Understanding satire: How to detect satire

Satire is complex. It requires someone to simultaneously understand the text and subtext of a piece of writing. Therefore it’s not as universally understood or appreciated as other forms of comedy, say slapstick, which is much more direct. There’s nothing to “get” about someone getting hit in the face with a pie. The joke needs no explanation.

Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, said, “it seems like there are a lot of people who just do not understand satire. They think it’s weird. There are people who just don’t understand that when you portray something or just explore a character, it doesn’t mean you’re condoning it and saying this is the way to live.”

In fact, in most cases, satirists appear to advocate for the very things they actually wish to critique. That is why it may be confusing for some people.

Understanding satire is a skill. There are people who are naturally (or raised to be) more sarcastic and will “get it” quicker than others, but everyone can improve their ability to appreciate and detect satire.

You should not need someone else to tell you that what you’re reading or watching is satire. Ideally, one would be able to perceive that themselves. I like to think of these as “clues” that something is satire. They’re not rules, but the more of these clues that a piece of media has, the more likely it is to be satire.

Try taking a bunch of real news articles and mix them in with satire articles and see if your students can tell the difference.

Clues that Something is Satire

    • It appears to be lacking respect or it is irreverent
      • Again, on its own, this would not be enough to make a determination, but satire often appears disrespectful (even if the actual point it is making is the opposite)
    • It says what people are thinking, but don’t want to say
      • Satire may appear blunt and “too honest”
    • It’s politically incorrect
      • Satire, depending on the tone, may appear unconcerned about who might be offended. Again, this is just a clue, and insufficient by itself.
    • The ideas and story are over-the-top/exaggerated
      • This is huge. If you get that feeling, like, “hey, this seems too over the top to be real”, you just might be onto something.
    • The characters are exaggerated/in caricature
      • Examining The Simpsons characters is a great example of this because it provides students with visual examples of caricature
    • It points out contradictions and hypocrisy
    • It advocates something unethical and acts like it’s normal
      • Again, this is very common in satire, but the key is to combine this with humour. If someone is advocating something unethical, but there is no humour behind it, it’s probably not satire.
    • It’s funny
    • The context makes it clear that it’s satire
      • Certain websites, television shows, and comedians are known for doing satire. This context will make the satire that much more obvious.
    • Having a knowledge of:
        • the point that’s being made
        • who/what is being satirized
          • You’re not going to “get” the satire if you don’t understand these two things. For example, a Canadian is unlikely to understand a satirical take on the Prime Minister of Japan. Satire requires background knowledge.

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