Whilst filming the thirteenth episode of their second series, Monty Python got wind of the news that the Queen (Elizabeth II) may be watching the show. The episode that followed as a response, not only deviated from television norms at the time; it featured some of their most distasteful sketches — including the now infamous ‘Undertaker’ sketch; wherein Chapman (the undertaker) suggests consuming the man’s (played by Cleese) mother’s corpse by cooking up a ‘nice stew’.
For Monty Python to be allowed to broadcast the episode, BBC imposed one strict condition; the studio audience must appear to be visibly angered so as to demonstrate that the show was clearly distasteful. Monty Python concurred to the request in their own fashion; the audience whilst appearing clearly angered also clearly appeared to be staged. A genuinely shocked audience is more likely to respond with silence rather than an emphatic burst of anger.
Between all the controversy and distasteful humor, the Pythons had set the course for what the function of satire really is.
“Satire, both written and acted, works in a similar way. The satirist is not content with the world as it is; or, more precisely, he is not , content with certain things in it, which to him seem black. In his attack he blackens them yet further, in the hope that after blushing with due shame they will turn white.
Comic and satiric theater have the same function - to "reform society" - but there are several important qualitative differences between them. Comedy's criticism of life emphasizes the human side of events and behavior, the good aspects as well as the bad ones. Satire, on the other hand, scourges certain events, sometimes with brutality, and emphasizes their negative aspects almost entirely.”
The satirical significance of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb isn’t that it’s grotesquely funny; it's the elegance through which the film portrays the underlying problem with ‘people’ - the problem of self-confidence and idiocy.
“The conflict of good and evil is the central fact of intellectual experience.”
What Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Monty Python’s ‘Undertaker’ have in common is the cleverness through which both parties portray the illusion of morality within the social context; ‘doing the right thing’. Both confront the issue with elegance backed by intellect. Whilst the Pythons chose to have an infuriated audience rush the stage at the end of the act in a manner that is clearly staged, Kubrick structures his narrative by overhanging the issue of mutually assured destruction between characters driven by ludicrous beliefs of self assurance. In context, both ‘the audience’ and ‘the bomb’ serve as instigators to understanding the problem with social morality and the catch-22 that persists within it.
The stark contrast between comedy and satire, and the bleak line it rests on; satire isn’t always necessarily perceived as funny. Comedy, on the other hand, functions best within its social form. Comedy, unlike Satire, doesn’t always have an agenda. It doesn’t hope to bring about social change. In this light, “satire is fundamentally pessimistic”.
One common misunderstanding may emerge when one observes ‘black’ or ‘dark’ comedy; a form of comedy that creates humor out of bleak events. An example being, “Death at a Funeral” (2007). The film follows a dysfunctional family consisting of eccentric characters as they navigate through disastrous events occurring on the day of their father’s funeral. In theory, the idea of a funeral may not often be perceived as being ‘funny’; yet, director Frank Oz convinced the audience that it is essentially ‘okay’ to laugh at miserable events. In context to Satire, Dark Comedy doesn’t hope to achieve social change. Had the movie ‘Death at a Funeral’ been rewritten with characters based upon real-life counterparts, and the funeral had been of a cruel leader — the genre would very much be within the realm of satire.
Satirist aim to point out the absurdity of events through humor; an important tool that sets about the distinction to why it is so effective. As such — when on June 11th, 1989 the Iranian Religious Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s half-naked corpse nearly fell to the ground due to mourners hoping to touch it, an act seen by the mourners as one of love and affection, the frenzy that ensued could be interpreted as burlesque by an open-minded satirist.
“In every oppressive regime there is this kind of underground humor, and it fulfills an important function: Laughter shared by the oppressed at the expense of the oppressor reduces fear and helps people to go on living under the regime with more ease.”
