grammar, lol)

Mar 27, 2012, 2:28pm Top

But sometimes some forms of satire are the only possible outlet for criticism. Star Trek's one thing, totalitarian regimes (for instance) another.

And sometimes some "real life" stuff is too unreal for anything but mockery--I think that's where projects like Onion come in. And Onion's rather on the gentle, fun-poking end of it too.

Mar 27, 2012, 2:59pm Top

#8: It's older even than that - satire as a literary genre was invented by Lucilius, waaaay back in ancient Rome...

Mar 27, 2012, 3:05pm Top

so what's the difference between satire and parody?

Mar 27, 2012, 3:41pm Top

And is there a difference between satire, parodies and lampoons?

Mar 27, 2012, 4:01pm Top

A parody (play /ˈpærədi/; also called pastiche, spoof, send-up or lampoon), in current use, is an imitative work created to mock, comment on, or trivialise an original work, its subject, author, style, or some other target, by means of humorous, satiric or ironic imitation. As the literary theorist Linda Hutcheon puts it, "parody … is imitation, not always at the expense of the parodied text." Another critic, Simon Dentith, defines parody as "any cultural practice which provides a relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural production or practice."1 Parody may be found in art or culture, including literature, music (although "parody" in music has an earlier, somewhat different meaning than for other art forms), animation, gaming and film.

Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement.1 Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon.

In other words, the point of parody is to be funny, the point of satire is to be biting.

Edited: Mar 27, 2012, 4:43pm Top

#4 Kellswitch ~~ I don't remember all of the titles, but 3 of them were Gulliver's Travels, Gargantua and Pantagruel, (did I spell that sucker right?), and Don Quixote.

Edited to get all the darned spelling right!

Mar 27, 2012, 4:32pm Top

I think perhaps having a slant toward a cynical attitude in approach to a topic helps, when it comes to satire.

Not being a huge cynic, I often 'miss' when it comes to satires. And I think#2, fuzzi is right - it also helps if you know the subject matter, then the humorous subtext will be more recognizable.

Personally, I've read some books I just hated, then somebody else said, 'oh, didn't you SEE the satire, it was so funny' and - well, honestly, I love to laugh, but the 'humor' in those particular cases just whizzed straight over my head.

To me, it looked just like a bunch of characters being nasty to one another for very small minded or petty reasons - what was funny?


Mar 28, 2012, 2:38am Top

#9 - Of course context matters. But are we to accept the lowest level as our baseline, or ought we to strive for something slightly out of reach?

I don't look down on satire as such, in some places it might be one of the few ways to express your thoughts. In north-western Europe, though, it is another matter. And that is MY context.

One of the hardest things there is is the knife's edge we walk when discussing and accepting ways of doing things other than our own. I think many agree that female circumcision is not acceptable, whatever the cultural precedent. Whether head-scarves on women is acceptable or not is a more hot topic, nowadays.
Satire often walks that same line and in a culture were talk is championed over violence and were freedom of speech and though is a constitutional right I think it should be used with care.

But I think this is starting to cross the line into what some might think political, so I'll step down from my soap box...

#10 - I would be amazed if it's as young as that - I would guess it's as old as humankind, in a way, and the only reason we can't attribute it to some earlier source is we don't have those sources.
(Also, attributing the invention of literary styles to the Greeks or the Romans affords them way to much importance - like us they stood on the shoulders of those who came before. Not to mention the Asian civilizations, often neglected in histories edited by the western mind).

Mar 28, 2012, 7:14am Top

Ha! The Romans would be much offended at that, Busifer! They laid a strong claim on being the inventors of this specific genre. ;)

Mar 28, 2012, 8:04am Top

When I was much younger I used sarcasm as a way to communicate my disdain and judgmental attitudes and often I was very funny. Then, I learned how very hurtful sarcasm can be, and I learned to curb it, somewhat. But it was a communication style I learned in my family and I still use it occasionally.

Why? Because it is easier to not directly communicate unpleasant judgments. You can always say to the insulted party: oh, I was just being funny.

I think that little story illustrates why satire, parody, and lampoons might have been invented. That said, I think they continue as genre because they offer a huge multitude of opportunities to be creative!

I agree with Busifer the use of these genre make constructive civic discourse a good deal more difficult, especially if the communications are between parties of differing cultures, or languages.

