Language Of Satire

The Language of Satire #

Satire and the Media #

One of the first satirists was Aesop’s famous Book of Fables, which date back to the 5th Century BC. Of course Homer already used irony in The Iliad and could be mocking the brutality and futility of armed combat.

John Clarke, renown for “The Games’, believes that Satire is an antidote to being lied to. Satire is the great leveller, the democratic means of smirking at pretension and power. Roy and HG use their skills of mockery to trivialise the serious and treat serious subjects trivially.

Working Dog, a film and television production company based in Melbourne whose productions include The Castle, The Dish, Frontline, The Hollowmen, Utopia and many others includes some Australia’s best known performers and writers: Santo Cilauro, Rob Sitch, Jane Kennedy, Tom Gleisner, Michael Hirsh.

It has exposed many foibles and banalities in how Australia evolved with gentle but comedic treatments.

Plato and Aristotle felt that laughter was a powerful weapon that could threaten authority and undermine the state. Freud, sees it as: “In the little insurrection of the wisecrack we can reap the pleasures of rebellion while simultaneously disavowing them them as just a joke”.

The Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin claimed the Carnivals of Medieval Europe and the Renaissance,

were a subversive force, turning power and authority on its head and inverting the priorities of power.

Humour stems from a desire to be free of oppression. It deflates the pompous and pretentious, restoring the human dignity of ordinary people.

Satire is an attempt to tell the truth about situations and people however as Jonathan Swift said, “It is a kind of glass wherein the beholder sees everyone’s face but their own,” and so it might be charged, too, of satirists who excoriate others while exempting themselves from blame. – Joyce Carol Oates, “Showtime,” The New Yorker, October 27, 2003

Mark Twain too, felt that no one was too grand to be satirized.

“Irreverence, is the champion of liberty and its only sure defence.” Even if this led to the newspapers laughing “one good king to death,” it was a small price to pay if they also “laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions into the grave.”

Adam Gopnik The New Yorker writes:

We insist that comedians respect our sacrosanct ideals—and pray that they skewer our sanctimony. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

At various times, and in various national moods, comedians on both the left and the right have been championed—and have championed themselves—as fearless conquerors of censorship and defenders of free speech.

Such designations have largely missed the point.

“Censorship is the actual government interdiction of forbidden speech, and in liberal-democratic countries there’s essentially none of this when it comes to culturally contested zones,". “It’s just that we’re inclined to voice emphatic disapproval about certain forms of speech, which, though disconcerting for the subject of our disapproval, is not at all what we mean by censorship.”

Having knocked the stakes down a peg or two, Gopnik digs into what makes comedy matter in the first place: the power, mystery, and timelessness of making someone laugh.

“Comedy, like pornography,” he writes, “is the rare form that has a physical end, either achieved or not.”

Purpose: Satire is used to expose and denounce hypocrisy, stupidity, absurdity, folly or vice in society or professed pillars of our society. Satire can be used to shine a light on the inanity and ugliness of human behaviour. John Oliver maintains “it can also be used to give us glimpse into other people’s pain, as well as our own”.

American song writer, Tom Lehrer declared that:

political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since then many political leaders have upstaged comedians so that we now laugh at them and take satirists seriously.

Ben Neutze in Crikey’s Daily Review extols the virtues of Shaun, Micallef’s biting satire, Mad As Hell:

Only by laughing at human pomposity can we see it for the sham it is.

Synonyms: Send up, Rip-off, Lampoon, tongue-in-cheek or Take the piss (mickey) out, mock, ridicule, facetious, Take a lend of, Knock, Bagging, Diss**….

facetious - not meant to be taken seriously or literally.

The essence of satire is to make the serious appear trivial; the trivial serious.

Characteristics of Satire: #

Satire uses humour in poking fun, ridiculing or deriding the behaviour of people, especially those who pretend or are filled with self-importance without cause.

Satire chooses targets issues it cares about to gently mock or send up causing laughter. (Horatian)

On the other hand, sarcasm tends to be stinging, cutting, bitter acerbic, even savage in its criticism evoking scorn, contempt and even hatred. (Juvenalian)

Subtlety- The satire is implicit and may not be evident to an uninformed or innocent reader. Satire is also often topical, localised and contemporary, therefore dates easily.

