Mastering Satire: Unveiling the Power of Humor and Social Commentary
Satire is among the oldest storytelling tools. They are powerful — employed by writers and cultural commentators to critique and ridicule various aspects of society, sometimes bringing change or sometimes merely highlighting human behavior. Encompassing a wide range of moods and tones, the ultimate purpose of satire is to examine or critique contemporary issues. However, a key component of satire is that the story is not literal. The use of various literary devices, such as irony, parody, exaggeration, humor, sarcasm, and juxtaposition all work to inform the audience, often through humorous means. Whether for the sake of activism or the artist’s passion, the ultimate goal of satirical storytelling is to distill social commentaries in such a way that they may be consumed (and enjoyed) by the masses. We will explore the most common satirical devices and delve into their effectiveness in influencing public perception and sparking conversations about the world.
Satirical Devices: Irony
The most commonly used satirical device is irony or using specific language to depict the opposite of its literal meaning. One of the most famous satires is A Modest Proposal, an essay published in 1729 by Johnathan Swift. The essay was written for English audiences regarding the extreme poverty that Irish subjects of the British crown were enduring, with the promise of a radical answer to the nation’s growing problem of feeding the masses.
Swift suggested a two-fold solution: that Irish families should sell their children, reducing their need for welfare support, and said children should be consumed by the British upper classes as food. Swift used ironic language to attack politicians, institutions, and citizens who were indifferent to the problem of poverty. The ironic intention is even more evident in the essay’s full title: A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.
Satirical Devices: Parody
Parody and satire are two terms that are often conflated, but whereas satire may be used to ridicule broad social constructs, parodies target specific forms of media. A parody is always about another work, and its humor is derived from knowledge of the original work. A contemporary artist known for his musical parodies is Weird Al Yankovic, who creates songs with identical music as modern-day hits, but with radically different lyrics.
A famous example is “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” in which Weird Al criticizes a child for being a picky eater. “Eat It” has an accompanying music video that also parodies the original song’s video. In the “Beat It” music video, Jackson is depicted as easing the violent tensions between two gangs. In the “Eat It” music video, Weird Al ends the tension by giving snacks to the gang members. Weird Al’s video ends with the revelation that the gang storyline was a dream driven by Al’s late-night stomachache (implied to be caused by his eating too much junk food). The final shot of the video depicts Al suddenly facing the camera with monster eyes, a moment that parodies the end of another Michael Jackson music video, Thriller.
Satirical devices play an important role in literature, comedy, and other forms of creative expression. The impact of satirical devices lies in their ability to entertain, enlighten, and challenge beliefs.