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Satire’s Ugly Sisters: Parody, Irony and Sarcasm

One of Hollywood’s most enduring images is of Slim Pickens as Maj. T.J. “King” Kong, cowboy hat in one hand, h-bomb gripped in the other, woopin’ it up as he rides down to obliterate a Russian ICBM site.

For my money, Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is still great satire.

It’s disturbing, it’s funny, and that laughter is cathartic, even now. Imagine how much more therapeutic it was to laugh at the expense of the Cold War, the military mindset and the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis? (The movie came out in 1964.)

At its best, satire can be sublime, hilarious and deeply affecting. From Gulliver’s Travels (yes, that is a satire first, which has been watered-down over the years to becoming a children’s story) to Catch-22, to more recent works such as Chuck Palahliuk’s Fight Club, satire is an attack on human vice and folly.

Since 9/11, many have argued that satire is dead. I say, “nein, nein . . . my president!”

The problem is that artists are not romancing Satire, but instead find themselves in dalliances with Her ugly sisters, Parody, Irony and Sarcasm.

Let’s start with Parody, Satire’s fraternal twin. I’ll be honest with you, I’m having a bit of an affair with Parody right now because of The Daily Show. (This is an example of parody at its best. It also veers into the realm of satire some days, so that probably why I love it so much.) Another parody that I love is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which spoofs the science fiction genre brilliantly.

Parody’s not really ugly; she just a little plain standing next to Satire. Any beauty Parody has is reflective of whatever it is She’s imitating.

And she’s a tart. Don’t get me wrong, I love the unbridled passion, the smutty need of Parody. I can see the attraction, but Parody is just not going to do for you what Satire can. Parody is all about the humor; she’s about getting the laugh and getting out. But Satire is more mature. She’s not afraid of being deep on occasion or showing her sensitive side.

This leads us to Irony, the most misunderstood sister — a bruised flower and duplicitous schemer at the same time. Often people confuse Sarcasm and Irony, but they’re so different, I don’t get why. Sarcasm mocks in tone, while Irony delicately twists meaning. Irony takes a word or phrase and makes it mean something else entirely.
Aspects of Irony’s character, like aspects of Parody, can be seen in the regal face of Satire, but it is not the same thing. An example of Irony is a line in Dr. Strangelove by Peter Sellers (as President Merkin Muffley): “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”

Too often, artists ignore the literary use of irony such as the central irony in Joseph Heller’s brilliant satire, Catch 22:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch that catch 22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is.” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Though cynicism may be the underpinning for all the sisters, including Satire, it is not the only way to be ironic.

Sarcasm is Irony’s fraternal twin, and man, she really is the ugly one. I’d describe her as the crass sister; she goes for the crudest joke she can. Parody may be a slut, but Sarcasm is just mean. She mocks, she derides, and she is not subtle about it. Sarcasm isn’t an art form either; she works best verbally (which is why she always gets you into trouble when you try to employ her in emails). An example of sarcasm is saying: “well that’s original” to something that is clich├ęd or overused. (Usually, she’s much more cutting.)

Too often people allow this ugly sister Sarcasm to dominate their humor; it becomes the default filter for how these misguided souls view the world. There’s a great Simpsons episode (the one in which Homer catches cannon balls in his gut) where this bit of dialog exemplifies the mindset:

Teen 1: Oh, her e comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
Teen 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen 1: I don’t even know anymore.

And that is great Satire.