|Talking to the audience, done right.|
|I know what you're thinking...|
|Stone cutters took pity and gave him a great head of hair.|
Remember, this is funny to an audience
who has no doubt in their faith in Zeus.
He also took on figures such as Cleon (a prominent Athenian statesman and strategic mind during the Peloponnesian war--Aristophanes and Cleon got into a heated debate over how Aristophanes depicts him), Lamachus (a risk-taking general of the Peloponnesian war), to the gods themselves--Dionysus getting a rather hilarious portrait in The Frogs. And it's here where we first see the beginnings of satire. Satire isn't afraid to hit hard and hit high. Primarily it is on the attack. It's humour is based around attacking something--typically real-life people--and making a mockery out of them. Again, I say if Aristophanes were alive now, he'd write for the Capital Steps and he would've have had deja vu during the Iraqi War and it's similarities to the Peloponnesian war. Yes, I should note that Aristophanes was virulently anti-war, well anti-the Peloponnesian war, not so much against the concept of war per se. However while attack is an important part of satire it is not the end-all and be-all part of it. Otherwise pure invective or simple plain cursing and swearing at a person would be considered satire. No, there has to be something more to it, the attack has to be balanced with a sense of humour that way satire doesn't completely wallow in the sea of the mean-spirited.
Another tradition that comes from Aristophanes in to modern satire is the idea of authorial intent. In no other literary genre is authorial intent more out in the open and plainly obvious for everyone to see. Often times the author will speak to us through to work to the readers or audience directly, giving a little smirk, wink, or eyebrow raise for our own benefit. This was actually a formalized part of Old Comedy called the parabasis, and it is here that the author's intent was made clear to the audience, as the Greek chorus would "break the fourth wall" and speak the author's mind directly to the audience. Often times, well at least from Aristophanes' play, we'd get insights into the life of the author, but at the same time, the focus usually was more on the message that the author wanted us to take from the piece. It is from parabasis that the tradition of witty narrators, self-deprecating humour, and breaks in the fourth wall between the world of the story and our own as readers come from. Often satires will play with the notion of characters being self-aware that they're in a story, or will play around with self-awareness in general. As such the satirist will play around with exploring the artificial nature of storytelling.
Cracked.com plays around with the notion of self-awareness
Although comedy derived from satire, I'd argue they've evolved to the point where neither truly exists in the same world, and the only thing similar about them anymore is that they both make us laugh. True comedy as we know it today is about community building, and satire if anything is about community destroying. Satire sees the world as corrupted and in need of a good purge--and it sees itself as the man up to the task to point the rest of us in the right direction. In a lot of ways satire is about wading through the muddy, dirty and disgusting parts of society that would trouble or upset us in a comedy. Comedy would try and laugh it all off as us just "being human", but satire likes to sit with the uncomfortable and demands that you pay attention. Satire typically wants to change the world, probably just as much as some of the best melodrama does. Except satire will try and get to you through your mind and intellect, while melodrama will hit you in an emotional gut wrenching manner.
|I hope it's not the swimsuit edition.|
After Aristophanes' Greek Old Comedy gave way to Menander's Greek New Comedy, the notions of satire weren't again picked up until the early days of the Roman Empire under the quills of Juvenal and Horace. Here is a quote from Horace's The Art of Poetry, which discusses a new idea to crop up in our development of satire, humour of convention:
"Gods should not talk like heroes, nor again
|Drink Roman, the only wine that matters.|
Lady and nurse a different language crave,
Sons of the soil and rovers o'er the wave;
Assyrian, Colchian, Theban, Argive, each
Has his own style, his proper cast of speech.
In painting characters, follow tradition,
Or in inventing be consistent,
If great Achilles figure in the scene,
Make him impatient, fiery, ruthless, keen;
All laws, all covenants let him still disown,
And test his quarrel by the sword alone.
Make Medea all revenge and scorn,
Ino still sad, Ixion still forsworn,
Io, a wanderer still, Orestes still forlorn.
If you would be original, and seek
To frame some character ne'er seen in Greek,
See it be wrought on one consistent plan,
And end the same creation it began." -- Horace
In this short excerpt from Horace, he argues for convention and tradition in character creation, he goes on to argue that it's hard to put an original twist on a story men know so well, but he asks us to maintain conventions for the sake of not confusing one's audience. And the reason I quote this is because Satire is a form of humour extremely dependent on convention. An example given by Northrop Frye that will be mentioned later as well, is the convention of the battered husband and shrewish wife. We conventionally find it funny in a comic strip for a wife to beat her husband with a rolling pin or a frying pan of some sort, but to introduce a comic strip where a husband beats his wife would stop and confuse its readers. One thing we know from convention is funny, the other we're told is a more tragic situation, and so an uneasy feeling would settle on the readers which would kill the satiric mood. Satire does aim to make its audience uncomfortable, but this specific level of discomfort is how one loses readers and audiences. It's a line not to be crossed too often, and when you do, as Horace suggests, be consistent.
