Contextualizing Humor / Comedy in Culture Essay

Satire can be considered as a popular element of comedy that has been practiced for many decades. As an aspect of humor or an art form, satire can be used to point out the shortcomings of certain people, behaviors, and social issues in a manner that makes it rather absurd and funny and therefore, appealing to a larger audience (LeBoeuf 1). Furthermore, the use of irony to point out different problems and concerns is also commonly used in the satirical work. As it seeks to help the lower classes raise a voice against the class powers, satire thus can be contextualized in cultures as a form of left-culturalism (Barker and Jane 17). This essay will focus on the evolution and development of satire as a result of multiple forces and the work of famous satirists. Furthermore, this piece of writing will highlight the social actors that are connected to satire, and an episode from a modern satirical show will also be analyzed.

Different forces and famous personalities of several eras have contributed to the creation of satire and its transformation into the form that is seen in the modern world. Its roots can be traced back to ancient Rome, where it was known as the literary form of satura (LeBoeuf 2). In this era, famous satirists Horace and Juvenal did not practice this form of humor as it is used today; however, they commentated on social issues with mild critiques and slight humor without any calls for big social change. Satire as a literary form started flourishing when Europe moved into the middle ages. The work of Geoffrey Chaucer during this time period is very important as he highlighted and targeted the hypocritical nature of the Catholic church and the government of England. For example, in his book Canterbury Tales a nun is supposed to live a pious life after being married to the church; however, she is obsessed with the material world and her own looks (LeBoeuf 6). Most importantly, the Elizabethan Period can rightfully be considered as the golden era for the development of satire into a social force. This time period produced famous writers such as Jonathan Swift, Voltaire and Daniel Defoe who used satire to criticize several issues and problems in the English society. Moreover, in the 19th century, the work of Mark Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was crucial for the development of satire. In his book, the author heavily criticized southern culture, especially racism and religion (LeBouef 9). In contemporary times, the comic strips Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau gave satire a place in visual arts. The comics satirized “the education system, government, politics, fast food and other social issues” (LeBouef 11). The emergence of a comic strip that was well known for its liberal stance can be accredited to “the sixties”, which was a time when the United States was becoming more accepting of different people, ideas, and norms (Hartman 130). A popular example of modern satire is the show The Colbert Report hosted by Stephen Colbert who plays the role of a conservative news anchor. In his show, he makes many illogical statements that stem from faith and sheer nationalism, making a rational argument nearly impossible (LeBouef 13). Colbert ignores all rationality and logic even while interviewing people on his show, thus, displaying the highly conservative right as foolish (LeBouef 14). It is important to note that discontent with certain social norms or accepted forms of behavior can be considered as the major force behind the use of satire. It serves as a tool to point out the absurdities of society that might be too ugly to be pointed out directly; thus, enveloping these problems in humor and irony make them more presentable towards the masses, evoking a much-needed sense of critical analysis. Similarly, through using exaggeration, problems that are largely ignored can be brought forward in a magnified form, forcing people to give thought and consideration to them. Thus, the work of many satirical writers fueled by a sense of dissatisfaction with social norms and issues led to the development of satire over different eras.

Different social actors can be directly or indirectly connected to the use of satire, as people belonging to different societal institutions and social backgrounds are seen to be embracing, using, consuming, or opposing satirical humor. Political satire can be used as an example from which the occurrences relating to the use of satire can be analyzed. The public should be aware of the agendas and ideologies different political parties hold. However, in mainstream media, not all information is presented to the people, often due to media restrictions or political personalities refusing to answer questions. In situations where political discourse seems to be diminishing and the public is misinformed, satire can be used as a force to put political pressure against misinformation and the misuse of authority (Swayne-Penn). For example, after the 9/11 accident, the public was not entirely aware of the United States’ problematic policies. However, famous Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who hosted satirical television shows, were among the very few voices that critiqued the policies the U.S. was adopting (Swayne-Penn). Thus, the public that is responsible for social action is enabled to make better decisions after getting much needed transparent and unbiased information in the form of satire. Furthermore, politicians and important personalities may also be exposed to the public because of satirical works, consequently increasing or decreasing their popularity. Furthermore, it is essential to point out that although many consume and support satire, a large population opposes the use of mockery. However, to view satirical work as just ridicule is not the right way to look at it, but rather, it should be considered as a tool for highlighting problematic affairs by taunting and mocking them. It makes complete sense to be offended by making fun of problems and, therefore, highlighting them rather than being concerned by the actual issues. In doing so, all the troubles of today’s society can be solved. Thus, satire, with the use of mockery, advocates for public discourse and critical thinking. Furthermore, it compels people to question the status quo, therefore, influencing social actors including the public and important personalities.

Focusing and analyzing on an episode from Saturday Night Live in which Tina Fey made a return visit can be used to get valuable insight about modern satire and its effects. In this episode, Fey impersonated McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, as “intellectually anemic” (Queenan). It is important to point out that prior to the airing of this episode in 2008, John McCain was expected to win the elections. However, clips of this satirical piece were viewed by millions on YouTube, and people immediately started criticizing McCain for selecting Palin as his running mate. As a result, John McCain’s polls began to drop overnight (Queenan). This example shows that modern satire is well crafted, humorous, and better delivered, thus, making it very effective in appealing to a large population. Furthermore, social media in today’s time allows the highlighted parts of a show be viewed by millions of people without requiring them to sit through an entire TV show (Queenan). As a result, satire can now be easily viewed and appreciated, making it quite an effective tool to spread awareness about a certain situation. In addition, the drop in support for McCain points to the fact that modern satire, which is humorous but with serious messages, is received positively by the viewers and they process the information actively rather than being passive consumers of this art form. Thus, easy access to modern satire and an active audience makes it an art form that can be used to spread information about important issues, therefore, making people more aware and critical.

Satire, using irony, sarcasm, and exaggeration, can help bring attention to social problems. It advocates for critical thinking and open debates about issues that are not discussed openly. From works of Horace and Juvenal during the ancient Roman times all the way down to television shows like The Colbert Report in modern times, satire has seen much transformation. However, what has remained constant about this element of humor is its use as a tool for highlighting the problems within a society and, therefore, advocating for social change. Satire is also used to keep people informed about different events in politics or other societal landscapes, thus, connecting the general public and powerful personalities to this artform.

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Works Cited
Barker, Chris, and Emma A. Jane. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 5th ed., Sage, 2016.
Hartman, Andrew. "Culture Wars and the Humanities in the Age of Neoliberalism." Raritan, vol. 36, no. 4, 2017, 128-40.
LeBoeuf, Megan. “The Power of Ridicule: An Analysis of Satire”. University of Rhode Island: Senior Honors Projects, 2007, Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.
Queenan, Joe. “How Satire Changed the Course of History.” The Guardian, , 4 Nov. 2008, Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.
Swayne-Penn, Matthew. “Why We Need Satire When Times Are Tough.” Futurity, 28 Jan. 2015, Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.