Imagine yourself as Hipponax…who was one of the first truly acerbic satirist writers in Ancient Greece. You’ve just written a scathing satire against two sculptors from the famous Chian School (Bupalus and Athenis) who caricatured you in a sculpture because you have a deformed figure and you’re known for having a hot-tempered personality not loved by many. Your satires vehemently fry Bupalus and Athenis with an assault of words rarely done so effectively within the satirical realms of the Greeks. Yet it’s taken too seriously as you soon realize. That’s because you just got word that Bupalus and Athenis were so embarrassed by this scathing spin on them…they committed suicide.
Shocked and appalled that a piece of satire could cause such a tragic result? Well, maybe some satirists today secretly wish their lambasting of pop culture figures would put hated figures out to pasture somehow…though I think most satirists would quit their jobs in shame immediately if they found out someone killed themselves over a form of comedy. Despite that ugly scenario with Bupalus and Athenis only being reported second-hand by historian Pliny the Elder, Ancient Greece overall had a completely different mentality in senses of humor from where we are now…yet not all that far apart from us in other ways. Satire that burns (as we know it today) was too new and not put into the right context yet during that time frame in Greece. But it’s where satire got its basic start–despite Ancient Rome before that contributing more to its formation and how we understand satire to be today.
Aristophanes is widely considered to be the first Greek writer to use a form of satire in mocking political institutions. Despite that, the concept of satire didn’t really have a particular name yet at the time. Rhetorician Quintillian in Ancient Rome, though, was the one who created the term long before. The Latin origins understood the concept as “Satura Lanx” that translates to “a medley (or dish) of colorful fruits.” This was a metaphor for “colorful mockings” as Ancient Latin put it. Future generations in writing circles, however, thought the term came from the Greeks and “satyr”–named after the mythological creatures who accompanied Dionysus. The satyrs were frequently central characters in early Greek satires performed at the Theatre of Ancient Greece.
Satire in Ancient Rome, though, was really a carefully-crafted type of creative writing exercise. Anybody who mocked the emperors had to do it in subtle ways so it went over the heads of those in power. The evolution of that has come a long way where straight-faced mockery of people in power is common place now. The art form of satire going over most of the heads of those power people has actually gotten worse over time, however. In Ancient Greece, leaders were more astute to it–because our hero Hipponax above was made an outcast due to single-handedly inventing the process of parody. Even when you’re an outcast…writing satires of other people who mock you can still sting.
The fully-formed concept of satire then suddenly became immoral during the Middle Ages…despite Geoffrey Chaucer using a new (and quite fascinating in an historical context) moral version of the genre to outstanding effect in some of his “Canterbury Tales.” This type of satire mocked people’s foibles who were trying to lead Christian lives. The imperfections of people were pretty much the impetus behind all future satire anyway as well as all religions. That carried over into Elizabethan times when the meanings of what satire really was finally found some answers. Writer John Dryden wrote a famous essay giving the final stamp on what this satire thing was and what we would do with it for the next 500 years. In one noteworthy line out of many, he defined it as a way to “combat our vices, to regulate our passions, to follow nature, to give bounds to our desires, to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and between our conceptions of things, and things themselves.”
Outside of this definition, Jonathan Swift (during the same time frame) managed to bring a new straight face to satire both in journalism and in his works of fiction. I’m personally a fan of the straight-faced kind–mainly because it makes you read more carefully–hence making you have to do some critical thinking. Back then, though, when Swift suggested once that poor people sell their children as food…people actually thought he was being serious as a way to combat poverty. (No, nothing in the history books indicates the people actually tried that.) That was about the time when the division of who gets it and who doesn’t seems to have started.
The Devil’s Dictionary is in the Details…
We all know about how Mark Twain brought his own brand of satire to early American literature. But the lesser-known American writer Ambrose Bierce really brought a blistering type around the same time in a famous compilation he wrote called “The Devil’s Dictionary.” This was a book that pretty much skewered all of the English that the world had learned up to the time, which covered a lot of territory to run through the ringer. Bierce had a title of the “laughing devil of San Francisco” while writing a satire column in a popular business magazine. As managing editor of that column (called “The Town Crier”)–he took satire to the uninhibited level that we see somewhat today. That means getting into trouble more than once for many who tried it, even though he surprisingly managed to get away with it for the most part. In “The Devil’s Dictionary”–he compiled many of the words used in our everyday speech and gave biting alternative definitions of what they mean. A few examples:
A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.
Obviously, those are still satirically relevant today (as are most of the entries)–and offshoot editions of the book have been published during the 1990’s and more recently. It really set another precedent for where we are today in the realms of satire…while also furthering the divide of those who don’t get the point–mainly it seems in America.
The British Rule in Satire Again…and the Americans Steal From Them…Again…
The UK has always understood humor better than any society on the planet. It’s no surprise then that they had a major resurgence of satire in the 1960’s after a bit of a dearth in the immediate ensuing years after WWII. The leaders in that renaissance were an improvisation troupe called “Beyond the Fringe” with the legendary Dudley Moore at the helm (where he cut his teeth)–along with comedian Peter Cook and numerous others. British TV even had “That Was the Week That Was” in the early 60’s that satirized newscasts and endlessly copied to the present day on American TV. Then Monty Python took satire to loony heights in the late 60’s and early 70’s. A lot of this influenced Americans eventually. In the 70’s, satire started to make more inroads again after having one dizzying height of inspiration with Stanley Kubrick’s film masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove” in 1964. A lot of people didn’t get it then here in the States, but at least it’s getting more appreciated today as sophisticated tastes improve.
