Honest, hurtful, humorous. Though many words have been used to describe satire, one term in particular best describes the existence of exaggeration to convey a point: necessary. For many, reading The Onion articles and occasionally tuning into The Daily Show serve merely as a means for entertainment. However, rooted under satire lies an important issue, often one that evokes emotion and influences people to advocate change.
Take British comedian John Oliver’s relatively new Last Week Tonight on HBO. While many episodes consist of straightforward commentary with jokes mixed in, some segments become mediums for social change on issues previously unknown to many Americans. For example, before he ran an episode investigating televangelists and their improper uses of funds from viewers, many Americans had no idea such a problem existed.
All news outlets promote problems to the public. But putting forward important issues is where satire is truly special and necessary. Rather than just stating facts, opinions, and responses, satire attaches emotion to statistics through humor—it influences people in a way other news sources can’t. Why do we laugh when Oliver discusses serious issues in an exaggerated manner? Because we see the ridiculousness surrounding the situations. We laugh, but inside we feel pity for the harmed individuals and hate for the televangelists. It makes us crave change.
And Americans responded to their cravings for change. Setting up a fake ministry called “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption,” Oliver received thousands of dollars from fans who supported the way that he called out televangelists and who played into the satire by donating to a ridiculous institution (although the money ended up going to Doctors Without Borders). Satire brings people closer to situations by evoking emotion. Watching the normal news, we stare at the TV as a third party, often uninterested. Satire engages us—we laugh, and it strengthens our emotional connection to issues.
Oliver was far from the first and certainly will not be the last to satirize American laws and traditions. Some of the earliest satire was also a British import: Puck, America’s first successful satirical publication borrowed heavily from the style, content, and name of Punch, a classic British satirical magazine that had garnered a reputation as a populist and anti-establishment force for social change in Britain in the nineteenth century. Puck gave Americans a taste and appreciation for satire that was quickly taken up by classic American satirists such as Mark Twain.
Satire has always played an important role in impacting Americans by engaging public opinion. Whether it’s John Oliver today or Mark Twain 130 years ago, satire brings something different to the table—a unique portrayal, exaggeration that allows people themselves to see the ridiculousness in situations. It doesn’t tell you what to think, it doesn’t manipulate you with political interviews, it takes a situation and stretches it to show you implications. Satire takes something that many might not see as problematic and provokes real change in society.