Satire; it just isn’t funny

This blog’s title is “Satire: It just isn’t funny” and I’ll start it by describing satire along these lines—what it is not.

  • It is not Parody (an imitation of another’s work in order to ridicule it or its subject)
  • It is not Slapstick (an exaggerated physical “pie-in-the-face” comedy )
  • It is not a Farce (an exaggerated situation comedy such as Fawlty Towers)
  • And it is not a sermon or a lecture and, definitely, is never innocent or aimless.

What does all Satire have in common?

I have listed a few things that Satire isn’t but what are the characteristics that all satires must have?

  • they must have a target: wether that be a person, an institution, or simply a human vice or behaviour
  • they must be imbued with innuendo and double meaning
  • they must ambush their target
  • And certainly A Satire must be funny.

Ahhh I hear you think…but you said satire isn’t funny?

No…I didn’t say that satire isn’t funny, what I said was that Satire just isn’t funny. So satire is funny, but its ‘sense of humour…is more prone to elicit a sardonic smirk rather than hearty laughter (Stein 3)’.

This brings forward another misused term ‘Wit’, which is also misused and misrepresented. Wit like satire is more ingenious than funny and, as with satire, we laugh because we see and understand this cleverness not because it is funny in isolation. We laugh too at the poor fools who do not see this cleverness, wether they be the targets of the writing or simply the oblivious masses.

Augustan Satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope often expressed their contempt for political leaders and royalty of the day through vague compliments full of double meaning an innuendo.  Monty Python’s famous Oscar Wilde sketch is a farcical attack on satirists using this method of attack. At a gathering in honour of the Prince of Wales, one of Wilde’s fellow writers proposes a toast: ‘…your Majesty is like a stream of bat’s piss.’ After a moment of confusion the Prince takes offense and demands an explanation. The group escape retribution explaining that his Royal Highness ‘…shine[s] out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark.’

Jonathan Swift summarised the aim of satire in his work Intelligencer, Number III:

Satire is used to attack human vices, either individually or of society in general, with the intent to encourage those ‘of genius or virtue to mend the world as they are able (Swift – Intelligencer, Number III)’.

A Particular Target:

When the target of the satire is a particular person then the attack must be allusive and subtle. If it is not then the target’s cognitive dissonance will spring up and allow them to ‘switch off’ and think humph…you disrespectful little turd!. The attack is therefore unsuccessful.

Susan Stein from Texas Tech University says that:

a satire must ambush and ‘surprise an unsuspecting victim like a “literary Trojan horse” that promises to tell…[them what they]…do not want to know (Stein 1, Connery and Combe 1-2)’.

Behaviour or Vice as a Target:

Sometimes the person or group is beyond help and the satirist instead makes them appear so absurd—and the reader so angry—that this person group, and their behaviour, is no longer acceptable.  Take for example any medium that ridicules Shane Warne or George Bush jnr.: We all realise by now that they are not going to change, but by exaggerating (rarely required in Warnie’s case) and making their behaviour so ridiculous we may be able to save ourselves and society from future generations of would-be Warnies or Bushes.

When a satirist attacks a vice or behaviour then the satire often uses a fictional character who exhibits this behaviour to an absurd degree. Once again to be thoroughly effective the attack must ambush the reader and make them a co-despiser of this behaviour long before they realise that it is themselves who are inflicted by this particular vice.

Why do we write?

If a piece of writing does not alter our behaviour it is pointless.  But this doesn’t have to get too high and mighty.  Not everything we write is going to bring down a government, or help reconcile an unhappy marriage.  It could simply be a nostalgic drama that reminds you to value each moment of your life—prompting you to stop your writing and play ‘hide-n-seek’ with your kids.

Treading a precarious path

The best satire treads upon a lofty ridge with pointless farcical comedy on one side and intellectual self-servicing on the other.  Recently I read an article in Tirra Lirra and found the author was attempting to be far too clever.  He used deliberate mistakes in the text to demonstrate the decline in the English language brought about through annoying tinkering.  These mistakes were so subtle and so technical that even the author realised he had to point them out.  Satire’s intrinsic wit or cleverness makes it particularly prone to this type of flaw.