All of that paved the way for Mel Brooks to step in with his films and poke fun at touchy subjects America was still grappling with in society. Racism was frequently one jibe by Brooks in his 70’s films (“Blazing Saddles” being one of the funniest)…usually aimed at African-Americans or Jews. Despite satire managing to tickle the funny bones of many people–the 70’s was really well into a downward spiral in the acceptance of politically incorrect comedy. It seemed to start after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and when governmental upheaval was in everyday news leading up to the Watergate scandals of the early 70’s. The higher sensitivity to ribbing racial themes was just one part of a more serious veneer that became a part of many people. As evenly divided as people are in politics today–it seemed to be about half the people out there even then against forms of satire. The other half who still loved satire didn’t mind the satirical jabs at things considered sensitive subjects, but they’d have to wait for a while. Satire ended up in somewhat of a dry spot during the 80’s and 90’s in American culture until it slowly started to make its strongest inroads ever since the days of Twain and Bierce. At the same time, the other half who didn’t get it had offspring…who were also subtly taught to not get it.
American Movie Satires Flop…While TV (and Internet) Satire Rises…
American movie satires have usually been misunderstood more than any satire done on TV. Perhaps it’s because satire requires a lot of a viewer’s attention in a movie when many people don’t want to pay a high ticket price to watch something cerebral. On TV, it’s usually in only a half-hour time slot and seemingly easier to digest. Nevertheless, numerous directors tried movie satires in the 80’s and 90’s…and either failed completely or found success with them later. Rob Reiner tried it with “This is Spinal Tap” and ended up with a mild hit that later became a cult…plus starting a new genre of satire: the mocumentary. Christopher Guest took that formula to better success in numerous movies in the 90’s (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show”, etc.). Rob Reiner learned the hard way about making satirical movies when his underrated “North” in the early 90’s when south at the box office. That subsequently led him to never do another satire again to date. Add 1986’s “Ishtar” to the list, even though that film was just a victim of film budget misconceptions. In the way of TV satires, no greater flop was there other than “Police Story” in the early 80’s that later spun off into the successful “The Naked Gun” series on the big screen.
The David Zucker comedies of “Airplane” and “The Naked Gun” movie series started to create a hybrid form of satire: Ones mixed with parody to create a (usually) funnier mix. “The Simpsons” brought this type of formula to TV in 1989 for the first time. It took satire into a different place that actually erased what satire used to be–despite people thinking it was classic satire. But maybe that mix is the best type of satire existing today. It’s a formula that can subtly skew pop culture and traditions, yet still not really offend anybody outrightly. It’s more or less a throwback to Ancient Rome when satire had to be veiled somewhat to save your head. I personally talk to people who still don’t get “The Simpsons” as it becomes one of the longest-running animated (and overall) TV shows of all time.
In the 2000’s, we now have Stephen Colbert and his “Colbert Report” bringing back the older style of satire not seen in decades within the mainstream. The classic form is skewing political institutions rather than mocking pop culture as most satires have done for too long. “The Daily Show” on Comedy Network helped find the way back to classic political satire again. Jon Stewart gets a lot of credit himself for getting “The Daily Show” on that better path and getting Colbert on the air.
Since the 90’s, various websites have helped shape political satire too. “The Onion” alone brings straight-faced political satire at its best among numerous other websites with writers who create convincing articles from real media services. These stories sometimes find their way into the mainstream media who then haphazardly report them. This process brought on a new age of misinformation and rumor on the internet that only seems to get worse over time as satire gets more straight-faced and hard to tell what’s reality sometimes. A little place online called Associated Content had a straight-faced satirical article published that made it onto Fox News in late 2006 as a real news story.
And those who don’t get it are part of an evolutionary cycle…
Some satire around the world has been taken to extreme in an age of trying to get people’s attention when they don’t pay enough attention. When you satirize Muslims in the culturally-sensitive world we live in, it’s likely going to backfire. A Danish newspaper in late 2005 published twelve cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad as a misguided attempt at debating anti-Muslim movements. The Muslim world vehemently protested this–and when the cartoons were published worldwide…it led to tragic results as Ancient Greek Hipponax had to deal with thousands of years before. Satire has gone full circle it seems and ultimately ended up in it becoming so evil in some people’s minds–they’ll cause violence that will hurt or kill people to get it to stop.
In America, the people are thankfully much calmer to scathing satire–if still not afraid to show their displeasure when they don’t understand it. Satire gets more straight-faced as each year goes by at the time of this writing. Those previously-mentioned groups of people who don’t understand that type are ones who probably grew up in conservative parts of the country where past generations took issues more seriously and consider satire denigrating. It’s a situation that really can’t be solved between the ones who do get it and those who don’t. Trying to explain a satirical piece to a person who doesn’t get it just ruins the concept of satire itself. It’s really a complex stalemate in enjoying a true art form.
Occasionally, satire will suddenly and inexplicably be understood by a person who didn’t appreciate it before. What that says about it makes it truly one of the most fascinating writing genres of all time and how potent it can be once a Eureka moment happens with someone. For those who want to write satire as a writing career–keep in mind that it’s still only appreciated by a certain loyal audience. Nevertheless, it’s slowly growing in popularity…small groups at a time…which means everybody may just get it in another 10,000 years.