Once upon a time, satire was a well-known genre. Over time, however, many confused it with plain sarcasm, and the art of writing satire well fizzled out.
My first exposure to brilliant satire was Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. He’s the Gulliver’s Travels guy. This “essay” purports to be a completely logical and thoughtfully considered solution to the overpopulation problem then existing in Ireland. In it, Swift uses eloquent rhetoric to lay out a plan to help the poor, boost the economy, and deal with the high birthrate: fine restaurants would buy the babies of the most impoverished citizens and serve them as gourmet cuisine.
I know! How horrible!
But it takes the reader a few paragraphs to realize that he’s kidding because he’s so convincing. I used to share it with my English classes. I could always tell when they got the to first mention of cannibalism because they erupted with gagging noises. A few minutes later, they were laughing.
That’s the beauty of satire. It takes itself seriously enough that you can’t tell it’s not serious until the laughter comes out as much from relief as from appreciation for the absurdity of it all.
I recently come across a modern piece of satire that I really enjoyed. Alien Invasion of the Zombie Apocalypse by Ford Forkum. The title alone should let you know he’s going after the morbid and sensational stars of pop culture. He even fits in some vampires. The beauty of his piece is that all of the characters take themselves and their situation very seriously. They seem blissfully unaware of their ludicrous circumstances, and see only their individual trials. Only the readers are in on the joke as Forkum slips in details here and there that poke fun of the stereotypes for these genres. It’s the best zombie (or vampire) book I’ll ever read because, quite frankly, after this, I’ll never be able to take the “serious” ones seriously.
What’s the difference between satire and sarcasm?
Sarcasm is merely stating the opposite of what is meant as if it were true in an effort to show how undesirable that truth would be.
- I love it when my daughter spreads toothpaste all over the floor.
- Homer Simpson is my parenting role model.
- Standing in line at the DMV is my favorite pastime.
- I wish I could pay more taxes.
It’s really just the snarky subcategory of irony.
On the other side of this spectrum is the funny subcategory, parody. It takes a well-known something and tweaks it in an obvious fashion in order to (1) openly ridicule the original, or (2) openly ridicule something else using the parody as the vehicle. Saturday Night Live does that all the time with political characters.
Satire is somewhere in the middle of sarcasm and parody. It’s funny, but with a bite.
A decent example of popular satire is The Colbert Report, wherein Stephen Colbert presents himself as an extremely conservative political commentator and newscaster. He does this to make such principles seem completely laughable, thereby advancing more liberal agendas by default. If it were the most pure satire, he would lose the mocking edge to his performance, but the writing itself is excellent satire (whether or not you agree with the politics involved).
For satire to work its best magic, the performer or writer must “go all the way” and commit to the role. There can be nothing that says overtly, “I’m totally making fun of this.” Satire must give the impression that it believes it’s right and rational. The more it can do so, the richer the satire.
Ford Forkum got it right. It’s a short story. I totally recommend you go read it. (I’m not being sarcastic.)