Mar 28, 2012, 9:03am Top


I don't understand why you see satire as "the lowest level" (of humour, I suppose). As scaifea notes, it's a very old literary form, and we have tons of classics in the genre which are literary peaks (and tons more with satirical elements). And as it happens, most are "Western European", at least in European canons. Rabelais, Erasmus, Swift, Voltaire, Pope and so on--all wrote masterpieces of satire.

#11, 12

Satire always has a strong element of social criticism. It attacks some broad feature of society--social mores, social classes, politics, mentality, culture. Parody and lampoon are tools of satire, the way I see it, more tightly bound to some specific motif or story. So Gulliver's travels is satire, Bored of the rings parody, what the Onion does, imo, is lampooning, because there is no discernible "unified" critique of society, some defined platform--they'll make fun of whatever strikes them as ridiculous.

Mar 28, 2012, 10:19am Top

On a slightly different tack here (sailing terminology, I think?), there are certain forms of comedy that I just do not like.

I don't like rude and personal attacks on individuals, I don't find them funny.

I never liked "Married with Children" or "Seinfeld" because the people were so rude and nasty, with no redeeming characteristics that I could discern. Others, including my family, think those shows are hysterically funny.

I prefer my humor to be a little more 'nice'.

Mar 28, 2012, 10:53am Top

#13, 19 - Thanks, Arctic and Lola.

Arctic - In your definition, a pastiche is another word for parody. But I always thought a pastiche was any time an author's work was copied, not just for satire, and could be a compliment. Like Laurie King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes stories, and many books using characters created by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

I'm also one that often has a hard time 'getting' the humour in satire and parodies. And I can't stand shows where the people are constantly sniping at each other or putting each other down, like those Fuzzi mentions.

Mar 28, 2012, 11:47am Top

I tend to love a good satire, but this is one medium where it is hard to pick an older work and truly appreciate it, unless you are very familiar with the context. Even then, satire just has a sharper bite when it is contemporary. I can enjoy Swift's A Modest Proposal, but I am sure that his contemporary readers enjoyed more than I ever could.

I think the sort of humor in Married with Children is neither satire nor parody. And like fuzzi, I did not find it very funny. I felt the same about the Simpsons for a while, and did not watch it, but was proven very wrong. (Although I do not think the Simpsons is either satire or parody either.)

I love political satire, the sharper the better.

And for the record, the only religious satire ever worth reading was The Wittenberg Door, (the misspelling is deliberate on my part, maybe on theirs). It was an evangelical rag, and was the funniest thing to ever come in the field. Like when they named Tammy Fay Bakker theologian of the year, or did a "evangelical swimsuit" issue, based on SI's annual swimsuit issue.

Like the Lampoon they got in trouble a lot, especially when they did a faux AmEx ad, featuring the Pope in his pontiff hat, with the body and clothes of Floyd R Turbo (American) standing in front of a McDonalds. "Do you know me?" and American Express--Don't leave Rome without it.

Mar 28, 2012, 11:56am Top

#19 - A thing having a long history doesn't make it the more honourable ;-)
Genocide too has cultural precedent, has it not?

But of course I do agree with you about its historical importance. The society of Rabelais or Voltaire, not to mention Erasmus, is not the society in which we live, though.

Note though that I have no problems with allegory. Much of SF works as allegory and as a way to ask question which if asked against a contemporary context might not get discussed in an unprejudiced way.

So perhaps it's me who is prejudiced. Who knows? ;-)

#20 - I feel much the same. Schadenfreude and disability humour isn't becoming. I can't even watch The Office, I think it cultivates offensive attitudes/prejudice.
My husband think I'm insane in this, though, and so do much of the rest of humanity.
Everybody seems to need someone other to feel superior to :(

Mar 28, 2012, 12:01pm Top


You're right about pastiche, it's not necessarily (or even usually) comic.

I'm not sure satire (in general) is meant to be ha-ha funny, although it often may be, at least in parts. So the measure of success isn't really how many laughs per minute there are, but how deep and true it is in its criticism, how right it hits.

I can't think of any satire that had me rolling on the floor... consider Swift's A modest proposal, about eating surplus children as a way out of famine. It's meant to punch one in the belly, not get a big sincere laugh.


I can't even watch The Office, I think it cultivates offensive attitudes/prejudice.

Oooh, you are tough audience! :) I only saw the British Office, thought it was great, but also painful, but great. It's not "slice of life" realism, but it felt so true.

Mar 28, 2012, 1:29pm Top

A very common - and important - theme in much of ancient Roman satire is that of free speech: one can only truly write satire in a political and social environment that fosters the rights of those kinds of personal freedoms. So, in that way, I think the existence of satire is important, and whether I like it or not (and note that I haven't said whether I do or don't) I love that it continues to exist and thrive. It's existence means that there are still at least some rights and freedoms around.

