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Satire is a technique in art and literature that pokes fun at established artistic or cultural norms. Satirists practice their craft for the sake of social criticism, comedy, or, often, both. The different satire genres include spoof, parody, and classic literary satire techniques. These techniques, traditionally called Horatian and Juvenalian satire, have been practiced for hundreds of years. The spoof and parody satire genres have been particularly successful in modern times.
Horatian and Juvenalian satire are named after two early Roman poets, Horace and Juvenal. Horace was inclined to offer playful comedy that invited its subjects to laugh at themselves; Juvenal tended toward biting satire that directly accused public figures of corruption or hypocrisy. The art of parody was pioneered by ancient Greek playwrights such as Hegemon and Aristophanes. Aristophanes, like many satirists, employed various satire genres at different times. His play The Frogs is an outright parody of other playwrights like Euripides, while Lysistrata is a racy Horatian satire of Greece’s warlike ways.
Horatian satire, with its roundabout approach and comedic bent, is often preferred by satirists because it is rarely seen as a direct attack on society. While satire is a form of protected free speech in the U.S. and elsewhere, many other nations do not offer these protections. Even in the United States, direct criticism of American society can sometimes provoke controversy. The TV series The Simpsons usually avoids such strife by couching its social criticism in humor. South Park, on the other hand, is purely Juvenalian, directly attacking popular celebrities, trends and beliefs with a very biting wit, and usually relishing the resulting controversy.
The terms “parody” and “spoof” are often used interchangeably. When a distinction is made for these two satire genres, parody is based on one particular work, while spoofs send up whole genres. Mel Brooks is a master of the spoof; his films Spaceballs and Young Frankenstein satirize the science fiction and horror movie genres. There is little social commentary in these films; Brooks’ intent was merely to get some laughs. Other Brooks films, such as Blazing Saddles and The Producers, do offer sly criticisms of racial and social conventions, qualifying as Horatian satire.
One of the pioneers of modern parody was cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, who launched Mad Magazine in 1952. His parodies of popular culture and entertainment were socially relevant simply because nothing else like them existed in the conformist 1950s. Kurtzman inspired many later satirists from all satire genres, including the underground cartoonists of the 1960s. England’s Monty Python troupe and America’s Saturday Night Live TV series were also inspired by Kurtzman’s work. Both maintained long traditions of parody, spoof and more direct social satire.