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Satire is a form of social criticism presented through popular media formats such as books, television, and editorial cartoons. The different uses of satire depend on the intent of the creator, or satirist, as well as the medium of presentation. Some satire is intended purely to entertain, presenting humor against a backdrop of social commentary. Often, satire is educational or informational, offering a look at the historical or modern context of a particular issue. Other times, satire is intended to be provocative, directly challenging corrupt people or practices and the social conventions that allow them to flourish.
The poet-philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome pioneered various uses of satire. Greek playwrights such as Aristophanes sent up aspects of Greece’s social and popular culture with plays that remained popular for centuries afterward. Two Roman poets, Horace and Juvenal, were such successful satirists that some forms of satire are associated with their names to this day. Horatian satire focuses on humor, gently inviting the audience to laugh at common human failings. Juvenalian satire, on the other hand, offers angry denunciations of specific social inequities and sometimes calls for reform.
The play Lysistrata by Aristophanes is a good example of an entertaining Horatian satire. Tired of war, the women of Greece decide to withhold sexual favors until the men of their nation agree to end their violent conflict. The play’s racy comedy presents its anti-war message in a pleasing and gentle way; it has been popular with audiences from Aristophanes’ time to the present. In modern times, The Simpsons is presented as an animated comedy about a typical suburban family. The show’s writers, however, frequently use the series as a platform to satirize many aspects of American culture.
Other modern uses of satire include the informational approach employed by The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. In the course of satirical and sometimes goofy commentary on current issues, both shows often present concise explanations of an issue’s complex details. Again, the use of comedy makes these complexities easier for audiences to digest. The animated comedy South Park, by contrast, is pure Juvenalian satire. The show’s creators invoke one of the most common uses of satire, to directly attack and poke fun at what they see as corrupt influences on modern society.
The political uses of satire include protecting the satirist in situations when social criticism is actively discouraged. There is a long tradition of anonymous or pseudonymous satire of oppressive ruling powers. Prior to the American Revolutionary War, the patriot Benjamin Franklin created editorial cartoons and drawings criticizing colonial Britain. When the U.S. Constitution later codified United States law, such satire was specifically protected as free speech. Many later satirists have used similar techniques to criticize repressive regimes.