America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Satire (and Related Terms) Defined
This article is an attempt to clarify "satire" and related words. It is understood that didactic attempts like these are themselves vulnerable to satirical skewering, but there are times when the desire to clarify surges more powerfully than the desire to attack human foibles.
A satire is a literary piece or other work that holds up the follies of man to ridicule, often with the professed motivation to improve the world thereby. Because s/he attacks follies, the satirist usually betrays a superior attitude towards his or her subject, usually a moral or intellectual superiority (or both). Satire uses many different techniques to achieve its purposes, including ridicule, irony, as well as parody, burlesque and travesty.
Satire has generally taken one of the two forms of comic satire or tragic satire (these definitions come from John Dryden).
Comic satire is usually written from an urbane perspective, whereby folly is seen everywhere, but the authorís attitude is one of laughter. Indeed, from this perspective, the writing of satire portrays itself as the sane response to a world gone astray.
In tragic satire, the authorís perspective is one of moral rectitude, and s/he is horrified by the failings of fellow humans. Tragic satire often aims to improve the contemporary situation, but still may employ humor in the process.
Here at The Satirist, our spirit is more one of comic satire, that the horror of the world should be combated with sharp understanding and with laughter. At times our effects may peer over the edge of the abyss into tragic satire, but always with black comedy nearby. We laugh so we donít cry. Our main target is pretentiousness. We are skeptical, and so feel compelled to serve the world by deflating the irresponsible utterances of othersóthose who are blindly confident that their outlook is inherently correct and commonsensical.
The word satire is often used loosely now to describe humorous attacks of any kind. Although there is considerable overlap between these related literary modes, it is helpful to keep in mind some related terms:
Irony is the use of words to mean something other than or even opposite of what is usually meant by those words. Irony usually conveys a gap: between what is and what is meant, between what is and what ought to be, or, in dramatic irony, between what the audience knows about the play and what the characters know.
In a parody, the author uses a style similar to an existing work in order to ridicule it. The best parodists betray their own intimate knowledge of their subjects, and the purpose is almost always for comic effect, and so lacks the moral component often found in satire.
A burlesque is a comic imitation that relies on an extravagant incongruity between a subject and its treatment. A burlesque tends to rely more on exaggeration, while a parody is often more effective by following the style of the ridiculed work as closely as possible.
Suppose you wanted to make fun of the pomposity or hype about the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, often touted as the "Wedding of the Century", in a skit, such as those performed on shows like Saturday Night Live:
An ironic strategy might focus on their vows, especially their vows of fidelity. The actor playing Charles might utter the fidelity vow in a tone which shows he doesn't at all mean it. And because the audience knows of his later infidelity, and Diana at this time does not, this would putting dramatic irony to use as well.
A parodist would study the style and mannerisms of the principals of the wedding, the decor, and would try to follow these conventions as closely as possible. The humor would spring from the shock of our recognition of these conventions, and our delight over the parodist's shrewd recognition of the style and manner of the event.
It might be difficult to burlesque something as grand as the wedding of the century. How does one exaggerate what is already so overblown? One could exaggerate the length of Diana's dress's train, making it several city block longs (this would be difficult to stage except within a movie), or otherwise exaggerate the pageantry of the wedding. Burlesque is probably a technique more suited to targets of a smaller scale.
Something as grand as the wedding of the century is perhaps better approached through travesty. The wedding could be trivialized by being rendered as a crude sock-puppet show. The trick of travesty here is that some semblance of verisimilitude to the actual event must be established, else the travesty looks simply juvenile. So for the sock-puppet wedding to work, you might employ actors who uttered their wedding vows with all due seriousness, or even use the audio footage from the wedding itself, played along to the crude sock-puppets' wedding.
The satirist might employ any or all of these techniques (though burlesque and travesty mixed together could either by sloppy or wildly funny), but would probably have some lesson or social goal as well. Perhaps s/he would like to see the abolition of the royal family, or of strict monogamy, or of extravagant spending with the taxpayers' money. Satire is often an expression of outrage, even if the satirist himself does not propose a solution of the problem.
Of course the best humor often results from a careful mix of these strategies.