What Is Satire?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Satire is a text or performance that uses irony, derision, or wit to expose or attack human vice, foolishness, or stupidity. Verb: satirize. Adjective: satiric or satirical. A person who employs satire is a satirist.

Using metaphors, novelist Peter De Vries explained the difference between satire and humor: "The satirist shoots to kill while the humorist brings his prey back alive—often to release him again for another chance."  

One of the best known satirical works in English is Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Contemporary vehicles for satire in the U.S. include The Daily Show, South Park, The Onion, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.


  • "Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, . . . it is not only cruel, it's profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple." (Molly Ivins, "Lyin' Bully." Mother Jones, May/June 1995)
  • "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own, which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it." (Jonathan Swift, preface to The Battle of the Books, 1704)
  • "[S]atire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it." (Lenny Bruce, The Essential Lenny Bruce, ed. by John Cohen, 1967)

Twain on Satire

  • "A man can’t write successful satire except he be in a calm judicial good-humor; whereas I hate travel, and I hate hotels, and I hate the old masters. In truth I don’t ever seem to be in a good enough humor with anything to satirize it; no, I want to stand up before it & curse it, & foam at the mouth--or take a club & pound it to rags & pulp." (Mark Twain, letter to William Dean Howells, 1879)

Housebroken Aggression

  • "While it may seem reckless to assert that satire is universal, there is much evidence of the extremely widespread existence of various forms of housebroken, usually verbal, aggression.
    Satire in its various guides seems to be one way in which aggression is domesticated, a potentially divisive and chaotic impulse turned into a useful and artistic expression." (George Austin Test, Satire: Spirit and Art. University Press of Florida, 1991)
  • "[A]busive satire is a wit contest, a kind of game in which the participants do their worst for the pleasure of themselves and their spectators... If the exchange of insults is serious on one side, playful on the other, the satiric element is reduced." (Dustin H. Griffin, Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. University Press of Kentucky, 1994)

Satire in The Daily Show

  • "It is this blend of satire and political nonfiction [in The Daily Show] that enables and articulates an incisive critique of the inadequacies of contemporary political discourse. The show then becomes a focal point for existing dissatisfaction with the political sphere and its media coverage, while Jon Stewart*, as high-profile host, becomes a viewer surrogate, able to express that dissatisfaction through his comedic transformation of the real." (Amber Day, "And Now . . . the News? Mimesis and the Real in The Daily Show." Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, ed. by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, Ethan Thompson. NYU Press, 2009) In September 2015, Trevor Noah replaced Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show.

The Rhetoric of Satire

  • "As ​a rhetorical performance, satire is designed to win the admiration and applause of a reading audience not for the ardor or acuteness of its moral concern but for the brilliant wit and force of the satirist as a rhetorician. Traditionally, satire is thought of as persuasive rhetoric. But [literary theorist Northrop] Frye, noting that rhetoric is not devoted solely to persuasion, distinguishes between 'ornamental speech' and 'persuasive speech.' 'Ornamental rhetoric acts on its hearers statically, leading them to admire its own beauty or wit; persuasive rhetoric tries to lead them kinetically toward a course of action. One articulates emotion, the other manipulates it' (Anatomy of Criticism, p. 245). More often than we have acknowledged, satire makes use of 'ornamental rhetoric..."
    "I do not mean to suggest that after the first century epideictic rhetoric served only as entertainment, or that in making use of epideictic rhetoric satirists do not seek to bring discredit on their subject (the enemy). . . . I am arguing that satirists implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) ask that we observe and appreciate their skill. It is to be suspected too that satirists judge themselves by such a standard. Anybody can call names, but it requires skill to make a malefactor die sweetly." (Dustin H. Griffin, Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. University Press of Kentucky, 1994)

The Stranger That Lives in the Basement

  • "The general attitude toward satire is comparable to that of members of a family toward a slightly disreputable relative, who though popular with the children makes some of the adults a bit uncomfortable (cf. the critical evaluation of Gulliver's Travels). Shunning is out of the question as is full acceptance..."
    "Unruly, wayward, frolicsome, critical, parasitic, at times perverse, malicious, cynical, scornful, unstable--it is at once pervasive yet recalcitrant, base yet impenetrable. Satire is the stranger that lives in the basement." (George Austin Test, Satire: Spirit and Art. University Press of Florida, 1991)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Satire?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/satire-definition-1692072. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What Is Satire? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/satire-definition-1692072 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Satire?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/satire-definition-1692072 (accessed June 9, 2023).