The critical & satirical

Modern satire has political undertones but there’s more to it than mockery

TV hosts Jon Stewart (above) and Stephen Colbert (below) use satire to criticize current events.
TV hosts Jon Stewart (above) and Stephen Colbert (below) use satire to criticize current events.
Photo: 
Photo: 

The audience laughs as Jon Stewart mocks the outcry against Obama’s latest push for more gun control, but there’s a sober message behind his tone.

Stewart is one of the few political satirists on TV — a well-known personality who use comedy and exaggeration to criticize.

And according to University of Toronto history and philosophy of education professor Megan Boler, satire, especially the political kind, can help push people into action, like The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

The 2010 rally was held in Washington D.C. by news satirists Stewart and Stephen Colbert, which brought together over half a million people against the current state of American politics.

According to Boler, figures like Stewart and Colbert help raise awareness across the world.

“[Fake news] is effective in terms of popularizing current events in a culture in which many young people have at least ostensibly, we are told, disengaged from news broadcast,” she said.

Although discontent with modern media is evident, Boler said people are increasingly tuning in to fake news, especially after growing tired of traditional news.

“People are aware that there are multiple versions of reality and truth,” she said. “Fake news offers a ‘reality check’ when you’re in the context of a government and media system that is consistently misleading the populace.”

Kenneth Hall, a political studies student, said he regularly reads The Onion for its political take on current events.

“Satire is instinctively political,” he said. “It’s an opinion on politics which is the domain of opinion.

“It’s the artful representation of an opinion, ultimately.”

The Onion, a satirical news organization that’s available online and in print, recently posted an article titled “The 6 Best Dresses At The Golden Globes,” consisting of an online gallery of photos from war-torn Syria.

It’s entities like The Onion that Hall said defines satire — a subtle criticism of a social issue, through the use of exaggeration, irony and humour.

“[The Golden Globes slideshow] was full-frontal criticism and it hit home, but at the same time it was funny because it was outrageous,” Hall said.

According to Queen’s film studies professor Blaine Allan, satire has been around long before The Onion’s Internet fame.

Arising in the 1960s, television shows like That Was the Week That Was and This Hour Has 7 Days helped bring satire to the family living room.

Television satire lets the audience get more comfortable with its subtlety, Allan said, unlike the more obvious satire in film and literature.

“I think that’s part of what makes [television] effective,” he said. “Perhaps it’s a matter of presenting discomforting situations and materials in a situation that is typically familiar.”

Allan uses The Simpsons to describe the typical middle class family gone awry, with humorous plots laden with classic satire.

“What [satirical TV shows] do, and do best, is point to an issue incisively or point to what might be thought about or seen in a particular issue,” Allan said.

Though shows like The Colbert Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes use satire to criticize, Allan said some viewers see it as a way to get their daily news.

“In some ways I think it’s sad,” he said. “In other ways I think it’s really quite commendable because often shows like The Daily Show will present elements of news events that … could be quite obvious and yet aren’t part of the accepted formats of conventional journalism.”

But satire isn’t always an effective medium, according to English professor Christopher Fanning.

“Satire always runs the risk of being too local and specific: picking at things that will be forgotten or unimportant in the near or distant future,” Fanning told the Journal via email.

With modern satire, though, there’s more of a “performative element,” Fanning said, where the satirists become a completely new character.

“The victims of these performance artists rarely get the irony — which enhances our pleasure by making us in on the joke,” he said.

Though some people enjoy being in on the joke, there are limits to satire.

“The problem of satire is that it is always preaching to the converted. If we get the joke … then we’re already on the right side.”

Global satire

Contemporary satire isn’t limited to Colbert, Stewart or The Onion. Countries around the world have delved into the comedy of criticism.

India
Launched in 2008, Indian satirical news website Faking News warns readers who are “too religious, too political, too sentimental, too serious, too liberal, or too anything” to stay away.

Iran
Parazit is a now-defunct Persian news satire show circulated online and on bootleg DVDs in Iran. ‘Parazit’ means static, a reference to Iran’s government-blocking foreign satellite programming.

Japan
Though Japanese satire typically stays away from discussing politics, TV figures like Hikari Ota of Hikari Ota’s: If I Became Prime Minister use skits to poke fun at Japanese politicians.

Spain
Founded in 2009, Spanish online newspaper El Mundo Today takes a satirical look at worldwide events in a mock-newspaper style. It’s like The Onion — if you’re fluent in Spanish.

Janina Enrile

A society of satire

Television

30 Rock (2006-present)

30 Rock goes behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-like sketch series. The show features commentary on life in late night comedy, Hollywood, corporate America and much more.

Also see: The Simpsons (1989-present), South Park (1997-present), The Boondocks (2005-present)

Film

American Psycho (2000)

Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, the film follows Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman. On the surface, he’s a wealthy investment banker living in 1980s Manhattan. Beneath all that, Bateman is a psychopath, highlighting the film’s social satire.

Also see: This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Starship Troopers (1997)

Literature

Catch-22 (1961)

Joseph Heller’s World War II novel chronicles the daily life of a US Army squadron. A satire on military and bureaucratic life, it’s cited as one of the greatest modern literary works of all time.

Also see: George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945)

Janina Enrile

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