It doesn’t just explain the issues; it subverts them and parodies the arguments involved so the audience is opened up to a new perspective. And it does that by being substantially funnier than most shows of its ilk – you often find yourself in the midst of a laughing fit when you come to the sudden realisation that your assumptions about a certain situation might be slightly mistaken”.

Humour: In order to soften us up and lower our defences, satire adopts a light-hearted tone and spices its message with a jocular attitude so that we become more receptive. When we laugh, we become detached and question our preconceptions.

Exaggeration, hyperbole, overstated/understated, caricatures, stereotypes, or distortion - Everything is not what it seems, nothing can be accepted at face value.

Techniques - devices: #

A target; a simpleton, a stooge; the butt or victim of the ridicule — fall guy; generally someone who takes themselves overly seriously — or it can be a dupe or gull. Most good comedians make themselves the target.

Analogy, extended or sustained; fable or travelogue with implied meanings

Inversion — the unexpected. Characters get opposite roles.

Mock — Heroic: Treating a trivial subject overly seriously by using inflated heroic language.

Serious Treating a minor event overly serious.

-Tragic - Treating a minor incident overly tragically.

- Trivial - Treating a trivial subject in an overly-inflated manner.

Black Humour - Treating a serious or tragic incident trivially or jokingly. it is often used by people who have to deal with stressful and traumatic situations on a daily basis to gain release, distance and detachment.

Literal inversion — sentences inverted

Parody, Imitation, mimicry - The writer uses the same word order or style as another well known writer, but distorts the message by changing a few key words.

Our Examiner who art in Sydney,
Anonymous be thy name,
Thy mark is to come
My Paper’s done

Pun: puns are another satirical device which employs two meanings relying on the different uses of a word. Puns can be used to set the tone of the satirical piece — whether it is light hearted or serious in its intention.

Other Techniques of Satire #

Irony: #

Satire, the gentle teasing of something you love, owes its success to the use of IRONY.

Irony comes in many forms, but essentially refers to a discrepancy between what is said and what is meant. There is the obvious, literal or superficial meaning and on another level, an intended, deeper or opposite meaning. Irony is often subtle. There are at least 5 kinds:

  1. Dramatic - The audience/reader knows something the speaker is not aware of.

  2. Situational — When circumstances turn out opposite of what is expected.

  3. Verbal - The words used are the opposite to the intended meaning.

  4. Tonal - The writer adopts one tone but the reader responds with an opposite one. Eg: the writer calmly describes an horrific scene that arouses horror in the reader.

  5. Authorial - Comments or interpretation of the author is undermined by an undercurrent or below-the-surface implication, contradicting each other.

Irony has the ability to heighten and hold the reader’s interest by giving pleasure, relief, humour and stimulus. It is an inclusive device seeming to take the responder into the composer’s confidence. Irony is seldom malicious or spiteful.

Contrast — Irony places unexpected opposites side by side.

Juxtaposition — Putting together two contrasting or opposing ideas.

Incongruity or contrast — Putting together two events, characters, things or conversations to highlight opposition and expose folly or vice.

Paradox - An apparent absurd or contradictory statement eg: “The first shall be last “.

Oxymoron - the placement of opposing words next to each other —eg: bitter sweet..

Hyperbole or Caricature — the deliberate distortion of a target by exaggerating or emphasising a salient feature. Fully blown, vices, banalities, ludicrous actions can be ridiculed when they are overstated.

Understatement - Sometimes the satirist will try an opposite effect by treating a serious subject in a trivialising manner. By understating something the composer demonstrates that they are in control of the situation and appear calm and reasonable.

Tone: The overall tone of satiric passage is light hearted, jocular or mocking. Satire seldom preaches or teaches didactically so it attempts to sugar coat its message by entertaining the audience. It is much more likely to get its message across.

