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Satire and Her Ugly Siblings: Parody, Irony and Sarcasm

One of Hollywood’s most enduring images of satire 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.

cover art of the 20th century's greatest satire, catch-22 by joseph heller
My pick for the greatest satire of the 20th century

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 become a children’s story) to Catch-22, to more modern works such as Chuck Palahliuk’s Fight Club, satire is an attack on human vice and folly.

People often say “satire is dead.” They said it after 9/11. They said after Trump. I say, “nein, nein . . . my president!”

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

Parody, the slutty one

The satire of Tina Fey on SNL's Weekend Update (not slutty)
Tina Fey as the anchor in SNL’s Weekend Update —

Let’s start with Parody, Satire’s dizygotic (fraternal) twin. I’ll be honest with you, Parody is kind of winning of late. There’s a whole sub-genre of TV now, the fake news show, which is a great example of parody: The Daily Show, Weekend Update on SNL, and to some extent, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, are all examples. (Though the latter sometimes raises itself to satire, or sinks to sarcasm.) I love is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which spoofs the science fiction genre brilliantly. And if you’re looking for another fictional TV satire, I’d recommend The Boys, which parodies the superhero genre. That just scratches the surface. There’s so many!

Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy cover art by Douglas Adams
My favourite parody of the science fiction genre.

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.

Irony, the overlooked one

Peter Sellers, who stars in Dr. Strangelove -- a great satire, but filled with irony
Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, in Dr. Strangelove (he has some of the best lines in the movie)

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 siblings, including Satire, it is not the only way to be ironic.

Sarcasm, the bullying older brother

Older bullying brother
Buzz McCalilster, from Home Alone, an iconic older bullying brother

Sarcasm is close with Irony, but he is the ugliest of siblings. I’d describe him as the crass older brother; he goes for the crudest joke she can. Parody may be a slut, but Sarcasm is just mean. He mocks, He derides, and he is not subtle about it. Sarcasm isn’t an art form either; he works best verbally (which is why he always gets you into trouble when you try to employ him in emails). An example of sarcasm is saying: “well that’s original” to something that is clichéd or overused. (Usually, he’s much more cutting.)

Too often people allow this ruffian to dominate their humor; it becomes the default filter for how these misguided souls view the world.

Sarcasm is the sibling who has helped ruin social media. He’s the go-to bro of the troll set.

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, here 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.

cover art of The Fridgularity and Marvellous Hairy, both by Mark A. Rayner

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