Mar 28, 2012, 5:16pm Top

What a great thread! I enjoy reading satire. The knife-twist of reality is always illuminating to me, not that I always agree with the author's interpretation of reality, but I like to know what they are thinking.

In a show like Seinfeld or The Office, I view those as a magnifying glass on society. Enlarging the faults so to speak so we can see them for what they are. They are not meant to reflect reality, they are meant to explode it and show some of the ridiculous stuff so we can change.

I like to laugh at myself, and I do that through the lampoons and silliness of some of these shows.

Mar 28, 2012, 7:54pm Top

I am way, way too much of a literalist. I do not like any of the TV on air these days. I watch the news (addict !) and Sunday Morning. I look forward to watching season 2 of the George R.R. Martin books.

I try to tell the bald faced truth whenever I can, and it does not make me very popular. Sarcasm, snide comments, and the like are much more popular in bars and at house parties, I think.

When it comes to politics.... well, it does seem liike speaking of politics in a civil manner, with respect for each others point of view, is nearly a dead skill and so we are left, I guess, with political humor. Sometimes it works for me.

Mar 28, 2012, 9:02pm Top

My feeling about satire is something like this:

Satire can be a very useful way of pointing out a glaring flaw in a big issue, especially one that no one seems to consciously notice (I'm thinking along the lines of A Modest Proposal, here). It's a similar role to The King's Fool, who was, in theory able to bypass etiquette and good taste in order to point out the things no one is talking about because of etiquette and good taste (among other, less desirable roles).

That said, when people say that satire is the lowest form of comedy, it can also be true. It's just so easy to imitate someone as a caricature, emphasising a particular point for comedic effect. Unlike caricature and parody, satire usually targets a specific feature.

It's very good for drawing attention to hypocrisy, misplaced loyalty and similar misconceptions. Done well, it is either so scandalous and shocking that it's not believable (by most people, at least), or so subtle that you have to think about it for a moment before you notice that it's satire.

Subtle satire does run the risk of being taken seriously (like people who took A Modest Proposal as a potential solution to "the Irish Problem", or people who thought that Harry Potter was an openly Satanist text). Online, this can be harder to detect. The Onion usually does a good job of flagging its satire by being so outrageous that you can't think it serious, but they do make it too subtle on occasion, so that if you copy and paste it without flagging it as The Onion, people might just take it seriously. It doesn't help that there are people out there who are so outrageous that their serious articles are mistaken for satire.

Misinterpretation of satire is certainly one reason that I am in favour of a component of a child's education (both at home and in formal education) that involves simple analysis of news, marketing and satire, drawing attention to how they work.

Mar 29, 2012, 5:49am Top

This is a really interesting thread and I've enjoed the views on this. Personally speaking I'm a big fan of satire, but partly I think it's an ingrained part of the British psyche - how well it translates elsewhere is another matter. Cultural differnces can not only mean the point is lost, but also that great offense is given.

Good satire should be used to make a serious point about serious issues. That means being equally balanced politically and socially. With satire I think everything is, or should be, fair game, but that is often one of the reasons it's disliked - it is not so easy to laugh at the issues you hold dear. That said, as a vegetarian, eco, leftie-liberal I'm well aware that there's a lot to target in my attitudes and lifestyle - I simply see it as an opportunity to think about how I counter my critics.

I see sarcasm as a completly different thing (although I know I'm prone to it for comic effect - but I try to save it these days for those who I know appreciate the banter rather than as a tool to prove my 'superiority' over someone else). Sarcasm is more often used as a weapon to hurt others and to 'point-score', I don't think that it is generally used to make a serious point.

Just some morning musings!

Mar 29, 2012, 10:05am Top


I think you're right about cultural differences--I'm reminded there was a debate on LT whether tags "humor" and "humour" ought to be combined (didn't really follow, don't know the outcome).

Maybe someone who has seen both the British and American of The Office (for instance)--and likes them both, perhaps--could chime in.

This is merely a rough and by no means absolute personal impression, but I'd say there's more emphasis in the US on "niceness", and in Europe on "sincerity". US friends will complain about rude service in Europe; Europeans about how "fake" Americans are.

Mar 29, 2012, 11:27am Top

How about some favourite satires? Please tell us ones you've enjoyed.

The only one I can think of at the moment is the movie 'Burn After Reading'. I can't say I loved it, but I did find myself laughing at parts, groaning at others.

