Transference of Satire from Literature to Pop Culture in Contemporary Society
One of the functions of literature, from thousands of years ago, has been to instruct and reform. Holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are evidence of this. One can find many instances of direct orders to mankind on how to be a better person, lead a better life and find a desirable place in the afterlife in such books. Of course, history has proven that direct, strict orders have not always been a suitable method for educating people and making them follow orders and submit to doctrines since many of them might disobey, rebel, and unfollow those orders and doctrines. In such scenarios, if morality and ethics are among the lost values, society may face a downfall, and harm may be brought to its members.
Social literary figures, then, came into play. Whenever faced with this lack of morality and ethical values, they wrote satires. Abrams and Harpham describe satire as “the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation” (353). This criticism is usually in the form of satiric comedy, which, as described in A Dictionary of Literary Terms, “ridicule[s] the follies, vices, and shortcomings of society, and of individuals who represent that society” (Cuddon 634). Satire writers would diminish and ridicule the social injustice in their society, and by this, would gather their audience’s attention. No longer in the form of direct orders, satires allowed the readers to laugh at the subject, but also think about it and see its follies more clearly. Once one is able to laugh at something, they become more comfortable with the issue, and drop their defenses, hence, they can take it in more easily, and once they fully grasp the depth of the problem, they can even resist and fight it, and try to bring about change.
Satire has a long history, from Ancient Egypt and Greece to the Medieval Islamic world, to the Age of Enlightenment, and to contemporary pop culture (Wikipedia Contributors), and it is safe to say that it has been, for a long time, part of the realm of literature. But not anymore. In today’s world, satire has mostly migrated from written text to moving pictures and sound, and the duty of informing people of these shortcomings and follies is delegated to the popular culture. Individuals no longer have the time nor the interest to peruse the likes of Gulliver’s Travels or The Rape of the Lock. Authors, likewise, are aware of this change and have switched, mostly, from written text to other media. Sure, there are still magazines and newspaper columns dedicated to political satire, but the main source of satire nowadays is TV, cinema, internet, among others.
Talk Shows. There are a few mediums that have undertaken the duty of providing satirical content for members of society. One of the major ones is TV shows. It is clear to everybody nowadays how much TVs mean to us as members of society. They have become one with us, and there is no escaping it. Alongside entertaining us and catching us up with the world, TV shows can provide us with a healthy dose of skepticism and criticism associated with satire. There are many different shows that offer such opportunities. Political late-night shows, such as The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Jim Jefferies Show, not only provide commentary and criticism on political issues but also, make fun of them by a set of satirical methods. In an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, for example, the host makes fun of the US president, Donald Trump, by pinpointing his goofs that were covered by the news, which were about his lack of knowledge of countries’ names and geographical location, makes fun of him by impersonating him in a parodical manner, and in the end ridicules him even more by a little sketch in the end (Colbert). In the Jim Jefferies Show, usually the host, Jim Jefferies, who is not American, makes fun of faulty American ways of living by looking at them from the viewpoint of a foreigner. Such shows are recorded in studios with live audiences who laugh when the host makes a joke, reducing the tension and inviting the viewers at home to laugh at them too and to consider the ridiculousness of the subject being discussed.
TV Series. Another genre of TV that has the potential to provide the audience with satire is TV series. The possibilities of social satire are limitless. One of my favorite cases of social satire is The Orville. In this science fiction adventure series, which also is a comedy-drama, and takes place in a futuristic and technologically advanced society, we see not just the sci-fi stuff, but also the everyday life that we are living right now. Topics such as women’s rights, gay rights, political oppression, and censorship, among others, are portrayed. As a TV reviewer puts it, “There’s something both weighty and rewarding about seeing a generally lighthearted show on network TV wrestle with topics that other shows pointedly ignore” (Henriksen). Another series that has an even more powerful satirical overtone is South Park. In the introduction to his book South Park and Philosophy, Robert Arp boldly claims that South Park “is the most important series on TV” (1) because it is “[u]nafraid to lampoon the extremist fanatics associated with any social, political, ethical, economic, and religious views” (Arp 1). Once found in the works of the likes of Swift, nowadays we can see such constructive criticism on our TV sets.
