I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Satires and parodies look a lot alike; they both hold up their targets for mockery. However, the two forms are not the same and it’s good to know the difference. Satire employs irony, scorn, and contempt to ridicule flaws in behaviour, often with comic intent. Satire also aims to raise awareness in an audience around an issue that the satirist believes needs to be addressed. A parody seeks to imitate and exaggerate the style of another creator (writer, politician, musician, actor, etc.), usually for comedic effect.
Satire in History
There has always been an oversupply of blundering people and, happily for society, there have been people of wit ready to skewer pomposity and misbehaviour with their pens.
The playwright Aristophanes plied his trade in Ancient Greece about 2,500 years ago. He has been called the “Father of Comedy” and his plays caricatured the body politic and individuals such as the philosopher Socrates.
“Whereas satire is focused on the bigger picture—intending to satirise deeper issues beyond its chosen literary style—a parody can, in many instances, be a shallow instance of mimicry which has little lasting impact . . . parody is a brick, and satire is the wall.”
— Writer Luke Edley
In Ancient Rome, writers such as Horace and Juvenal used satire to prick the balloons of Romans behaving badly. As the Roman Empire collapsed it took satire down with it into the Dark Ages. The form didn’t reappear until Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century in which the author mocks the cultural norms of his time.
Then, there’s a straight line of satirical plays and books through Cervantes (Don Quixote), Shakespeare (Love’s Labour’s Lost among other works), Ben Jonson (The Alchemist), Jonathon Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), George Orwell (Animal Farm), and Joseph Heller (Catch-22) that leads to satire in the 21st century.
Television has become an excellent medium for delivering satire. Such shows as South Park, Family Guy, Saturday Night Live, The Office and The Colbert Report are frequently cited as satirical programs.
South Park features a bunch of foul-mouthed kids who are unafraid to send up sacred institutions such as religion. Writer and philosopher Robert Arp notes that South Park tackles “Every kind of major ethical issue―they’ve done it. Abortion. Gun control. Capital punishment. One of its powers is that it attacks both sides equally. Eventually everyone will be offended by an episode.”
Satire and parody are not mutually exclusive, and The Colbert Report is an example of the blending of the two forms. In the show, Stephen Colbert plays a news commentator who satirizes right-wing political pundits. However, at the same time, his character is a parody of Fox News loudmouths such as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.
The Art of Parody
We’ve already done a bit of defining, but in case it’s slipped out of memory here’s a refresher from Merriam-Webster: a parody is “a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule.”
Or, we can turn to John Gross who edited the 2012 publication The Oxford Book of Parodies. He notes that “parody seems to flourish in territory somewhere between pastiche (a composition in another artist’s manner, without satirical intent) and burlesque (which fools around with the material of high literature and adapts it to low ends).”
Parodies lean heavily on exaggeration; caricaturists have had fun turning the already portly Donald Trump into a massively obese figure with an extravagant and gravity-defying comb-over. But, the exaggeration technique only works if the reader or viewer is familiar with the source; the closer to the original the better.
For example, if you never watched George Lucas’s Star Wars, then Mel Brooks’s Space Balls would be largely meaningless, although it can work as a send up of the entire science fiction genre.
“Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”
— Author Vladimir Nabokov
Another parody style is inversion; this means flipping such things as values around. The satirical online media presence, The Onion, did this when it ran a story entitled “Gay Teen Worried He Might Be Christian.” As J. Laurence Cohen notes (The Artifice) “The article flips the more controversial identity (being gay) with the less controversial one (being Christian).” The inversion is that it’s more divisive to be Christian than gay, the exact opposite of current mores.
Trivialization is also used in parody and few do it better than Randy Rainbow in his musical lampooning of Donald Trump and his followers. Here he is using “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan as the vehicle for a parody of the laughable claim that “I am a very stable genius.”
- Farce is a technique that takes exaggeration beyond the point of believability. It passes satire and parody into the realm of absurdity. It doesn't really work as a device for derision.
- Oscar Wilde defined sarcasm as “the lowest form of wit.” Its aim is to belittle its target and might be called upon by a satirist because Wilde completed his aphorism by noting that sarcasm is also “the highest form of intelligence.”
- Parody doesn’t work on the internet. Author Nathan Poe has pointed out that “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is utterly impossible to parody [a belief] in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.” You can read more about Poe’s Law here.
- “What’s the Difference between Parody and Satire?” Cliffs Notes, undated.
- “Satire Vs Parody.” Luke Edley, Thanet Writers, 2018.
- “A Brief History of Satire.” schoolinsites.com, undated.
- “How South Park Became the Most Vital Satire Show on TV.” Mark Butler, inews.co.uk, October 9, 2020.
- “The Art of Parody: Imitation With a Twist.” J. Laurence Cohen, The Artifice, undated.
- “Close to the Bone.” J.W.M. Thompson, Standpoint Magazine, April 27, 2010.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 18, 2021:
Thank you for sharing this information and defining the difference between parody and satire, Rupert. That sets me clear on something I just wrote "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Bed" being a parody and not a satire.