Mar 29, 2012, 11:44am Top

Life of Brian

Mar 29, 2012, 12:27pm Top

Every year the legislative aides perform skits that parody, lampoon and viciously spear the legislators. The rules are that there is to be no retaliation for anything that is on stage. Some of it is really funny, and some of it borders on cruel. Like when two legislators were found having sex in a bathroom (male and female) and they bathroom was named after them. One legislator said publicly that the skits were mean-spirited, and the next year they had the Lesil McGuire Offense-O-Meter.

We are not allowed to poke fun at their families, their sexuality or orientation, or any physical disabilities they might have.

I have heard that many business do this, where the junior executives make fun of the senior executives. One film example of this, although it goes way over the top, is in the movie Liar Liar.

Legislative skits is a public offering, and always sells out the day tickets go on sale. Most legislators attend, and from all accounts have a grand time.

The only thing worse than showing up in Skits is not being mentioned in Skits.

Mar 29, 2012, 12:34pm Top

I think Americans and and Brits draw the lines very differently when it comes to humour and insult. Brits must by law have a sense of humour and so when faced with an attack cloaked in humour. Will never overtly take offense. They cannot admit that they do not think it funny. For the same reason non humourous insults are a lot rarer. Satire, irony and even the crudest forms of sarcasm, are more effective and less risky.

Mar 29, 2012, 5:08pm Top

Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister are two of the best satires, IMO.

Mar 30, 2012, 1:54am Top

I'll second Life of Brian. Probably my favorite of the Python movies.

I love both the British and American versions of The Office. Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell are both brilliant. The American version took off when it stopped trying to duplicate the British version and found it's own voice.

I don't agree with Al Franken's politics, but his book, Why Not Me is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

Gary Larson's Farside cartoons are some of the best stuff I've ever read too.

I love satire. I agree that the further away it gets in time from its source, the more difficult it may be to appreciate. But when done well, it's wonderful.

Mar 30, 2012, 5:26am Top

The Forbidden Broadway revue is parody/satire, and often very clever as well as funny. It's a cabaret show that spoofs show tunes, characters and plots from the hottest (or not) Broadway shows.

In the London Times every Friday, there is a column that parodies the celebrity gossip rags that are so common here. It's called Celebrity Watch and is usually very effective at pointing out the absurdities and trivialities both of the personalities featured and the obsession with the lives of the famous. It does require some familiarity with those being satirised, and is probably more suited to the UK style of humour. It's based on real stories from the preceding week.

Mar 30, 2012, 12:54pm Top

#35 Choreocrat ~~

I always loved those two shows, and still watch them in reruns any time they are on PBS. I used to laugh my butt off--and that's a LOT of laughing--so maybe it isn't that I don't get all satire: maybe it really is the context/life experience/familiarity with subject matter.

Mar 30, 2012, 12:58pm Top


Ooh, reminds me of House of Cards, too! Best political satire I've seen.

Mar 30, 2012, 4:16pm Top

Terry Pratchett. Not always immedately obvious (or maybe not always present) , but when you see it, becomes extremely clever.

Edited: Mar 30, 2012, 6:00pm Top

I am not sure I would call House of Cards satire. I am not sure what I would call it, but not satire.

Apr 3, 2012, 4:48pm Top

Steven Colbert, IMHO, is the king of satire. He manages to create a persona that is just the type of person he satires. It must be so hard to appear as a guest on his show and remember that he is a comedian. The ones who get it laugh along with the audience and the ones who don't get huffy and offended.

Apr 3, 2012, 5:51pm Top

He did a two-part interview with Maurice Sendak that was brilliantly funny, poking fun at celebrity-written children's books--Sendak totally got it, and gave as good as he got (and nearly cracked Colbert up once or twice). A fine example of satire being funny.

part one: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406796/january-24-2012/gr...

part two: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406902/january-25-2012/gr...

Edited: Apr 8, 2012, 12:50am Top

I can barely stand to watch the "real" news, but I can watch Colbert and the Daily Show because they are poking fun at all the serious issues, the the stupid ways they are sometimes dealt with. The humor makes it palatable to me. But to each hir own.

Apr 16, 2012, 5:52pm Top

I'm with you L.G.!

Apr 16, 2012, 6:06pm Top

I've been reading lots of Pearls Before Swine collections. When you read the letters to the editors about this comic strip it is very clear that many do not get/like satire. :) I love that strip, but my mom doesn't understand what is funny about it at all.

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