Why We Like Satire Even When Things Don’t Change
In 1729, A Modest Proposal shocked a staid and stiff England. Readers were immediately repulsed by the anonymous author’s suggestion that people eat children in order to stop children from starving. They rose up and demanded that action be taken to stop the immense poverty sweeping Ireland. Aristocrats and scholars, the primary targets of A Modest Proposal, quickly threw money and workable solutions at the problem. That satire, one of Jonathon Swift’s many masterpieces, produced sweeping changes.
We’ve had a three-hundred-year drought since then.
It’s hard to name any satire that has so collectively changed our consciousness or system. Even A Modest Proposal had little more than a short-lived and problem-specific success. Others have had minor successes, and many have become part of the public discourse or cultural checkpoints, A few, like Catch-22 and 1984, have worked their way into the vernacular. But changed the system? Reversed our thinking? No way. Not even close.
And yet, they remain a dominant part of literature, television, and film. It’s all the rage now, to the point that things that aren’t even remotely satirical are labeled as satire just to jump on the bandwagon. There are satirical podcasts, blogs, vlogs, and entire print newspapers. And until somebody proves otherwise, I’m going to argue that even the White House is being run as a satire of previous presidents.
But they don’t change anything. So why do we like satire so much?
Five Reasons to Like Satire
- We like looking at ourselves in the mirror. Satire reflects society, or at least a very specific part of it: politics, the economy, the media, religion. You name it, there’s a satire about it. It’s familiar because we can find ourselves, our interests, and very familiar parts of this world in it.
- Satire is Us versus Them. It’s an old rule of comedy: we’re, the people out there are fools. Satire lets you in on the joke. By reading it, you realize you’re part of the solution, not part of the problem. Politicians, religious leaders, academics, voters—hell, anybody and possibly everybody—is the problem. You now have a side, and your side is right.
- Satire speaks truth to power. Satire is the court jester telling the king what everyone is thinking but can’t tell him. It can flat-out say here’s where you’re screwing up and everyone in the room can laugh at the joke, even if briefly. It can tell the emperor he has no clothes by screaming, “You’re naked! You’re naked!” Satire goes where his advisers, relatives, and appointed sycophants never will.
- Satire attacks authority. There’s another rule in comedy: it works best when it attacks power. Attacking the powerless is just bullying. So, satire not only speaks truth to power, it speaks truth about power. It addresses its abuses, shortcomings, absurdities and callousness often without letting our leaders know—but we sure know who the satirist talking about. After all, we’re laughing at them. Satire pokes those who desperately need to be poked—and best of all, someone else is doing the poking!
- Satire confirms what we already believe but in an entertaining way. One of the important reasons we like satire is that it’s confirmation bias on steroids, although the great ones attack your beliefs, too. But satire generally addresses things we already believe, even if subconsciously, in an open and hilarious way.
- It lets us present our beliefs to others. Don’t like the president but can’t make it funny or acceptable to your family? Sure, they might not read a dry, one-sided, non-fiction hit job, but a funny fictional tale that seems totally unrelated? They might do that, particularly if they don’t know what’s being attacked at first. Satire is a quotable way to put words in your mouth.
We read satire because it makes us laugh, and we all like to laugh more than cry. It may not change society very often, but it does change individuals—even individuals you’re sure will never change. Uncle Fred. Aunt Mabel. That cousin you tolerate once a year but only if he sits at the other end of the table. Maybe it only moves them a little bit, or only moves them on a single issue, but success of any kind on contentious issues is a success, and satire is the best way to win.
And laugh at the other side while you do it.
John Briggs is a former stand-up comic best-known for creating the stage show Left-Wing Laughs. Today, he is the author of A Vote for Jesus: A Satire on Campaigning, Corruption & Political Crucifixion.