Too funny it hurts – 3 signs to help you detect satire

We all love a good laugh.

It’s universal that what entertains endears, and we tend to cut those who make us feel good more slack than we do their duller, more serious peers. 

There are, however, certain schools of humour that do more than just make us laugh, and satire is one of them. In fact, the point of satire isn’t really in evoking a mere ‘haha’ from us, but in forcing us to reflect, either on ourselves or on society – or both. It’s the sort of funny that leaves you feeling more pensive than purged, to the point where you either feel bad or angry about the issue that you were just having a laugh about minutes ago. 

To wit, satire always achieves the twin effect of making us double up with laughter and double back in thought. 

If you’ve watched Saturday Night Live, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, or Have I Got News For You, you’re no stranger to it. And if you’re an Insta meme fiend, you’re likely to be a regular consumer of satire, too. 

But while media satire is comparatively self-evident, their literary counterparts can be subtler, and often not as easy to detect. 

So how can we tell if a writer is being funny – with a point? 

In general, there are 3 key signs that tell us we’re reading satire. 

1) When the writer doesn’t seem to be treating a serious topic seriously 

The wider the gap between seriousness and levity, the higher the likelihood we’re looking at satire.

This is why satire is so often directed towards social and political issues; there’s no better way to stimulate interest in supposedly boring or solemn topics than by repackaging them in a digestible joke. 

After all, we tend to remember how others make us feel, but not necessarily what they say. This also explains why stand-up comedy is so effective at solidifying political opinion and unifying political camps. It’s just easier to agree with someone who makes you laugh, regardless of what they’re actually saying. 

Jonathan Swift, ‘A Modest Proposal’, 1729 

A classic example of this ‘unserious seriousness’ is Jonathan Swift’s essay ‘A Modest Proposal’, which is somewhat less modestly sub-titled “For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland, from Being a Burden on their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Public”. 

In this piece, Swift lodges a scathing, but hilarious, attack on mercantilism, the economic theory that advocates ‘maximum exports, minimum imports’ as the approach to building a strong nation. A consequent view of the mercantilist paradigm is that “people are the riches of a nation”, so the more people we have in our population the merrier, because people are a form of resource, which can in turn be used to create wealth. 

Partly guided by mercantilist belief (and partly because of loose social mores at the time), Irish society saw a surge in the number of infants during the 1720s. This was problematic, as these infants, unable to join the workforce, were still a ways away from being able to contribute to the national economy. So Swift’s narrator posits an alternative way to best ‘utilise’ these children – offer them up as food for the rich and the powerful. 

This policy kills two birds (or, um, children) with one stone, the argument goes, as it both minimises the need for imports (food stuff) and maximises available resources for economic benefit.

Better still, the need for mothers to create “plump and fat” children “for a good table” would also reduce abortion rates and promote domestic harmony. Here’s a sampler for taste (pun intended): 

Sixthly, [cultivating infants for sale] would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties. It would increase the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the public, to their annual profit instead of expense. We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage. […] 

Brutal, but surely, the stuff of genius. Of course, anyone with a sane mind would appreciate the heavy irony that saturates Swift’s faux ‘proposal’, and understand that the narrator is not, in fact, promoting infant cannibalism. Rather, he is alerting society to the dangers of a misguided obsession with mercantilist thought.

The fineprint message, then, is that blind conviction in people as nothing more than an economic resource isn’t just inhumane, but also potentially disastrous. 

By proposing a ‘solution’ that is so utterly ridiculous as to be impossible, Swift succeeds in drawing public attention to the real issue in a way that at once amuses and outrages. 

2) When the writer exaggerates a lot 

My next example will probably raise some eyebrows, because the writer hasn’t quite been (or perhaps, ever will be) canonised in the annals of Great English Prose. Instead, at the time of writing, he’s more well-known for returning to 10 Downing Street after recovering from an unfortunate bout of coronavirus infection

As some of you may be aware, the current Prime Minister of Britain, Boris Johnson (aka ‘BoJo’) is a journalist by training – and an often polemical, polarising one at that. Partly, the divisiveness of Johnson’s writing stems from his pathological use of satire, and more fundamentally, his affinity for the hyperbole. 

To be fair, Johnson isn’t the only writer who uses satire as his de facto modus operandi (and the double-barrelled Latin here is my feeble attempt at satirising his style).

It’s true, though, that hyperbole is virtually inseparable from satire. In order to satirise effectively, it is necessary to employ some degree of exaggerated speech.

Instead, the issue with Johnson’s satire is the sometimes mocking and self-righteous tone which undergirds the half-truths that he often touts. But to give the PM his credit, none of this – and perhaps regretfully so – discounts the fact that he has a knack for writing funny, learned and clever prose. 

To illustrate the close relationship between hyperbole and satire, here’s the first paragraph from one of Johnson’s more controversial pieces in The Spectator, where he was Editor from 1999-2005 (although to say “Johnson’s more controversial pieces” is probably tautological, for when is the man not controversial?): 

What I should say sorry for

23 October 2004 

Boris Johnson on his penitential pilgrimage to Liverpool

I am writing this in a cold, damp three-star hotel in Liverpool, and I have to admit I don’t want to go out. Not only is it raining, there is also the chance that I will be beaten up. As everyone seems to know, I am on a mission to apologise to the people of this great city, and my heart is in my boots. The operation is bedevilled with difficulty, not least that no one seems to want to accept my apology. Local Tories have said that they intend to snub me, The LibDem officials who run the council have made a meeting all but impossible. The police have said they expect an enormous media circus which rules out a trip to the museums. There was a plan to sign a book of condolence for the late Ken Bigley, but we have reluctantly rejected it, on the grounds that it will look as if we are playing politics with a tragedy. But what makes Operation Scouse-grovel even more depressing is that I am attacked by my own troops for embarking upon it. In the journalistic equivalent of the fragging that GIs used to perform upon their officer, Stephen Glover, our own media correspondent, has said that in coming to Liverpool I am letting down The Spectator. He claims in Tuesday’s Daily Mail that in going to apologise, at the behest of Michael Howard, the Tory leader, I am acting like a whipped cur, and that I have compromised the integrity of the magazine. Not since the 15th century, says Glover, has the editor of a national publication been treated like the plaything of his political masters. It is a disgrace, says The Spectator’s media correspondent, and shows that I cannot simultaneously serve two leaders — Michael Howard and last week’s editorial. He ends his piece with words of dark foreboding about the freedom of the press. 

