I was a junior in High School when I was first introduced to satire. I had been fluent in sarcasm for some time, but it was in my AP English class that I first became very, very confused.
We were instructed to come into the class, sit at our desks, and read the paper on our desks without speaking to one another. This wasn’t abnormal, as our teacher often conducted weird class experiments. There on our desks was a thick packet with the cover page facing up, “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift.
A Modest Proposal: The Perfect Example of Satire
For those of you who have not read this piece, you must. (I found a free version online here.)
While the class read through it, heads turned and concerned eyes met from students around the room. I remember rolling my eyes at a friend muttering how crazy our teacher was. (I had no idea why we were reading this or what it meant.)
Swift’s, “A Modest Proposal” outlines the solution for the famine in Ireland in the early 1700’s. The solution proposed by Swift is that poor families should sell their newborn babies to rich families to eat. He explains how logical it would be for poor families to make money, have less children to feed, and for rich families to have a high quality protein source. Swift is as kind as to include different ways and suggested recipes for cooking these babies.
When we finished reading our teacher asked us what we thought of the piece. Students began commenting, “What is this?”, “Is this real?”, and then “Hey, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.”
Before we got too far into our heated debate, our teacher introduced that this was satire. We still smiled blankly, but he finally began to explain the concept.
The Definition of Satire
Here is the definition of satire according to Google:
The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
In this case, Swift used satire as a way to express the issue of poverty in Ireland and to mock the rich’s view towards the poor during the famine.
To be clear, Swift is not saying that eating children is a reasonable solution to the problem, rather he is demonstrating the heartless and cruel attitude of the rich, while pointing out the issues he sees with the Irish government.
Want to Write Satire?
Me too. Looks fun, and you get to make ridiculous arguments. Here are two techniques and tips to write great satire.
1. Use a Serious Tone
In “A Modest Proposal” Swift uses an intense, serious tone throughout the entire piece. One of the most important things about using tone is that we make sure we choose the correct tone to convey the message we so desire.
In satire, most commonly, the most effective tone to use is the serious tone. This is because the serious tone creates this confusion within the reader, just like my junior class was confused the first time we read satire. If the author was using joking language, we would understand that this wasn’t real and lose interest, but because of the intense serious language, we couldn’t stop talking about it.
Be definitive. Say crazy things. Give detail. Eat babies. (Just kidding, don’t do that.)
2. Use Sustained Irony
Irony is saying one thing, while meaning the other, or in situations when the outcome is contrary to what is expected. “A Modest Proposal” is often hailed as one of the greatest examples of sustained irony in the English language. Swift accomplishes this by starting the piece highlighting the problem of starving families in Ireland, and then proposing his solution.
A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”
How’s that for irony?
Where You Can Read Satire
If you want to write satire, one of my biggest tips is that you read satire. Satire is a different way of thinking, and in order to understand it better and write it better, you must become acquainted with it’s style, prose, and voice.
Check out a few of these satirical sites:
Do you enjoy satire? Have you ever written it? Let us know in the comments section.
Take fifteen minutes and practice writing some satire! Choose a popular subject and make your point. Don’t forget to use irony and tone! Make sure you share your practice in the comments below!
Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book . She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.
On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.
She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.
Stuck in a creative writing class to fulfill those general education credits?
We’ve all been there.
Satire essays are a mainstay of creative writing classes. And even though most people like to watch satire, they have no idea how to write it. After all, if we were all that funny, we’d all be named Tina Fey.
Speaking of Tina Fey, we’ve found the perfect example to use in teaching the satire essay: 30 Rock.
In case this is your first day on the internet or you’re the Unabomber and don’t believe in streaming, 30 Rock was one of the sharpest sitcoms on TV. The writers spent most of their time creating a parody of the worlds of media and politics and bringing them to life, sometimes using the real subjects to the screen for the ultimate satire.
30 Rock and its writers were well recognized by critics and diehard fans; though, it never got the mainstream money that other shows, like NCIS (who watches that besides everyone?) and the many versions of Law & Order have.
Now, 30 Rock wasn’t always perfect. But it was innovative and above all, it was undeniably funny.
This post will show you not only how to write a satire essay, but also how to learn from the master’s behind 30 Rock.
By the end, you’ll have a better idea of how to do your homework. But you’ll also get to re-live some of the best moments on television, so we think it’s a great trade-off.
Let’s get started with the foundations of a satire essay.
How to Write a Satire Essay in 4 Easy Steps
There’s no point in teaching you how to write satire if you can’t turn it into an A-worthy essay.
