Tuesday, May 6, 2014

When did we lose our understanding of "satire?"

When you run a public shaming blog, you run into all types of bigots and trolls. Perhaps the most boring to me are the ones who try to claim that everything is a joke. The increasingly more popular take on this is "it's satire therefore it is OK and you shouldn't be offended."

Seriously, every sort of horrific bullshit is now excused and even applauded under the umbrella of satire. But satire isn't "saying whatever offensive thing you want but because you mean it as a joke, and it's thereby acceptable and free from criticism." (Ala hipster racism.)

Satire is actually...
...a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.
[Emphasis mine]

It's pretty clear that satire should have a wider purpose of social criticism and it really isn't satire when it is hurting or mocking oppressed people. It's the whole "comedy should punch up, not down" rule. Satire that works is clever and engaging because it deals with really serious content, BUT makes you think about it in a new way and doesn't make vulnerable people the punchline. It's not regurgitated racism, sexism, etc. It, instead, points a finger at the the powerful and the oppressive systems.

It reminds me of an awesome Fresh Air interview with Hari Kondabolu that I caught recently. Kodabolu is a comedian (check him out, if you're unaware) who is able to make his audiences roll without playing to oppression. Definitely a student of the "punch up" philosophy. One of the things he discussed with Terry Gross was how he no longer parodies his father's accent on stage. He said,
The idea that when maybe my father says something and he walks away, the idea that people are laughing because what he said is funny to them because of how he sounds crushed me when I thought about it. And the idea that I was contributing to that, it was hard. 
(The full interview is available here for either listening or reading, and is equally great as this quote.)

These trolls who scream "Satire!" "It's just a joke!" try to make it seem like anyone who thinks critically about social issues is inherently a humorless robot. But about 2 minutes into listening to Kondabolu and it's obvious that one can both be hilarious AND socially conscious. (He's not the only one like this, of course, just my current example.)

As I already mentioned, balancing social criticisms with humor is at the heart of what satire actually is. So anyone who is trying to dismiss your outrage at some oppressive "joke" and throws satire in your face is not only being an apologist, but also fundamentally doesn't understand satire. Call them out on it. We've got to regain our understanding of what satire actually is. It can't continue to be used as an umbrella excuse to dismiss any criticism.

Please see the commenting policy before replying to this post.


  1. Mean humor is never funny.
    I find Russell Peters' humor, in which he jokes about Asian stereotypes, funny because he is making fun of the stereotype, not the people. Russell is half Indian.
    I find Gabriel Iglesias' sometimes self-deprecating but light-hearted humor funny. I'm a very large person with some physical problems and I don't appreciate the stereotyping of fat people, but Gabriel's jokes are a "laughing at ourselves" sort of thing and they cheer me.
    I do not find Daniel Tosh's brand of "humor" the least bit funny. He is an awful person and cannot hide the fact that he is an awful person by screaming "but it's COMEDY" whenever someone calls him out. If it's hurtful, it's not comedy.

    1. Yeah, you've hit on something pretty key..."in group" status makes a difference. There's not a meanspiritedness when Iglesias talks about fat people, because he is one and he inherently understands it more.

  2. There is a famous quote about humour generally and satire in particular: you don't hunt butterflies with a cannon. (If only I could remember who said it...) It's similar to the idea of punching up: humour can be a powerful instrument, and you should only train it on the biggest subjects.

    When I was an undergrad, I took a year-long course in satire. (I had started writing it a little before then, and I wanted to better understand the form's history and how it works.) The professor explained that satire is made up of three parts: the ostensible subject, the object of attack and the comic device. The ostensible subject is what the piece seems to be about on the surface. The object of attack is the point of view that the author is attempting to convey; it can usually be found in the subtext. The comic device is the part that generally makes the satire funny.

    How does this work? Take, as an example, Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." The ostensible subject is selling babies of poor Irish immigrants to wealthy Brits for food. The object of attack is politicians and a public that was indifferent to the problems of the poor. The comic device in this case is the reductio ad absurdum of political choices to obscenity (cannibalism).

    This is a useful way of thinking about satire. Humour that doesn't contain a critical subtext is, in this approach, not satire by definition.

    Thanks for trying to help readers sort this issue out. As a long-time writer of satire, I am appalled by some of the things people claim are part of the genre. I hope that, with people such as yourself writing about it, we can reclaim this noble (and fun!) literary genre.

  3. My theory of what humor is states that to be humorous something must have two meanings to be to funny: a logical meaning, and a meaning that is absurd, or somehow inappropriate or embarrassing. Comedian Stephen Wright tells of a time he was hitchhiking and was picked up by one of those trucks carrying a load of cars. There's no room in the cab, but he can sit in one of the cars loaded on the truck. A few more hitchhikers are licked up, each riding in one of the cars. A police officer pulls the truck over for speeding and they all get tickets. The fact that they all get tickets is absurd, but at the same time it's logical that if you are behind the wheel of a speeding car you get a ticket.

    If the situation is logical but there's no absurdity, it's not funny. Absurdity with no logic is not funny either. Sometimes the logical side is a stereotype that's not true. When I was in junior high, I had a book of Polish jokes I thought was hilarious. After learning that a lot of physicists and champion chess players come from Poland, I no longer thought of the logical premise of Polish jokes - the idea that Poles tend to be idiots - was true, and Polish jokes ceased to be funny.

    If someone loves humor where the "logical side" is a racist or sexist premise, that is telling of how the person really feels about other types of people.

  4. Might I suggest a good example of correctly written satire? "A Year Ruined by Sleaze" written by Dave Barry is a perfect example of satire! Anyone who is question on how to use satire or what satire actually is should read that essay!


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