The Healing Power of Writing Satire
Updated: Jan 28
Tips and tricks to humor your depression.
Satire noun The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
It starts with feeling sad.
Or angry, embarrassed, exhausted, disempowered, violated, traumatized…Take your pick.
It starts with a general, overall, icky feeling. You’ve been forced to swallow something nasty and now you have to digest it somehow.
If you’re a writer, you have a million different options:
You could pay attention to the rhythm of your breathing and your own heartbeat, pull out the most visceral, most concentrated language, and arrange it into a poem.
You could give yourself an out-of-body experience, empower yourself as an all-knowing, all-seeing God, and inflict your experiences on an avatar by writing fiction.
You could hunt down the cold, hard facts of the matter and unearth the story without ever having to expose your own bleeding heart and feelings of vulnerability with journalism.
You could pour your heart out with a journal entry you never intend to show to anyone ever while listening to the “Songs For Crying Yourself to Sleep” playlist on Spotify, which is a real thing.
Really, as a writer, you have endless options for churning those chunky, hard-to-swallow feelings into something resembling smooth butter. And all are valid, appreciated, and better than just stewing in those feelings. So there’s no reason at all to suggest that satire, as an art form and a therapeutic tool, is any better or more wide-ranging than any of those other options at achieving that goal.
No reason at all except for the following reasons.
1. Jokes can be poetry.
You want visceral, concentrated language? You want to whittle your point down from a slab of marble to Michaelangelo's David? Try writing a joke.
“I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb …and I also know that I’m not blonde.” — Dolly Parton
Like a poem, a one-liner presents you with a miniature story. It takes you on a feelings journey. What makes this joke satirical, by the way, is the social commentary element of it, but we’re not going to focus on that aspect right now. Let’s focus on the construction of the words.
If Dolly Parton had delivered these words in a different order, the joke wouldn’t have landed in the way that it does:
“I’m not blonde, so I’m not offended by dumb blonde jokes and… also, I know I’m not dumb.”
This joke has three elements that must remain in the correct order:
The Premise/Set-Up — I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes
The Punchline — because I know I’m not dumb
The Tagline — …and I also know I’m not blonde.
Other elements that come into this one joke are:
Timing — …and I also-
Broader Commentary — She’s calling out sexism and bullying while simultaneously making fun of herself and showing awareness of how her on-stage persona is perceived.
Tight Construction — Not a single word is wasted.
When you compare this type of construction to poetry, some of the individual elements are different, but the act of careful composition is the same. And, if you felt so inclined, there is such a thing as satirical poetry:
“On the eve of elections cheers rang through the house, Not a moment was wasted in voting him out. Celebrations and bubbly poured without care, As the Democrat winner was promptly declared, Citizens rejoiced as they lay in their beds; While visions of indictments hung in their heads.” — Medium writer Gabrielle Finnen, On the Eve of Elections
2. Play with fictional characters all you want.
You want to see things from a wider perspective? Look at all the best satirical shows. Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report,Mad TV, The Simpsons, South Park, Monty Python, Schitt’s Creek, The Office,Community, and Parks and Recreation are filled with characters you love to hate or hate to love.
Instead of saying what the writers want to say outright, they say the exact opposite, from the perspective of someone they deeply disagree with.
“I just think Rosa Parks was overrated. Last time I checked, she got famous for breaking the law.” — Stephen Colbert(‘s alter ego)
By making his point from the perspective of a political conservative, Colbert is able to give his audience a dual perspective — you can clearly understand his personal convictions and beliefs (that Rosa Parks’ reputation as a hero is irrefutable, that the law isn’t always just) while also seeing how the type of character he’s portraying can get away with their own rhetoric.
Here are a few of my favorite samples from this masterly take on vegans not being able to help themselves from messing around with meat:
“With my glistening patties and luscious full buns I know I’m hot, especially when straight off the grill. I’m a double cheeseburger and I don’t need anyone to tell me my worth. It is I, not the milkshakes, that bring all the boys to the yard.”
“Sadly all I can do is watch, hurt. A double cheeseburger double-crossed. I’m not made of stone, which tastes terrible. I used to be an organic thing. I know what it is to love.”
In satire, you can be whoever you want. A ballerina, a fireman, the President of the United States… or a cheeseburger. If you need a break from being you, let satire dress you up in a silly outfit and completely transform you for a little while.
3. “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” — Mark Twain
I know I talk about Mark Twain a lot, but the man is my (sometimes problematic) hero. I saw the Ken Burns bio-doc about him when I was 12 and I became obsessed with the man and his endless pool of satirical insight which gave him the ability to find lightness and joy despite his tumultuous life circumstances, and made him one of the greatest political and social satirists of all time.
I’m going to come back to Twain.