Films. Among films, I can mention a few of the most iconic films that revolve around the idea of satire, and, parody, which is a branch of satire. As Abrams and Harpham describe, “parody imitates the serious manner and characteristic features of a particular literary work, or the distinctive style of a particular author, or the typical stylistic and other features of a serious literary genre, and deflates the original by applying the imitation to a lowly or comically inappropriate subject (38). There are many cases of parody in literature, and likewise, in TV series and films: from parodic sketches in Family Guy to parodic instances of Family Feud with celebrities that take place inside The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. When it comes to films, one of the most famous parodic comedy works is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which parodies the legend of King Arthur, and in general, the medieval lifestyle of chivalry and heroism. By employing parody, the filmmakers create a long familiar yet different atmosphere which is quite funny at times with its anachronisms and intertextual reference to other works and even itself. Once this atmosphere is established, then the audience is more willing to take in whatever satirical message the movie has to offer. In this case, as a reviewer so shrewdly notices, the message is the movie’s
mockery of the social class structure. The Monty Python team begins to mock the class system in the ‘Bring out Your Dead’ scene. You see a man-drawn cart on which dead villages have been placed. These villages all belong to the same social class: low income, dirty, and poorly mannered, which is evident in their behavior and appearance. The class separation is noticed as King Arthur gallops through the village. As one villager questions the identity of the stranger, a second villager comments ‘…must be a king.’ The first villager then inquires as to why he must be a king, who is replied with the following: ‘he hasn’t got shit all over him.’ This scene depicts an obvious separation between the villagers and royalty, indicating that royalty is a clean, well-kept, well-mannered class, whereas the villagers and low and filthy. (Swanson)
She continues with a few other examples of social class separation and even the problem of the US with the Vietnam War (Swanson). This shows how effectively can parody work hand in hand with satire to deliver a message.
A similar case, this time in TV, is Galavant, which parodies the general medieval literature, fairy tales, knighthood, chivalry, heroic love, etc., and even some more recent works, such as Les Misérables musical (“Galavant”). Using parody, the audience can be reintroduced and involved with classical works, and their forgotten values. Not only that but also social topics such as the fair distribution of power among people can be discussed in a funny manner, something that we see in Galavant.
Some other movies with satirical and parodic overtones include the Austin Powers series, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, The Dictator, Monty Python: Life of Brian, among many others, all of which contributed to their society one way or another.
Stand-up Comedy. Finally, is the genre of stand-up comedy. This rather recent phenomenon has become a major attraction to many audiences around the world, and there have been stand-up comedians who have taken it upon themselves to use this platform as a means to speak about social issues in a satirical manner. One of the most famous and influential stand-up comedians of this type was George Carlin, who “at the end of the 1960s let his hair and beard grow long, turned away from mainstream nightclubs, and reinvented himself as the comedic voice of the counterculture—skewering the war culture, middle-class hypocrisy, and his own Catholic upbringing” (Zoglin). His critical, satirical stand-up brought to light many social issues and his uncensored and often profane language has influenced many other great stand-up comedians who followed his path.
Another stand-up comedian, who in fact was influenced by George Carlin, is Jim Jefferies. Before I get to him, let’s quote Quintero on the quality of a satirist: “any satirist deserving the name must be more than a partisan advocate or a clownish entertainer, for a true satirist must be a true believer, a practicing humanitarian, responsible even in his or her own subjective indulgence or personal indignation” (3). In one of his most famous performances, “Bare,” Jefferies, who is Australian, speaks against the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution2 for an American audience in a satirical manner:
Please understand that I understand that Australia and America [are] two vastly different cultures with different people, right? I get it. In Australia, we had the biggest massacre on Earth and the Australian government went: “THAT’S IT! NO MORE GUNS!” and we all went: “Yeah right then, that seems fair enough” [audience laughter] Now in America you have the Sandy Hook massacre where little, tiny children died and your government went: “maybe … we’ll get rid of the big guns?!” And fifty percent of you went “F**K YOU! DON’T TAKE MY GUNS! 3” (Jefferies 00:00:48-00:01:26)
Throughout the rest of his routine, he keeps going on about how he doesn’t like guns and thinks that they are dangerous and should be banned (Jefferies). Here we can see that Jefferies, as a true believer in what he preaches, is indeed responsible and claims to live up to his word. This is how a satirist should be, and what satire should be about.
Satirical works have been with us for a very long time, helping us in times of need, and reminding us of who we are as a society and to change when we need to. In recent years, popular culture has been the outlet for many satirical works, many of which have been appreciated by society and have influenced people’s viewpoints and lives. TV shows, films, stand-up comedies, and songs, among others, are ways through which satirists can express themselves and affect others. As Quintero notes, “Not only concerned with what has happened but also with what may happen, the satirist, through a historical logic of inference and extrapolation into the future, may also serve as a cautionary prophet or an idealistic visionary” (2). Societies need such prophets, even more so now that they are comedians on the side.
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