So, here’s the four steps required to get started.
- Choose an ironic or ridiculous topic.
The best satire is based on a subject that’s already a bit strange, but needs a bit of extra work to highlight just how absurd it is.
Think about a politician who says something and then contradicts the first statement – all in the same sentence – and then tries to pass his idea off as genius.
Think of your topic as the subject of a caricature. You’re not going to make up falsehoods about it; instead, you highlight the goofy bits that already exist by exaggerating them.
- Use hyperbole.
Step 1 touched on hyperbole. You’ll note it doesn’t mean lying or adding something completely irrelevant. It means exaggerating what is right in front of you in a creative way that demonstrates how absurd it is.
You’ll learn more in the next section.
- Use Irony.
Hyperbole is a device to use in dialogue or in character descriptions. Irony is used to set a tone; though, it can also be used in individual spaces.
Basically, irony provides a platform for sarcastic criticism, and it’s require to make the hyperbole and the overall satire believable.
- Don’t forget to be funny.
Not all satire is worthy of a laugh, some of it is a reflection of the state of affairs in a situation and it’s more akin to a tragic comedy. However, it’s always worthwhile to use humor in your essay at least once.
Make them laugh.
Humor relies on empathy, and empathy is the best way to get the reader on your side. So, keep it light, even if only in a single line, to make your essay more convincing.
10 Things 30 Rock Teaches Us About Satire
Now you know the building blocks of a good satire essay, so it’s time to learn how to put it into practice masterfully.
Fortunately, 30 Rock is one of the most GIF-worthy shows out there, and it is very clip-friendly. So, we can use individual scenes and one-liners and still be able to demonstrate our point without context.
(This is another skill you can use in your essay.)
Here are 10 teaching moments from 30 Rock:
What 30 Rock looks like if you don’t have cable and they’ve taken it off Netflix…again.
Tracy Gets Therapy… with Jack
The “Rosemary’s Baby” episode say Jack accompanies Tracy to a therapy session and stands in as her family.
What you’ll learn here is how to master the art of the caricature. Jack (Alex Baldwin) is able to bring out the insanity produced by an otherwise normal group of humans in a way that is both inappropriate and self-aware.
Lesson: Bring a level of self-awareness to your caricatures to add levity and a sense of realness. Characters who are so out there and have no idea that they’re insane are funny, but only from the fringes. Self-awareness in a caricature makes them more relatable and drives empathy that avoids accidentally demonizing them.
Jenna on Hardball
Jane Krakowsi, who plays Jenna, did a marvelous job of showing the insanity underlying the vanity of being a celebrity in the modern world.
Now, she said some wild things that kept us laughing, but it was her parody on Hardball with Tucker Carlson where she declared she will be voting for Osama in the next election that really cemented her place in comedy history.
Lesson: Use a character to say something incredibly ridiculous – like suggesting they’ll vote for Osama over Obama – to highlight how ridiculous vanity can be.
Because no one in their right mind would say that. Only someone who is vain enough to believe they can say anything would even try to get away with them. It’s not only hilarious, but it’s trap and a great plot device for the character.
The whole cast was gifted a huge number of memorable one-liners. But one that always stands out is Jack’s comment about his tux.
Remember, Jack represents the ills of corporate America.
Liz Lemon walks into the room and says “Why are you wearing a tux?” To which Jack replies “It’s after 6, what am I? A farmer?”
Lesson: Take a one liner and then take it one step further. When Jack references farmers, he’s taking a modern approach to the peasantry, of which is he not a member. But ‘peasant’ doesn’t play well on modern TV.
Jack could have said many things, but ‘farmer’ stood out because he took it further than the intern or middle management and insulted a group of people that ensure he is able to eat.
Jack Is Better Than You
Jack has a nasty habit of believing he’s better than everyone because of his social status. Of course, on a human level, that isn’t true. But try telling Jack that.
One of our favorite Jack lines is when he asks “God, are you punishing me because my hair is better than yours?”
Lesson: It’s hard to communicate a character’s unfailing belief in his own greatness. Use satire to take it to the next level by allowing the character to compare himself to a divine being or God, not in terms of strength but in terms of vanity.
Jack doesn’t think he’s smarter than God, he thinks he’s prettier and pettier, which is why he’s being smote.
Jack and Liz’s Relationship
Jack and Liz have an unorthodox and complicated relationship. They don’t hate each other, but they don’t like each other either.
It’s clear when they hug and Liz can’t help but let out a half grimace/ half smile that’s utterly confusing.