In the case of Charlie Chaplin’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance, there is no satire; there’s no social change to be achieved. The purpose of the comic is to achieve laughter; which it does well within its social function through slapstick humor and parody. And whilst Chaplin’s Tramp could have very well been a satire of a character ridden with poverty who still maintains his cheerful persona, he chose instead to embrace the character’s burlesque composition serving as a provocateur rather than a social critique. In the same sense, Chaplin’s work maintains its optimism — its pleasure is derived from the knowledge that his hope is not to achieve social change but rather social tolerance; a reward paid in the form of laughter.
Satire plays on creeping under thin skin and breaking the surface, Comedy only hopes to make the skin tingle. In the face of absurdity, the satirist responds with a mirror reflecting an amplified absurdity; a comic may only replicate it to humorous effect.
“The Comic, which is the perceptive, is the governing spirit, awakening and giving aim to these powers of laughter, but it is not to be confounded with them: it enfolds a thinner form of them, differing from satire, in not sharply driving into the quivering sensibilities, and from humour, in not comforting them and tucking them up, or indicating a broader than the range of this bustling world to them.”
The question, why something is funny is often left to the interpreter. Comedy often paints comedy for what it is; whilst Satire depends more on its social understanding. It’s the dependency on irony which determines how humor is perceived. The cultural capital shatters the perception of why something should be funny; the context derives its language in the understanding that because there’s no real harm for example, a character trapped in a devastating situation can create a humorous effect. This is the comedic language through which Charlie Chaplin found his forte; misery was funny. In Satire, misery isn’t funny until it has a social understanding through which the context can be explained. The reason for the success of Dr. Strangelove is the context in which it was perceived. It made mutual destruction a form of irony, proud of the assured violence - the characters drive the movie through its inevitable path to destruction. A fact that the director doesn’t let the audience forget.
The success of Dr. Strangelove is the real-world impact it had at the time of Government Policy to ensure that the events depicted could never become a reality. Such is the power of satire which couldn’t possibly translate if the film was a comedy about a man accidentally launching a nuclear attack without a purpose or knowledge of mutually assured destruction.
“The Satirist is a moral agent, often a social scavenger, working on a storage of bile.
The Ironeist is one thing or another, according to his caprice. Irony is the humour of satire; it may be savage as in Swift, with a moral object, or sedate, as in Gibbon, with a malicious.
The foppish irony fretting to be seen, and the irony which leers, that you shall not mistake its intention, are failures in satiric effort pretending to the treasures of ambiguity.
The Humourist of mean order is a refreshing laugher, giving tone to the feelings and sometimes allowing the feelings to be too much for him. But the humourist of high has an embrace of contrasts beyond the scope of the Comic poet.”
What the audience experiences in comedy is often an experience of schadenfreude , a modern form of which can be observed in social media which captures a non-fictional account of someone else’s misfortune. The slapstick form of comedy depicts fictional misfortunes which seem real enough to create a similar form of comedic pleasure. Human society is defined through constant competition and comparison, the relationship of which relies directly on self-esteem and identity; if a viewer witnesses the misfortune of a character that does so deservingly — the comedic effect is amplified.
This may not always be the case within satire, where an arrogant character may succeed in their intentions instead of failing; but the humorous effect still exists within the effects that the character’s intentions pertain to. But the human psychological aspect forms acknowledgement to the atrocity; acknowledging the humor in a devastating effect has a larger impact than say a mean character slipping into a puddle of filth. Much like Bergson’s theory that laughter cannot be enjoyed in solitude, neither can schadenfreude , which forms an essential part of the satirical comedy’s social context.
“The laughter heard in circles not pervaded by the Comic idea, will sound harsh and soulless, like versified prose, if you step into them with a sense of the distinction. You will fancy you have changed your habitation to a planet remoter from the sun. You may be among powerful brains too. You will not find poets — or but a stray one, over-worshipped. You will find learned men undoubtedly, professors, reputed philosophers, and illustrious dilettanti. They have in them, perhaps, every element composing light, except the Comic. They read verse, they discourse of art; but their eminent faculties are not under that vigilant sense of a collective supervision, spiritual and present, which we have taken note of. They build a temple of arrogance; they speak much in the voice of oracles; their hilarity, if it does not dip in grossness, is usually a form of pugnacity.”
