SATIRE
by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
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DEFINITION OF “SATIRE”
• The word satire comes from the Latin satura
meaning a dish filled with mixed fruits.
• This was the usual dessert tray after a
banquet, and an early meaning for the word
was “to be well fed” as seen in such
cognates as sated, saturated, and satisfied.
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ARISTOPHANES TO NICHOLS
• Aristophanes’s antiwar fourth-century B.C. Lysistrata is a
classic example of the lighter kind of satire that blends humor
with a serious story.
• The story has an antiwar message, with the humor coming from
the wives’ refusal to have sex with their husbands until they
quit fighting.
• A contemporary example of a satire that includes humor along
with serious elements is John Nichols’s The Milagro Beanfield
War, in which village farmers in New Mexico are pitted against
developers who are coming in to take what water is available
for building a golf course and resort.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 260)
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DISTANCE FROM SATIRICAL TARGET
• To be effective, writers or performers must
have a detachment from their target.
• Henry Rule confessed, “In truth I don’t ever
seem to be in a good enough humor with
anything to satirize it; no, I want to stand up
before it and curse it, and foam at the mouth--or take a club and pound it to rags and
pulp.”
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 259)
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HORATIAN VS. JUVENALIAN SATIRE
• Gentle and humorous satire is called
“Horatian Satire ” after the writing style of
the Roman poet Horace.
• Heavy or biting satire called “Juvenalian
Satire” after the Roman poet Juvenal.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 259)
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• Lois Lowry’s prize-winning children’s book The
Giver is of Horatian Satire, as is George Orwell’s
Animal Farm.
• These books both have anti-totalitarian messages
just as does Orwell’s much heavier and grimmer
1984.
• But because Animal Farm comes closer to being
Horatian satire with its nostalgic barnyard and its
“lovable” set of farm animals, when it was first
submitted to American publishers they missed the
point and turned it down saying the prospective
market for “animal stories” was too small.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 260)
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• One of the characteristics of Horatian satire
is that it includes a higher percentage of
humor.
• Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a
Horatian Satire but his “Modest Proposal” is
Juvenalian Satire.
• The complete title is, “A Modest Proposal for
Preventing the Children of poor People in
Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents
or Country; and for making them beneficial
to the Publick.”
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 259)
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• Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is an account of Lemuel
Gulliver’s voyages to Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa,
and the Country of the Houyhnhnms.
• It can be read as adventure stories, even by children.
• Funny images from the stories remain in readers’
minds, such as the picture of Gulliver awakening to
find himself pinned down by hundreds of threads
placed on him by the tiny people of Lilliput and the
image of his putting out the fire that was burning the
Queen’s Palace by urinating on it.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 259)
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• In “A Modest Proposal,” Swift
suggested that at the age of one year,
poor Irish children should be sold as
food to be eaten by landlords and other
members of the upper class.
• Irish mothers should be encouraged to
let their children “suck plentifully in the
last Month, so as to render them plump,
and fat for a good table.”
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• “A Child will make two Dishes at an
Entertainment for Friends; and when the
Family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter
will make a reasonable Dish; and seasoned
with a little Pepper and Salt, will be very
good Boiled on the fourth Day, especially in
Winter.”
• Few people who read Swift’s “Modest
Proposal” ever forget it. Because it touches
such deep psychic nerves, it illustrates the
satirist’s major tool, which is playing with the
emotions of readers or listeners.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 259-260)
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• The grimmer a story, the less likely it is that readers
will miss the intended satire, but also, with such
grim satires as Anthony Burgess’s dystopian A
Clockwork Orange, William Golding’s anarchic Lord
of the Flies, and Ray Bradbury’s anticensorship
Fahrenheit 451, if there is humor, it is black humor
or irony.
• Readers shudder at these books if they think they
are predicting the future, but Ray Bradbury has
made it clear that he is trying to prevent, not
predict, the future. It is this call to action that
distinguishes satire from black or gallows humor.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 260)
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INFORMAL VS. FORMAL SATIRE
• Satire can be divided into two basic types:
informal and indirect, as in stories, poems,
plays, or novels; and explicit or formal, in
which the satirist speaks directly to readers
or listeners.
• Because explicit satire is more efficient, it is
the kind most likely to be presented by
comedians.
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MENIPPEAN SATIRE
• Because of the extensive accumulation of
details in Gulliver’s Travels and because
Swift is trying to influence mental attitudes
as much as actual change, some critics
identify Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as an
example of Menippean satire, named after
the Greek cynic Menippus.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 259)
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RANGE OF SATIRE
• Satire has a long history and occurs across genres
ranging from Aesop’s fables and Shel Silverstein’s
poetry to Art Buchwald’s newspaper columns and
Paul Krassner’s newsletter The Realist.
• It also includes political and social cartoons, such
television programs as late-night talk shows and The
Colbert Report, such movies as Wag the Dog and
The Truman Show, and such novels as C.S. Lewis’s
Screwtape Letters and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New
World.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 258)
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SATIRE AND THE SHAMING PROCESS
• Matthew Hodgart in Satire wrote that in ancient
Eskimo cultures, satirical prose and rhyme were
used to shame individuals who had violated
community standards.
• The punishment was worse than a physical
punishment because the criminal would be
made to look foolish while the other villagers
watched.
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• Hodgart also wrote that when going to war, the
ancient Arabs would send a satirist from both
sides into battle to see which satirist could be the
most clever.
• The morale of the two armies would be
determined by the skill of their satirists, and
occasionally a humiliated army would simply give
up and retreat.
• Today Rap, HipHop and and other types of
“language play” use satire in similar ways.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 260)
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• Shaming penalties are also meted out by
cartoonists, comedians, and writers who use
the mass media to make fun of individuals
who have gone against behavioral codes,
whether in business, sex, or politics.