Their relationship adds a sense of irony to the whole show because they rely on each other and pretend to occasionally be happy about it even if they’re not sure what they feel.
Lesson: Allow for complex relationships underlined by irony to create tension and unity at the same time. A satire where everyone is always at odds isn’t satire, it’s drama and it’s exhausting.
Jenna’s Use of Hyperbole
Jenna makes excellent use of hyperbole to show how emotionally immature she can be. She’s potentially the least self-aware of characters, and saying “Everyone around here is human garbage” when she’s upset makes it clear she’s neither self-aware nor capable of expressing herself meaningfully.
Lesson: Jenna’s use of hyperbole instead of mature self-expression makes for an excellent device for satire because it’s both funny and relatable. All in all, it humanizes her while making fun of her, which allows us to empathize with her.
After all, who has never had a bad day and felt like the world is terrible?
Liz’s Relationship with Food
One of the ongoing tropes in 30 Rock is Liz’s relationship with food. It’s her best friend, her therapist, and her significant other. But rather than being caught eating emotionally and hiding in a corner, Liz embraces it.
“Yes, may I please speak to pizza.”
“I’m going to go talk to some food about this.”
It’s clear Liz relies on food, which is not only something written about Liz Lemon but about female characters in general.
But there’s a reason it works with Liz and looks sexist in other programs.
Lesson: Liz takes it a step further and creates a caricature that is devoid of shame. By removing the shame from her own relationship with food, she isn’t perpetuating an unhealthy relationship full of shame. She embraces it, which is what makes it funny rather than sad.
So, if you’re going to rely on an old trope, strip the shame from it to create humor and turn it into satire rather than an offensive and unhealthy bit.
Liz Lemon Keeps It Real in Her Relationships with People
One of the reasons Liz Lemon is such an effective and memorable character is that she combines complete and irrational honesty with a convincing sincerity.
In short, she keeps it real.
“I do like ignoring your questions while I try to watch TV” is one of our favorite one-liners from the show in part because it’s honest but also because her delivery is endearing. Her eyes match her tone, and what she’s saying is her truth. It’s real.
It’s also funny.
Lesson: Satire doesn’t always need to be cutting. Sometimes it can be quiet and soft and still leave an impact on the reader. So don’t worry too much about making every line razor sharp. Sincerity, even in its realest form, has a natural place in satire.
Create a Caricature of a Caricature
It’s clear by now that Liz Lemon is a living, breath caricature. But sometimes, the 30 Rock writers take it further and make it meta.
Remember that time Liz Lemon got jury duty? No? That’s because she was dismissed from jury duty because she dressed up like Princess Leia and told the court she could read thoughts.
Here, Tina Fey takes her caricature to the extreme by not only portraying a middle age, single woman trying to live her life in corporate America but by creating a whole new sub-character for Lemon who exists only for an episode but lives on in the minds of fans.
Lesson: Characters evolve and change, and no character is two dimensional. There’s no better way to express this in satire than to create a secondary character for your character.
However, be sure to create this second character in the appropriate context. If Liz Lemon wasn’t trying to get out of jury duty, Princess Leia would have broken the narrative and been a blip on the radar. More importantly, it would have made Liz look like she had a personality disorder rather than looking creative, funny, and caricature-like.
10. Grab an Apt Title
The final lesson isn’t based on a specific scene or line but on the title of the show.
30 Rock is a satire that berates the media, the corporate world, and anything else that gets in their way.
But 30 Rock isn’t a random title. It’s short for 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which also happens to be the address of the NBC Studio and the program’s network host.
This is a good place to use the inception meme, but we won’t.
Lesson: An apt title sets up the essay (or in this case, the show) for specific trajectory and adds a certain levity to work. In this case, the title ’30 Rock’ ties the program closer to reality by quietly but not overtly suggesting they are mocking NBC itself. It makes it more believable and just a little bit funnier.
Call Your Pizza, Have Your Wine, and Write Your Essay
At the beginning of this post, we gave you the building blocks for a good satire essay, including the right subject, irony, hyperbole, and humor.
Now turn off your TV and write that essay.
These are abstract concepts if you’re not used to writing comedy, but you can see how well the writers over at 30 Rock were able to implement them and how you can use these same tips to write your own essay.
But there’s one final point we want to leave you with.
Remember, a satire essay is satire. Don’t take it too seriously. Tina Fey doesn’t.
We hope you’re ready to go out and write your essay now. If you still have questions, head over to our samples section to see how it’s done. And if you’re still not sure how you’re going to pull this off, let us know and we’ll help you out.