As such, Satirist are social educators and instigators; they strive to spark some sort of conversation — the want the audience to ponder. Comedic spirit lacks that factor, and as such has no aim to educate or enlighten. The methodology existing within Dr. Strangelove isn’t the laughter that follows intellect; laughter is only a catharsis.
The social instigator views comedy as a form of degradation because satirist don’t see meaning in meaningless laughter. There’s no social satisfaction derived from the laughter unless it’s meaningful.
For Kurt Vonnegut Jr., war was so alien that he believed the only way it was possible to make sense of the brutality that ensues, for the audience to understand; would be to perceive it from an alien world. Which is exactly what he did, when he penned his famous World War II Satire — Slaughterhouse Five. In it he explores a time travelling, dysfunctioning soldier. A concept that may not seem too alien when viewing Dr. Strangelove. The eponymous character within the movie seems to deformed and disarrayed from reality, that he seems absurdly alien; appearing to be a parody of himself. The satirical meaning of forming the alien theme helps the audience understand the failure of human society, often believed to be the encapsulation of social morality.
The comedic spirit may create an alien character but fail to use it for any purpose; it assumes ‘alien’ for what it is. Rowan Atkinson’s famous character ‘Mr. Bean’ is one such example; the character whilst appearing to be out of this world and literally dropping from the sky, has no satirical meaning or purpose. The purpose of laughter through Mr. Bean is achieved solely for slapstick humor; not to educate the audience or satirize a larger context.
To conclude, the common ground found both within the satirical and comic spirit is that it allows the comedian to forgo any form of self-esteem for a larger purpose. The purpose for the satirist is to educate the audience through laughter, the comedian hopes to achieve social acknowledgement.
“Comic and satiric theater have the same function — to “reform society” — but there are several important qualitative differences between them. Comedy's criticism of life emphasizes the human side of events and behavior, the good aspects as well as the bad ones. Satire, on the other hand, scourges certain events, sometimes with brutality, and emphasizes their negative aspects almost entirely. As to the preferred topics, comedy focuses on general human characteristics, such as miserliness, hypocrisy, and snobbery. These are to be found in every society, and a humorous presentation of them speaks to everybody. Comedies, therefore, may readily be translated and acted in different countries without losing their relevance. Satire, in general, focuses on situations specific to a given society and period. To understand political satire, the spectator must know something about the political relations and economic background of the society in question.
Hence, as a rule (if not always), satire can only rarely be transferred
from one society to another. The final difference to be noted here between the two concerns the world views that subsume comedy and satire. Comedy is basically optimistic, and it always has a happy ending. Since it criticizes general phenomena that are fundamentally human and “eternal,” the writer of comedy does not expect that the subjects to which he gives a comic treatment will disappear as a consequence of this treatment. He contents himself with showing what is ridiculous about them, in the hope that this will lead to understanding and perhaps a slight movement towards change.”
Behrens, Laurence, and Leonard J Rosen. 2000. Reading And Writing Across The Curriculum. Boston: Pearson Custom Pub.
Henri Bergson, Chapter One, ‘Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic’ (1911) trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Copenhagen: Green Integer, 1999, pp. 7–63.
Meredith, George, and Lane Cooper. 2011. An Essay On Comedy, And The Uses Of The Comic Spirit. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Digital Library.
Paulson, Ronald. 1971. Satire: Modern Essays In Criticism. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Sigmund Freud, Chapter 7, ‘Jokes and the Species of the Comic’ in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey, Penguin Books, 1976.
Wilmut, Roger, and Bamber Gascoigne. 1987. From Fringe To Flying Circus. London: Methuen.
Worcester, David. 1969. The Art Of Satire. New York: The Norton Library.
Ziv, Avner. 1984. Personality And Sense Of Humor. New York: Springer-Verlag.