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Satire≠Humor

Image via Kumara Republic
• May 10, 2013 11:17 am

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After receiving some gentle push back on yesterday's post about the Onion taking grief for publishing a post that uses a theoretical act of violence as its hook, allow me to make a pedantic (but apparently needed) point: "Satire" does not equal "humor."

Much of the outrage has centered around the idea that the Onion is a "humor" site. "How dare they make jokes about a woman being beaten to death!" is the outraged refrain of the scolds. And, to be entirely fair, I can kind of understand their confusion. The Onion is routinely quite funny! But, as long as we're being fair, we must point out that the Onion is not a "humor" site. It's a "satire" site. Don't take my word for it:

The Onion is a satirical weekly publication published 52 times a year on Thursdays.

That is from the Onion's FAQ. The distinction is an important one. The aim of satire is not necessarily to amuse but to show the absurdity of an underlying situation.

Let's crack open our middle school English textbooks* and think about the one piece of satire virtually every American student reads: Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Now, is that a "funny" pamphlet? I suppose, in a weirdly dark way. However, it's not intended to be "funny," exactly. It is biting and dark and troubling. Swift's goal isn't to make you chuckle about roasted baby flesh; it's to make you think about man's inhumanity to his fellow man. But imagine how the scolds would react to it today: "Oh, eating poor babies is funny? That's how you find humor? You want people to laugh at that? Apologize immediately!"

Or think about American Psycho (the book, not the movie). Again, I suppose there are darkly humorous elements in it. But is it a book that mines the murder and torture of women for giggles? Or is it a savage denunciation of the soulless excesses of 1980s Wall Street sociopaths designed to shock the reader out of complacency? I tend to think it's the latter.

Spike Lee's Bamboozled is another example of unfunny-but-effective satire. Lee delivered a blistering critique of the way race is played for laughs on television and the fact that the black community is complicit in allowing this to happen. He wasn't playing racism up for laughs; he was doing it to prove a point.

I understand why a generation raised on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report conflates humor and satire. But it's important to remember that they are entirely separate concepts.

*Between this and The Great Gatsby, it feels like 8th grade all over again.

(Image via Kumara Republic)

Published under: Humor, Media, Satire