• Although most such jokes have as their
immediate target one or two individuals who
are involved in current scandals, the goal of
the satirist is to capitalize on the public’s
interest in a current event to shape society’s
long-term attitudes and behaviors.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 260-261)
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SATIRE AS A SOCIAL CORRECTIVE
• Edgar Johnson in The Anatomy of Satire praises satire as a
corrective for bad behavior. “If we ever become civilized,” he
writes, “It will probably be satire almost as much as poetry that
will have accomplished it.”
• Arthur Pollard in Satire says that satirists move readers to
criticize and condemn through “various emotions ranging from
laughter through ridicule, contempt and anger to hate.” The
feelings that are evoked will depend on the seriousness of the
faults being attached as well as the author’s view of “the gap
between the ideal and reality.”
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 259)
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SATIRE VS. GALLOWS HUMOR
• Satirists may use their humor to inspire
reform and change, or they may use it to
promote the status quo.
• If the creators of satire don’t have a reform or
a solution in mind but are simply holding up
an aspect of the world as ridiculous, then
they are creating irony or gallows humor
rather than satire.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 258)
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!SOCIAL SATIRE
• Social satirists follow in the tradition of Mark
Twain and Will Rogers. “The sacrosanct
tenets of the Establishment are rings on a
dartboard to the socially conscious
comedian, whose sole mission is to make
you think before you laugh.”
• There are three types of social satirists, the
Instigator, The Politico, and The Sage.
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• !Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Nipsey Russell, Godfrey Cambridge,
Dick Gregory, and Richard Pryor are Instigator Satirists.
• Bruce, Sahl, and Gregory were the pioneers working in edgy
San Francisco and New York clubs where they challenged the
façade of Eisenhower America.
• First branded as “sickniks,” they were often censored, and, in
the case of Bruce, arrested for indecency.
• Sahl was the least controversial, not because his satire was
less biting, but because he dressed and looked “collegiate”
and focused on politics, while Bruce was challenging sexual
and religious conventions and Gregory was giving voice to the
civil rights movement. Gregory’s work “made it possible for
African American entertainers to openly rib Jim Crow” while
paving “the way for Richard Pryor’s brazen commentaries on
discrimination.”
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 258-259)
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• !Politico satirists include Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Jack
Paar, Jackie Mason, Arsenio Hall, Tom and Dick Smothers, Jay
Leno, Pat Paulsen, David Letterman, David Steinberg, Dennis
Miller, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, and Mark Russell.
• Bob Hope has been praised for rattling “Washington like a
Gatling gun, skewering the sanctimony of politics and
securing a soapbox for topically minded comedians,” while
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers
Comedy Hour were praised for blending “critical views with a
counter-culture sensibility.”
• Johnny Carson had such a hold on the American public that
he “was one of the few personalities who could safely fire oneliners at Capitol Hill.” His cynicism came from the daily news
“inspired by the politicians who spoke with at least one foot in
their mouths.”
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 259)
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•
!Sages are those who warn us of the pitfalls of everyday life.
•
They include Bob Newhart, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, George
Carlin, Alan King, Mark Russell, Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, Paul
Mooney, Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi
Goldberg.
•
Carlin, Newhart, and Nichols and May explore the frustrations of
bureaucracy and the dehumanizing effects of technology, while King,
Maher, and Russell lampoon society’s lack of ethics and its focus on
pop culture, and Rock challenges class disparities.
•
One of Rock’s funniest skits is about the absurdity of giving surplus
cheese to welfare families.
•
Robin Williams played with this same idea in a Comic Relief skit where
he impersonated a farmer whose land has been taken over by the
mortgage company so that he is left pondering how to turn wedges of
surplus cheese into all the things needed for daily living.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 259)
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!!UTOPIAS AND DISTOPIAS
• A technique often used in satirical novels is
the contrast between utopian and dystopian
societies.
• The author usually introduces what at first
appears to be a utopian society, but which
the reader soon realizes is actually
grotesque or dystopian.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 260)
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!!!Satire or Not?
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Satiric Web Sites:
CHIASMUS (MARDY GROTHE):
http://www.chiasmus.com/welcometochiasmus.shtml
CIECOE: COUNCIL TO INVESTIGATE EVERYTHING AND CONSORTIUM
TO OFFEND EVERYBODY:
http://www.factsformorons.com
THE COLBERT REPORT (STEPHEN COLBERT):
http://www.comedycentral.com/shows/the_colbert_report/index.jhtml
THE DAILY SHOW (JON STUART):
http://www.comedycentral.com/shows/the_daily_show/index.jhtml
HARVARD LAMPOON
http://www.harvardlampoon.com/
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MAD MAGAZINE
http://www2.warnerbros.com/web/madmagazine/home.jsp
THE MAD MARTIAN MUSEUM OF MODERN MADNESS:
http://www.madmartian.com
MANAGEMENT HUMOR (RODNEY MARKS):
www.comedian.com.au
THE MOZILLA MUSEUM (TILMAN HAUSHERR):
http://www.snafu.de/~tilman/mozilla
THE NATIONAL LAMPOON:
www.nationallampoon.com
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THE ONION (CAROL KOLB):
http://www.theonion.com
SATIRE ON ORGANIZED RELIGION:
www.landoverbaptist.com
STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE:
http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/
THANK YOU MASKMAN (LENNY BRUCE):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CebRfSFnWGM
WHITEHOUSE:
http://whitehouse.org/initiatives/posters/
THE WHOLE WORLD TOILET PAPER MUSEUM (RICH TAGYERIT):
http://www.tagyerit.com/tp.htm
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