The aim of satire is to ridicule the world, and through shame to change it. If, however the target of your satire is shameless, its effect is limited. John Gay’s 18^ (th) century satire of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, had the Prime Minister book a box at the theatre and loudly applaud. John Howard was similar. Many cartoonists, columnists and news editors gave up, as all attempts to shame Howard backfired and he gained in popularity. Most politicians prefer being pilloried rather than ignored.

Are the disadvantaged immune from satire? John Oliver claims one reason he feels comfortable in Australia is because “I like the underdog mentality, because it means that you’re punching up all the time”… he sets his sights on hypocrisy, wilful ignorance and hubris.

“You don’t want to punch down - that’s horrible”.

Many people felt that an episode of the Chaser sending up “Make a Wish Foundation” was ill adivised as it “punched down”.

We are confident the Chaser will continue in its fearless mission – of building a multi-million dollar comedy brand on public funds by desperately stringing out a third series absent of ideas using cheap shock and outrage. We support them in their mission of breaking through the barriers put up against well-connected Sydney University law students by “the man”. If feelings of a few dying children are allowed to stand in the way of that, well it’s clear you – and they – have no sense of humour.

Come to think of it, colonoscopy is kinda referral upwards.

Horatian vs. Juvenalian #


Horace lived in volatile times where the rise and fall of fortunes was subject to that of those you serve. Horace had sided with Brutus and Cassius so when Augustus and Antony won the Battle of Actium in the year 34 B.C. he was in great danger. He was extremely fortunate that his poetic skills were valued and found favour with Maecenas, Octavian’s rich and influential ally, who was fostering and patronising a talented literary circle in the emperor’s interests.

In Rome Panegyrists, like Horace, were paid performers, subsidized by those they celebrated.

As spin doctor, for celebrating the emperor and portraying his regime as the beginning of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, Horace was rewarded with a large country estate called the Sabine farm. While appreciating his good fortune, he recognised the fragility of life and came up with the philosophy of Carpe Diem - of living for the moment.

In order to live with himself, Horace couched many of his criticisms of government in subtle language too clever for most to pick up. He appears amusing and witty, holding up to gentle ridicule the absurdities and follies of human beings, aiming at producing a wry smile.

From Horace’s Odes, the Latin saying: ‘Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’ translates into: “Sweet and decorous (noble, becoming) it is to die for one’s country”.


Juvenal was a poet active in the Roman Republic during the first century CE, who had been exiled for criticising public officials. He therefore felt free, as an outsider, to continue his attacks openly.

Juvenalian satire is characterized by its bitter and abrasive nature. It can be directly contrasted with Horatian satire, which utilizes a much gentler form of ridicule to highlight folly or oddity. A Juvenalian satirist is much more likely to see the targets of his satire as evil or actively harmful to society, and to attack them with serious intent to harm their reputation or power. While Juvenalian satire often attacks individuals on a personal level, its most common objective is social criticism.

Juvenal was best known for his bitter attacks on the public figures and institutions of the Republic, with which he disagreed. Where his predecessor Horace utilized gentle ridicule and absurdism to point out the flaws and foibles of the Roman society, Juvenal engaged in savage personal attacks. He utilized the satirical tools of exaggeration and parody to make his targets appear monstrous or incompetent. While he occasionally utilized humor to make his point, Juvenal’s satire had more in common with the invective of a political pundit than the primarily humor-driven form favored by most modern satirists.

The primary weapons of Juvenalian satire are scorn and ridicule. Often, a satirist will exaggerate the words or position of an opponent, or place them in a context that highlights their flaws or self-contradictions. A satirical piece may be couched as a straightforward critique or take the form of an extended analogy or narrative. Often, characters in a Juvenalian narrative are thinly-veiled representations of public figures or archetypes of existing groups or modes of thought. The characters are made to act in such a way that the beliefs or behaviors the satirist wishes to attack are made to appear evil or absurd.

Juvenalian satire has been a common tool of social criticism from Juvenal’s own lifetime to the present.

Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson borrowed heavily from Juvenal’s techniques in their critiques of contemporary English society. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley created Juvenalian mirrors of their own societies to address what they saw as dangerous social and political tendencies. Modern satirists such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker mount Juvenalian attacks on a wide range of social themes.

Tragedy evokes emotions; comedy affects thinking.