One is cute in a weird way, the other has cute bu--
I think I know why we updated this convention...
Similarly if you wish to create a new convention, likewise be consistent. Arguably the minions from Despicable Me have created a new convention that has been emulated in many other children's films and will continue to be so in time to come. However I'd argue they're not so much a new convention as a re-imagining of an older convention of kewpie dolls and cute little cupids (see Disney's Fantasia). Conventions have lives and after living a full one, will die or fade from popularity, and as such every so often will be unexpectedly revitalized by a re-imagining of the convention in a manner that more modern audiences can relate to.
|A knight and his washer lady.|
|Gulliver in Brobdignab where the tables are turned.|
|In Wonderland, everyone's mad. I'm mad, he's mad, you're mad...|
Humour in satire, thanks to Aristophanes, can be more than just conventional,fantastical, grotesque, or poking fun at romance, it usually is quite topical as well. This is why of all the genres, I'd say satire has the hardest time lasting very long, and has to be constantly re-invented. Aristophanes attacked real people he and the rest of Athens knew, Cervantes parodied romance novels and stories that all of Spain had grown up reading, and Swift attacked the hypocrisies of his own society mercilessly. In each case though they were dealing with a subject that their readers already came to the table knowing quite well--and if we wish to understand just as much as they did, we have to do our own "studying" of the materials. However I would argue that the best satires, while using topical humour manage to find a way to transcend the topicality either by having the insanity it explores be SO grotesque and extreme that it transcends its specific time (Gulliver's Travels and the Alice stories fit here) or by simultaneously telling its audience what to expect to happen by meta-theatrically having the protagonist "explain the rules". Don Quixote for example, when asked to pay for his inn bill, proclaims that no knight ever has a concern for money and they're provided hospitality without any expectation of repayment. In the modern horror film satire Scream, a character literally explains "the rules" of old horror films.
Satire served up with a healthy dose of beer and teen torture, please.
While satire is quite topical in its humour, and thus prone to making fun of particular individuals, one can find a few common characters that belong to it that have now become prolific favourites.
Some common characters of satire:
The Last Man of Common Sense
|Wait till he pulls out his gun in five, four, three, tw--BANG!|
The Loveable Eccentric
|Everyone loves Abby, that could be a sitcom, right?|
The Delusional Giant
|Well isn't this rather obvious...|
The Battered Husband & Shrewish Wife
|Feminists, if you want to change society, get rid of this... OW! Yes, mistress...|
Now all that is fine and dandy, but how does it all interact with our society? Well, currently since about WWI or so we've been living in a "golden age" of Satire, where everything is smeared with a satiric touch from pornography to children's literature. Sure, in the 1950s and on into the 1960s there was a bit of a backlash to that mindset (thanks to Disney and the dewy-eyed Silent Generation), but come the 1970s our satirical outlook was more firmly fixed than ever--one eyebrow raise at a time. Satire was and always will be a genre about mercilessly attacking a sick society and tearing it down. By doing so the satirists attempt to show what is wrong with "us" so that we as an audience might know what to change. In a way it's like House (people still watch that show, right?), where the satirist is an expert at diagnosing the sick. Now as has been mentioned previously, although satire is brilliant at diagnosing the sick, that's just about all it does. It doesn't try to heal the sick like a comedy would, instead it's the little kid in the parade pointing out the Emperor has no clothes on, and it's never seen or heard from again. Satire gives us the diagnosis, but it leaves the cure up to us--typically Satire is too cynical and too suspicious of cure-alls and those who proclaim to have the answer to everything, which is probably why it doesn't bother trying to heal society. The satirist figures letting you know what the problem is is enough, and oh, by the way, you're welcome. You'll have to figure out the rest from here on out, the satirist's job is done. And that's just in the lightest of satires, in the darkest of the dark satires--there's just pure nihilism with absolutely no hope of reforming anything and so we all might as well enjoy the ride to hell while it lasts.
Satire as a genre is how we attack parts of our society which are seen as sick and are most likely incurable. Sometimes through common sense we hope to violently purge the idiots who now control our society, and in other cases merely thinking you can cure it at all is a ridiculous notion to hold on to. Which makes me wonder if the darker satires really don't have a point? Perhaps we as a society are sick and going to hell in hand basket and there's nothing we can do about it. And if that's the destination, at least we can laugh about it on the way there.