[…]

First, for those who aren’t familiar with the background of Johnson’s apologia, he wrote this in response to an editorial The Spectator had published a week before this piece went out. The editorial in question attracted backlash for taking the view that public outrage over the murder of Ken Bigley, a British engineer stationed in Iraq, was “fed by the fact that he was Liverpudlian”, and that ever since the Hillsborough stampede disaster in 1989, Liverpool has “wallowed” in a history of feeling sorry for itself, specifically, for seemingly always getting the short end of the stick when it comes to public policy and government decisions. 

As you can imagine, such insensitivity, however ‘rational’ its logic, did not go down well with the British public. To mend relations, Johnson headed over to Liverpool to apologise. But if you read the rest of Johnson’s piece, you’ll notice that it’s not so much a genuine apology as it is a teeth-gritting, borderline grudging defence against what he calls “an increasingly hysterical health-and-safety compensation culture”.

The emphasis of his essay isn’t his supposed ‘apology’ (even though he does ostensibly say sorry), but his satirical critique of what he sees as a maudlin, hypersensitive, PC-driven public that’s too quick to judge and too slow to reflect. 

In particular, notice the diction he uses to characterise his travels to Liverpool as a “penitential pilgrimage”, “a mission”, “an operation bedevilled with difficulty”. With all due respect, Prime Minister, you were a magazine editor-cum-MP taking a business trip up North to clean up a PR mess, not a pilgrim embarking on a holy journey to Jerusalem, or some undercover agent on a covert mission to save the world.

More tellingly, his inflated description of this supposedly apologetic undertaking as “Operation Scouse-grovel” reveals a staunchly unapologetic stance, the word ‘Scouse’ being the adjective for all things Liverpool-related, and the verb ‘grovel’ clearly indicating his view that what he’s been asked to do – apologise to Liverpool – is unnecessary and obsequious. 

First published in Le Temps, Switzerland, September 1, 2019 | By Chappatte (from POLITICO)

By an ironic sleight of hand, Johnson seems to think it doesn’t hurt, too, to indulge in a spot of self-pitying that he so criticises others for. He portrays the ordeal of being open criticised by one of his staff, Stephen Glover, then Spectator media columnist, as “the journalistic equivalent of the fragging that GIs used to perform upon their officer”. This has the curious effect of implying that he’s the victim of a vicious attack which, albeit verbal, is no less severe and disloyal than the sort that soldiers had launched against their commanders back in the Vietnam War.

You see, then, how Johnson, as Master of the Post-Truth Hyperbole, is able to wield the power of satire against his naysayers and in turn, deliver a double-pronged critique on the so-called ‘culture of victimhood’ – and on a mutinous hack in his own pack.

3) When you finish reading something having laughed, but don’t really feel relieved or relaxed afterwards 

Finally, you can tell the difference between comedy and satire by the way you feel after reading them. 

Unlike comedy, which pursues laughter as an end in itself, satire peddles laughter as a bait for us to understand something graver, something a lot less ‘feel good’. With satire, we laugh at moments, but come out of the experience feeling more unsettled or discomfited than anything else.

Perhaps this is because we realise we’re laughing at follies also present in ourselves, or because we see that underneath our laughter there lurks a potential for danger from inaction.

Basically, ‘it’s funny until it’s not funny’ is the satirist’s mantra. 

This is why you’ll probably walk away feeling more alarmed than entertained by Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’, because the point he’s making is one of gross social disparity, political ineptitude and human darkness, which, despite being delivered in a funny pill, are not quite funny matters in their own right. 

Likewise, BoJo’s ‘sorry not sorry’ editorial may make us laugh with his naughty hyperboles and rhetorical flourishes, but his fundamental message is a solemn one: self-pitying and state-blaming won’t solve problems, folks, so straighten up and accept responsibility for whatever happens to you. Oh, and Liverpool, stop feeling sorry for yourself just because you’re not London.

Okay, the latter is a slightly more flippant, and less justifiable, message, but my point here is that Johnson’s satire is not entirely intended as fodder for chuckle. 


I suspect I may have ruffled some feathers in this post by comparing Boris Johnson, this Fleet Street character-turned-political Falstaff, to Jonathan Swift, the great Anglo-Irish political pamphleteer-cum-essayist. Nonetheless, one can’t deny that the current British PM has a way with words and can be irreverently funny sometimes. 

But BoJo has offended many people with his satirical writing, and in this respect, Swift isn’t radically different. In fact, when ‘A Modest Proposal’ was anonymously published, it was met with public outrage, partly because the author exposed the faults of those in power, partly because there were some people who just didn’t get that he was taking the piss. 

This, perhaps, is the greatest cost of writing satire – you’re bound to step on a few toes. But if you truly believe in what you’re making fun of, then you’ll be content to take it on the chin.

When done right, however, satire can be incredibly effective for converting minds without being crass, expressing views without being blunt, and winning hearts without asking for hearts to be won.

What are your views on Swift and BoJo’s pieces? Do you like reading satire, and are there other ways to tell if something is satirical?

Comment below – I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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