Satire is used in many works of literature to show foolishness or vice in humans, organizations, or even governments - it uses sarcasm, ridicule, or irony. For example, satire is often used to achieve political or social change, or to prevent it.
Satire can be part of a given work, or it can be the purpose of an entire text.
Many Faces of Satire
Satire is a broad genre, incorporating a number of different approaches. It is sometimes serious, acting as a protest or to expose, or it can be comical when used to poke fun at something or someone. Some satire is explicitly political, while other examples of satire in literature, film, TV and online take on a wider variety of topics.
While a satirist may direct their work at one individual, a whole country or the world as a whole, political satire is some of the most common and the most significant. Examples of political satire include:
- Political cartoons, ranging from the 19th century work of Thomas Nast and Punch to modern work in The New Yorker and XKCD, use humor to attack a range of political and social issues.
- Joseph Heller ruthlessly satirized the failures of the mid-20th century American military and political establishment, most famously in his novel Catch-22.
- Stand-up comedians, from Will Rogers in the 1930s and Lenny Bruce in the ‘60s to John Mulaney and Hasan Minhaj today, all took - or take - on the political situations of their respective eras, addressing serious concerns with sometimes ruthless humor.
- Modern political commentators such as Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah skewer the events of the daily news on their late night talk shows. Colbert’s The Colbert Report in particular, on which he portrayed a hilarious parody of a conservative news pundit, is a masterclass in satire.
Satire in Literature
Satire has been a part of literature since literature has existed. The oldest texts available to modern readers, all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh from around 2100 BC, contain satirical passages. Other examples include:
- Aristophanes and Plautus satirized ancient Greek culture and Roman politics in their plays, and Catullus mixed vicious satire with his love poetry.
- Shakespeare’s comedies satirized the politics and philosophy of his day, up to and including the royalty that patronized his work. Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for example, satirizes both the Puritan ethos that was growing in Shakespeare’s London, and the class of upwardly mobile patronage-seekers of which Shakespeare himself was a member.
- Jonathan Swift wrote searing satire of 17th century Europe in Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal.
- Mark Twain used first his own perspective in Life on the MIssissippi, then the innocent points of view of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to cast a satirical eye on the expanding, vibrant, deeply hypocritical America of the 19th century.
- The novels of Charles Dickens are frequently “serious satire,” simultaneously funny and genuinely meant to attack the institutions of Victorian Britain.
- Many of the novels of Chuck Palahniuk, such as Choke and Fight Club, are vicious satires on modern middle-class life.
- Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett used the tropes of science fiction and fantasy respectively to satirize modern life in all its aspects.
Satire in Film and TV
Film and television both abound with expert satire. Comedy of all kinds has always been popular with movie and TV audiences, and satire in particular can feel all the more real and immediate when viewed on screen.
- Classic films like Dr. Strangelove and modern works like Birdman and Get Out all address contemporary issues - nuclear war in the 1950s and celebrity culture and racism in the 2010s - with a darkly satirical view.
- Consistent with its title, Charlie Brooker’s television series Black Mirror is a dark take on satire, turning satirical narratives about the modern dependence on technology into stories of sci-fi dystopia and outright horror.
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is primarily political satire, but Oliver’s dry wit incorporates the absurdities of big business and pop culture as well.
- South Park is scorched-earth satire, its construction paper cartoon children making savage fun of just about every imaginable topic.
The Internet loves satire. In fact, the Internet loves satire so much it ruthlessly satirizes itself. Some of the most important works of modern satire appear online.
- The emergent “creepypasta” genre of horror often draws on pop culture and the unique qualities of the digital medium to achieve an effect both satirical and frightening, as in “Suicidemouse” and “BEN Drowned.”
- The YouTube series Epic Rap Battles of History satirizes both its historical subjects and the failures of history education, showing the simplistic, often biased narratives of social studies to be little more than C-list diss tracks.
- Twitter accounts like @dasharez0ne and @dril satirize online culture itself, turning the tics and oddities of digital discourse into wicked punchlines.
The Eternal Joke
Satire isn’t just as old as literature, it’s as old as communication itself. To quote the novelist Michael Honig, “Our earliest ancestors did it, prancing around a campfire lampooning some pompous hunter who decided he’d show everyone he could kill a mastodon by himself and succeeded so well that it fell on top of him.” For as long as humans have been speaking, we’ve been satirizing what we have to say.
For more of the finest satire ever created, see our pages on Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken and Oscar Wilde. Interested in making some satire yourself? Learn about the tools of the medium in our articles on irony, parody and sarcasm.