During my undergraduate years, I took a course in satire. I always gravitated toward this type of humor but did not realize how much I valued it until that time. Of course I read Jonathan Swift’s tender suggestion and laughed at movies like Borat and The Campaign. Yet before that course, never did I seek works outside the contemporary or most obvious. It was a failure of mine, one I quickly rectified. Now satire, modern and old, is my absolute favorite form of hilarity. The next time you’re up for a chuckle with real-life social commentary that bites and amuses, sit down with one of these examples why satire is the absolute best.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
The easiest Swift satire to discuss is A Modest Proposal, as most are aware of it and its shocking commentary. However, for that very reason, it is a waste of list space, so Gulliver’s Travels takes its place. Just as A Modest Proposal takes on the societal ills of his day, Gulliver’s Travels fires away at English society. Through use of the traveling tale and the point of view of Lemuel Gulliver, Swift contrasts his main character’s English experience with that of the peoples he meets in biting satire.
In Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput, Swift shows the Lilliput people as obsessed with trivial matters. They use them as guidance for political decision-making and are partial to displays of authority and power. Lilliput stands in for the ruling parties in English government. Swift saw them more interested in loyalty, power, and advancement than fixing the true problems for the populace.
In Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan, Swift takes a swing at the blind pursuit of science for the sake of it rather than for practical reasons. A direct commentary on the Royal Society and the follies of beauracracy, Swift saw folly in the increasing devotion to science and expressed disapproval of its rise as almost a religion in and of itself.
These are only two examples of the satire in Gulliver’s Travels. Jonathan Swift is deep and thorough in his finger-pointing at English society. It will take multiple reads to see the full picture in all its glory.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
I really don’t see what is so romantic about proposing. One may be accepted –one usually is, I believe–and then the excitement is ended. The very essence of romance is uncertainty.The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest pokes Victorian traditions and ideals all while saying not much else. The play opens with two friends, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, revealing the lies they tell to avoid social obligations. The revelations lead to a desire by both for a rechristening as “Ernest,” all because the women they desire love the name. In addition, names and relations easily sway parties in the play. All of their problems are fixed by trivial matters that should not block ties in the first place.
Don’t think that the humor only focuses on love interests, however. The characters of The Importance of Being Earnest provide more than just foil for relationships. They touch on fear of the lower classes becoming knowledgable and empowered, the exaggerations of personal importance, and the focus on appearances and family status.
I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.
To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
According to Wilde, the theme to the play is “that we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.” For many, this is exactly what makes it a wonderful read.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The animal fable sets the stage for the satirization of political ideology and power in Animal Farm. Orwell doesn’t tell the tale of uprising and liberation from the typical human perspective; he gives animals human desires and failings. Like many human societies, the animals on the farm desire freedom from their overlords, the humans. Their idealistic dreams see freedom and equality for all on the farm. Yet once they overthrow the humans, turmoil erupts once again.
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
The lesson? Power corrupts, and eventually one cannot tell the difference between those in power and the ones overthrown. This outrageous setting and cast of characters provides commentary on true-life events in a way that allows humor rather than the more serious tone of a human-led story of the same.
Don Juan by Lord Byron
In the long poem, Lord Byron turns the hero’s tale on its head. Rather than casting a main character who seeks fame and glory or finds trouble to solve, the author lets Don Juan fall into situations by chance. Through a more innocent set of eyes, Don Juan comments on many aspects of society. From drunkenness to love, from war to poetic style, the poem sets its sights on a variety of topics and takes a bite out, line after line after line.
One of the most interesting satirical choices in the poem is giving Don Juan and other men passive traits. In fact, Byron practically puts Don Juan in a woman’s shoes. His mother shields him from sexuality while growing up, as he should be moral and pure, but it backfires. Driven and experienced women who appreciate his looks later prey on him and lead him on a promiscuous lifestyle. Much like men might chase a young woman for her looks and sexuality, and take advantage of the woman’s innocence in such matters, Don Juan receives similar treatment by women. Women who receive punishment for adultery while Don Juan continues his adventures.
Sometimes the satire of The Onion hits so hard that one briefly wonders whether the headline is real. This is particularly true of political and news-related headlines, but that isn’t what makes the website great. It’s things like this:
Jim Harbaugh is the head football coach for the Michigan Wolverines. He excited many people at first, but as with anything that is not as successful as hoped, the newness wore off. Yet, the humor in this article doesn’t hit only for college football fans. The piece also plays on the annoyance of college students trading in used books for next to nothing, combining it with a joke about Coach Harbaugh not changing up his playbook.
