The fluid and malleable nature of satire can provide a great challenge when trying to fully understand a satiric piece. The method of delivering one’s rhetorical appeal in such a roundabout way can lead to varying interpretations of the genre.
When satire comes in the form of literature, the satirist must keep a consistency in their sarcastic tone so the reader can understand their argument. On the other hand, when satire comes in the form of an embodied performance, satirists have the option of vacillating between sincere and sarcastic tones to make their rhetoric appeals.
The rules of satire aren’t strict by any means. Many examples, such as “The Colored Museum” by George C. Wolfe and “The Colbert Report,” keep a consistently sarcastic tone while also presenting embodied, satirical performances.
However, popular satirists often overshadow those around them. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” is one such show that, when the man left, gave rise to many others in its style. That said, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and the unfortunately canceled “Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” all take great inspiration from Stewart.
During the 2000s, “The Daily Show” proved that Stewart’s rhetorical style is a success. His ability to present both sarcastic and sincere talking points through his body langue and tone of voice assured that his audience would understand his arguments.
Stewart’s style certainly subverts the satire found in literature. For instance, “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift is more than likely the most well-known satirical essay in English literature. In the renowned piece, Swift’s academic, high-class tone is meant to juxtapose the gruesome and inhumane content of his arguments. The contradictory style lets his reader understand, in an indirect way, Swift’s opinions toward British rule over Ireland.
Modern forms of political satire, such as “Full Frontal,” “Last Week Tonight” and “Nightly Show,” are able to use modern technology to their advantage. Instead of relying on what some might call more traditional modes of satire, they’re able to make more formal arguments amongst their sarcastic retorts using their body to inform the audience on which tone they assume at any given point.
Samantha Bee’s show has a great example of modern satire’s use of technology to convey a point. She comments on Trump’s less than satisfactory State of the Union by first saying, “It’s disturbing to watch Republicans openly try to shut down this investigation, but should we even be surprised? Last night, when Trump roared an actual fascist slogan, they gave him a standing ovation.” The show then cuts to a clip Trump, who says, “America first,” during his State of the Union.
During her brief comment, Bee’s body language help the audience understand that she’s being serious when making her argument. The comment she made about Republicans is not facetious, sarcastic or satirical in any way.
It does, however, help Bee clarify her rhetorical stance to her audience. A few moments after she makes her point, Bee makes a callback to a joke made earlier in the episode. The joke surrounded Trump’s mispronunciation of “Obamacare” as “Opamacare.”
Bee’s initial joke is about how Trump can “definitely cut Opamacare, the federally mandated all opossum healthcare plan. My opossum doctor only ever prescribes playing dead. It is awful.” Here, her tone of voice is most certainly sarcastic, and her body begins to slouch over as she relays her humorous and farcical anecdote for a laugh.
Bee’s Obamacare joke then prompts the end of her segment — after the sincere comments on Trump’s nationalistic statement — with another joke. She states, “[I’m] going to take the advice of my possum doctor and play dead for the next three years.”
To close out the segment, she then lies on the ground in an almost fetal position. The final satirical nail in her rhetorical coffin, along with the embodied performance of playing dead, helps Bee reassure her audience of where she stands on the issues discussed within the segment.
Another good example of how satire can change when it’s an embodied example comes from John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” Often, he will take deep dives into subjects that other outlets choose to ignore.
Oliver, like his colleague Bee, switches between both sincere and sarcastic talking points to make his argument. On one episode, Oliver brings up issues surrounding floods and how they damage communities.
Oliver begins the piece by saying that floods are “clearly catastrophic, traumatic events,” and he then proceeds to show a broadcast news clip of a newswoman in a canoe reporting the flood damages in a neighborhood. The humor of the news clip comes from the fact that the reporter didn’t need the canoe at all and, in fact, two young men in large overalls walked right by her with water only up to their ankles.
After he shows the clip, Oliver states, “That’s it. F*ck James Cameron, and f*ck ‘Titanic’, because that is now officially the greatest boat disaster ever captured on film.” Oliver’s segment is exactly what modern satirists have done to the genre. One moment, they present sincere opinions, and the next, they give a facetious or sarcastic comment to get a laugh.
When a satirist uses such rhetorical techniques, they don’t diminish the effectiveness of their argument. In fact, due to the embodied nature of their satirical performance, satirists can easily change the tone of their voice or use their body language to help their audience fully grasp the ideas they are presenting.
From Menippean to political satire, satirists have many ways to ridicule the things they’ve had enough of. Ultimately, the genre is so easily manipulated that it can remain relevant, even after all this time.