With the bountiful and diverse new media at their disposal in the 21st century, satirists are playing an increased, and increasingly mainstream, role in world culture. Satire’s diversity—of subject-matter, genre, tone, and humor—helps it to cross national and language boundaries, so that a satirical argument about gets picked up quickly by news outlets and spreads, meme-like, among various rhetorical contexts. A few years ago, a Danish newspaper published a collection of cartoons depicting the prophet of Islam Muhammed in a variety of controversial scenarios. The subsequent public debate, centering around freedom of speech and religious sensitivity, was taken up briskly by pundits of all kinds, earnest and satirical, from CNN to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and inspired a two-part South Park episode representing the debate in its characteristically zany but targeted brand of argument-making. More recently, during the 2012 US Presidential election process, satire outlets such as The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live brought political issues to a wide audience by supplying an alternate, satirical version of the news cycle. Back in 2004, Ted Koppel admitted, albeit lamentably, that “a lot of television viewers...get their news from the Comedy Channel.”1
Surely that number has grown dramatically in the past eight years. With viewership comes legitimacy, and whether or not the satirist wants to be taken seriously ceases to a matter under his or her control. Unevenness of audience expectations produces a complex rhetorical situation, especially in response to the most serious of world events, most recently Hurricane Sandy and the Sand Hook tragedy. On other, bizarre occasions, we have seen satire misread as earnest argument, such as this past December, when a Chinese news outlet reported that The Onion had named North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jung-un the “Sexiest Man Alive in 2012.”
When utilized effectively, satire speaks truth to power through the indirect strategy of irony—saying the opposite of what one means—and can, perhaps, encourage useful public debate. It is also entertaining and, when done well, tremendously funny. This is the central irony of satirical rhetoric that we will dwell on in this course.
What role does satire play in our culture? How are satirists utilizing new media and technology to infiltrate spaces usually reserved for earnest argument? Can satirical argument produce measurable change in the world like other rhetorical modes, such as political speech and news broadcasts? What role do we, as engaged citizens, expect satire to play in our lives? How does satire meet or challenge those expectations? And what on Earth does it mean that a portion of our country believes Jon Stewart is more reliable a reporter than Wolf Blitzer? And, for starters, what is satire, anyway?
We will engage these and many other questions over the course of the semester through studying satirical arguments about various subjects (music, sports, politics, etc.) in a wide variety of genres (television, internet, poetry, video games, radio, etc.). Students will apply concepts of rhetorical analysis in our discussions of these texts and learn to move deftly between different media. We will study some classic rhetorical texts, such as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729) and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), but, because satire is, above all, topical, most of the course content will be contemporary.
As with all rhetorical study, the underlying aim of this course is to hone our sensitivity to the arguments surrounding us, making us more careful interpreters of our society and cultures. This course is writing-intensive and revision-intensive; students will produce and revise approximately 30 pages of original writing over the course of the semester. This course also requires active participation in class discussions and one or more presentations. In the final weeks of the semester, students will produce a piece of satire, in the genre of their choice, accompanied by an essay describing their use of rhetorical strategies.
Assignments and Grading
- Research Summaries 10%
- Annotated Bibliography 10%
- Essay 1.1 (Rhetorical Analysis) 10%
- Essay 1.2 (Revision) 15%
- Essay 2.1 (Persuasive Essay) 10%
- Essay 2.2 (Revision) 15%
- Final Project and Essay 15%
- In-Class Writing 5%
- Homework 10%
- Peer Review Mandatory
Course Packet (available the first week of the semester from Speedway Copy in the Dobie Mall)
Gray, Jonathan, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson. Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era (2009)
Scharton, Maurice and Janice Neuleib. Things Your Grammar Never Told You: A Pocket Handbook (2nd Edition, 2001)
Sample Satirical Texts
- Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)
- Colbert, Stephen, et al. The Colbert Report (2005-)
- Judge, Mike. Office Space (1999)
- Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist” (1924)
- Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853)
- Onion, The (1988-)
- Stewart, Jon, et al. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1999-)
- Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal (1729)
- Tomorrow, Tom. This Modern World (1988-)
- Travesty, Texas (1997-)