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Satire: Joy and Meaning

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What is satire?

Satire is a literary genre that uses humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

As a literary genre, satire dates back to ancient times and originated in a type of literature known as Old Comedy. Old Comedy incorporated satirical poems in the form of skits and plays. Medieval authors used satire in a more familiar literary form, the satirical essay, which became a popular form of political writing during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The word satire comes from the Latin word “satura,” meaning “satyr play” or “rough music.” Roman writers used the term to denote a play that was a hybrid of dramatic and comedic forms.

When did satire begin?

Satire emerged in ancient Greece, the birthplace of the Western literary tradition. The earliest example of a Greek satirical tradition is the work of the poet Hipponax, who composed biting, caustic iambic verse at around 600 BCE.

Silly but important

It’s an important high-level attribute of developed, prosperous countries: ability to laugh at oneself. At a personal level, at a political level, and at a country level. Advanced, western democracies like Canada and Sweden often make fun of their own idiosyncrasies. Making fun of Canadians feels like a good-natured joke between friends. Countries that do not allow satire (we won’t name them here) feel like the weird offended, insecure person at a teenage party. No-one wants to be that person. Freedom of speech is highly politicized topic, and is thrown around like a political football. But when one looks at the actual levels of freedom of speech, by real people and real journalists around the world, satire is the canary in the coal mine. Once it stops singing, you know things are serious, and you have to be careful not to cross the wrong people, in your creative medium.

Comedy

For purely visceral joy, there are a few things you can pursue, but comedy, raucous unrestrained laughter is right up there, somewhere after food and making love. There’s nothing quite like the warm, warm glow you feel when people are laughing at something you’ve said, or you’ve written, or you’ve done. It’s the same feeling as when you have just eaten a good meal, but it’s more intense. It’s the feeling you had as a kid when you did something you knew was funny. You knew it was funny, and you did it on purpose. And it worked.

Meaning

At many times, sharp criticism of a completely ridiculous situation is just not enough, it’s hard to restate how completely wrong and absurd some mistakes are. To really convey it, you need satire. Entire works of fiction have been written purely to hammer home a point about the mistakes or excesses of one political party or another, about committees, about witch hunts, about silly legislation, and so on.

The thing is, satire works best when it’s true. Satire is when you take an issue that is really true and you make it even more true, by exaggerating it or by taking it to the next logical step. Satire is when you take something that is already true and you make it even more true by adding detail.

In writing, satire is a tool, a weapon, a technique of wit. You use it to make sure the reader gets the point and comes away with the right impression. It isn’t always written form either. Sometimes there’s nothing more powerful than the calm, authoritative dry tone of a narration voice over, slowly pronouncing the words of a completely bonkers announcement by a hypothetical government official, deeply parodying a very real (and probably deserving) actual government official.

The best satire is done by people who are very good at what they do. You need to be a good writer, first of all, and you need to be a good writer of the particular genre you are writing in. Satire is like a special flavour of a certain type of fiction. You have to be a very good writer of that type of fiction in order to pull it off.

There’s also a certain amount of luck involved. If you do something so good that it goes viral, or gets picked up by mainstream media, you have to be lucky that it’s a good time for the media, or that they happen to be hell bent on targeting that particular topic. You know that every newspaper editor is just hoping and praying for one of the famous cartoonists to deliver a sharp and cutting piece of art at just the right time. A week later, and all the steam will have gone out. So satirists need to be not only sharp, but also fast. What a tall order that is! We’re lucky to have them among us.

Don’t ban satire

While it’s not as under-threat as it once was, please keep the importance of satire in mind, it may be encroached upon in future. And what a silly joke that would be.