My writing, especially when I am careless, can slide deep into this ‘ravine of intellectual self-servicing’.  A year or two ago I wrote a satirical piece under the title A Noble Proposal, and it is modelled—quite obviously—on Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.  It is a fictional ‘First Speech’ to the Australian Parliament by a new federal MP. Masqueraded by the MP’s proposal to encourage the mass-suicide of the Baby-Boomer generation is an attack on our political leaders and the western political landscape of the early twenty-first century. 

The intrinsic humour of this noble proposal was designed to entice the reader long enough to ambush them with a few barbs at the ridiculous waste endemic to the western political system and the way our supposedly democratic countries are governed.

In one section of A Noble Proposal, the MP justifies—with plain and simple economic reason—the community supported mass suicide of the Baby-Boomer generation. He then goes on to explain how the proposal can be enacted.

Of course not all Baby-Boomers may wish to, or be permitted, to make this noble sacrifice. The supporting legislation can be defined to create a new section in the public service to constantly evaluate the status of Baby-Boomers who attempt to avoid their responsibilities. Baby-Boomers will be required to complete a quarterly Baby-Boomer Activity Statement (BBAS), that will of course include a processing fee. Every financial quarter these BBAS Statements will be used to determine each Baby-Boomer’s eligibility for the scheme and also become a source of government revenue. Eventually the Baby-Boomers will be either: unable to meet these payments—enabling their compulsory participation, or they will become eligible through normal age and outcome based evaluation criteria.

Here the target becomes self-evident and it is one common to many satirists—‘a deep sense of the insufficiency of reason alone as a guide to man[kind] (Ward)’. In our time every venture or proposal is primarily judged in economic terms. And by justifying the eradication of an entire generation with reason alone I highlight—ad absurdum—the result of excluding the moral viewpoint.

Satirists as Malcontents

The satirists of an Age are often categorised as misanthropic malcontents, to which I must agree in part. They criticise and attack humanity, either someone or some vice but do not always provide an obvious alternative. But to do so would push the work off its precarious ridge and begin to slide down another slippery slope towards a sermon or lecture. A satire must lead the readers mind to believe that they have discovered the solution on their own.

Satire is more of an authorial viewpoint than a genre of literature and I believe that most good authors exhibit some satirical tendencies. In a recent discussion with some fellow writers, we compared the importance of brain surgeons over writers. Although I do not deny the brilliance of brain surgery, I was quite disappointed in our consensus to elevate these mere mortals to a higher plane than writers. Sure they may save a few lives but so do our bus drivers—wether they are aerial or terrestrial in transit. Now writers and some other artists can do much more than save a few lives.

  • we are the legislators of tomorrow (source unknown)
  • we provide feedback and test-run changes in society
    • and we can inspire generations into action and illicit positive change in society.

I know I have digressed…but I did warn you that satire just isn’t funny.

Bibliography

 Clark, J., 2006. English Expression: is their a Cause for Concern? Tirra Lirra. Mt Evelyn: Vol.14, Num. 4; pg. 2, 6 pgs. 

Harris, R. 2004. The Purpose and Method of Satire [online]. VirtualSalt. 24 October 2004. Available from: http://www.virtualsalt.com/satire.htm [Accessed May 2006].

Monty Python. 1973. Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Season Three: Oscar Wilde Sketch. London: First broadcast 18.01.1973, BBC.

Sandner, D., 1998. Shooting for the moon: Melies, Verne, Wells, and the imperial satire. Extrapolation. Kent: Spring 1998. Vol.39, Iss. 1; pg. 5, 21 pgs.  http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed September 2006).

Smart, M., 2006. A Noble Proposal. (unpublished).

Stein, S.A., 2000. Humour, hostility and the psychodynamics of satire. Literature and Psychology. Providence. Vol.46, Iss. 4; pg. 26, 16 pgs.  http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed September 2006).

Swift, J. 1729. A Modest Proposal. Course Reader KWP402 – Persuasive Writing. Queensland University of Technology.

Swift, J. 1999. A Tale of a Tub and other works. Oxford University Press.

Ward, D. 1973. Jonathan Swift: An Introductory Essay. London: Methuen & co Ltd. 

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2 thoughts on “Satire; it just isn’t funny

  1. Pingback: Does Rabinovich live here? « A Fettered Mind

  2. Interesting stuff, Fettered. Before I read the piece, your title – “Satire: It Just Isn’t Funny” – scared me a little. It sounded like a death knell for our blog. 🙂

    Rob Hanson of the Chrislip Journal

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