Satire is humorous criticism intended to point out the flaws in the social and cultural fabric of a given society. Social satire focuses on aspects of society itself, including current events, prevailing attitudes, and political institutions. This differentiates it from other forms of satire, such as spoof and parody, which focus on popular culture and entertainment; some satire vehicles do both. Social satire has existed for centuries, originating with the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is still a popular venue for social criticism in modern times.
Social satire was pioneered by the artists of classical antiquity, such as the playwrights of Greece and the poets of the Roman Empire. Aristophanes, with works such as his racy play Lysistrata, satirized the war policies and sexual mores of ancient Greece. Juvenal, a Roman poet of the first century AD, wrote verses critical of the hypocrisy and corruption of his culture. Both writers employed comedy in their work, as they could have been punished for criticizing their governments directly. This technique has been central to satire through the centuries and into the present day.
Juvenal was so widely known for his biting social satire that the phrase “Juvenalian satire” is used to this day to describe similar works. When the arts of the ancients were rediscovered during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, other writers soon took up the work of Juvenalian satire. François Rabelais, writing in the 16th century, poked fun at French culture and social orders with his racy satires. Other social satirists of the time include Geoffrey Chaucer in England and Giovanni Boccaccio in Italy. Each of them had biting things to say about their societies, but couched them in fictional tales to avoid reprisals.
The 18th and 19th centuries were something of a golden age for social satire. Jonathan Swift, a master of all forms of satire and parody, became a popular and influential writer in 18th-century England. His most famous work of social satire was the essay “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested that the people of England had so little regard for the plight of poverty-stricken Ireland that they might as well cannibalize Irish children. Swift published this and his more biting satires pseudonymously or anonymously, just in case. His widespread success inspired later writers to create their own social criticism, such as Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and Ambrose Bierce.
Bierce, a contemporary of Twain in the late 19th and early 20th century, satirized modern culture most famously in his mock lexicon The Devil’s Dictionary. Much of 20th century satire has been focused on spoofing works of popular culture, but social satire has thrived as well. Television series like Saturday Night Live and South Park alternate between cultural parody and satirical views of modern society. The Daily Show and the Colbert Report use the format of news shows to offer biting social criticism of current events. The radio show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me uses a quiz-show format to achieve the same ends.