With The Onion, there’s a little bit of something for everyone. Take these recent headlines, for instance:
- High School Adds Cardboard Students Between Distanced Desks To Maintain Normal Feeling Of Oversized Classes
- Congress Sends Unemployed Americans 40 Million Boxes Of Saltwater Taffy From Vacation
- Kid With Coronavirus Gets Classmates To Sign His Lungs
JoJo Rabbit is a satiric movie that lambasts Hitler and the Nazis. The story follows a young boy, Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, who desires to be a soldier in Hitler’s army. He attends camps and participates in the Hilter Youth, all while dreaming of German supremacy. Yet his little world turns upside down when he finds that his mother is harboring a teen girl, a Jew named Elsa, within their walls. Oh, and his imaginary best friend is Hitler himself.
The movie takes on myths about Hitler, German beliefs about the Jews, the indoctrination of children, and more. Imaginary Hitler thinks and acts on level with JoJo, and he is a visual example of the inner conflict JoJo begins to feel between his beliefs and the girl in his home. There is also the contrast with Elsa. By playing into the myths about the Jewish people, she befriends him and shows JoJo that he might just be wrong in his beliefs. Both funny and serious, the film is a refreshing use of satire that leaves you hopeful in the end, and possibly a bit teary eyed.
One of the reasons why satire is the absolute best is that it translates well to visual mediums. Black Mirror is an example of that, with a first episode that tells the audience it will not pull punches. The series tells individual stories that floor it to the extreme, particularly regarding our use and addiction to technology. Many of the episodes ask the viewer, “How far is too far?”
The first episode either turns viewers away or hooks them, and it’s no surprise why. To generalize it, a character is blackmailed into performing a vile, explicit act live on television, and people tune in to gawk and feel revulsion. They are obsessed. The whole country is so focused on this event that they don’t see how their addiction to technology and instant media caused this problem. They were set up for this moment, a moment that, in the end, was pointless. Unless you are making a point.
Black Mirror explores the dangers of technology. One episode uses technology for relentless punishment. Another explores a system similar to that of China’s real-life social credit system. In yet another, the government provides implants to soldiers that causes them see specific groups as inhuman, making them more efficient killers. Each episode explores something different and reminds viewers to be aware and vigilant; this is not at all far-fetched.
Yes, South Park is a television show that utilizes an ocean’s worth of juvenile humor. Still, one cannot deny the creators’ successful use of satire. From taking on the political argument of the day to societal trends, South Park doesn’t shy from a topic. God takes call-ins on local television. Ike has an inappropriate relationship with his teacher. PC Principal checks your privilege and has PC babies with a strong woman. Mr. Garrison tries to get fired for being gay. Walmart and Amazon harm the local economy. If you think of it, the show probably did it as a bit of social commentary.
South Park finds a way to comment on subjects far and wide. For instance, in “Conjoined Fetus Lady” Kyle meets Nurse Gollum, who has conjoined twin myslexia. The boys make fun of her, but Kyle’s mom tries to explain it. She feels sorry for Nurse Gollum, and despite her good intentions, she goes overboard. The town declares a “Conjoined Twin Myslexia Week.” There is a parade, and Nurse Gollum gives a speech at the end, but it’s not what the town expected. She is frustrated by the attention and wants them to treat her as a normal person. It’s an episode about how people try to overcompensate but make people with disabilities uncomfortable by, for instance, drawing attention to it or helping when a person is fully capable themselves.
Now, not everyone likes the show, and that’s perfectly okay. However, don’t count it out if you enjoy quality satire. Not every episode is a smash, but with their catalog, there is plenty to explore.
Saturday Night Live
SNL drives a poker into the belly of politicians everywhere, exaggerating their qualities to highlight the ridiculous things they do and say. And why not? They’re walking memes, providing material on a daily basis. So, for a weekly show, it’s a goldmine. However, the show isn’t all politics. There is a laundry list of commercial spoofs, celebrity impersonations, music numbers, and other skits that satirize topics.
In the following clip, Saturday Night Live satirizes society’s obsession with looks and weight, particularly those who put their insecurities on their young kids. Ridiculous, isn’t it? But that’s the point.
Having been around since 1975, the show must do something right.