Satire essentially means send-up. It is traditionally a form of comedy, but can sometimes be found at the heart of more serious drama. Satire will often ridicule an individual, but the target can also be a group of people or an institution. The aim of satire is to mock the weaknesses or similar characteristics of another.
Like stand-up comedy, satire can also be quite severe and through humour, be very robust in its attack on the subject. The punch is made even more powerful when the topic of much satire are individuals in society well known to the audience. Someone or something usually has to be the butt of most comedy in order for it to be humorous, so effective satire takes full advantage of this and really makes a mockery of particular people and events. Satire can therefore be viewed as either offensive to some, or quite harmless to others.
At the heart of effective satire lies the ability to bring to the audience’s attention the weaknesses of others. These are usually physical traits or qualities. Comedians intent on making society aware that certain people have peculiar physical characteristics, ridicule public figures every day. Part of the humour lies in how ‘public’ the person is. The more famous the person, the funnier the satire may be. There’s something about society expecting public figures to be physically perfect and beautiful, that leaves these very people wide open to comic attack via satire.
Satire is closely linked to parody and can often discredit an individual of their public worth or value. This is where political satire is of such importance. German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht used satire in many of his plays for political purposes. In some ways his plays were political propaganda, highlighting aspects of the government in 1930’s Germany. A classic example is his play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in which the location is gangster-ridden 1930’s Chicago. The play focuses on a protection racket established by Ui in the local greengrocer trade. But the plot is really parodying the injustices occurring in Nazi Germany at the time, as the character Ui is in fact Adolf Hitler in a different setting. This form of satire is not necessarily humorous and is used positively in the hope of instigating change.
Historically, satire is evident in the ancient Greek satyr plays and some of the works of Shakespeare. Today, satire is all around us in society with almost every arm of the media employing it, from newspapers and magazines to television and film.