In Defense of Satirical Comedies

<p>Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) and the White Lotus staff greeting the guests as they arrive at the resort | Source: HBO Max</p>

Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) and the White Lotus staff greeting the guests as they arrive at the resort | Source: HBO Max

Every autumn, I have an urge to rewatch the first season of Scream Queens on Hulu which has followed me for years. I first became obsessed with the show at eleven years old. I am aware that, objectively, eleven isn’t the best age to watch and comprehend a show with such subject matters, like on-screen death for example.

If you are not aware of the plot of the show, Scream Queens revolves around the sisters and pledges of the sorority Kappa Kappa Tau and the string of murders that plague the campus by the Red Devil Killer. Unbeknownst to me, watching this show originated my love and admiration for satirical comedies. 

To understand the world and depths of satirical comedy, we must first understand its definition. Satirical comedy uses exaggerations, irony, humor, allegories, and other literary devices to comment on the social and political world. Satirical comedies can cross the boundaries of media: literature, visual art, and music being three of many forms.

However, I want to explore how combining satire and comedy in film and television can lead to a more creative and productive commentary on societal issues.

When I consider what factors may have popularized satirical comedies, specifically in television, I instantly think of Saturday Night Live. I find it interesting how, for years, Saturday Night Live has utilized satire and comedy to make commentaries on the political scenes of the times of each season. Since the show premiered in 1975, this particular sketch comedy show has generally been known for its raunchy and exaggerated skits and impersonations of different political figures. From watching Alec Baldwin's appearances as an absurd and oftentimes kooky Donald Trump to the “Weekend Update” portion of the show, in which  Micheal Che and Colin Jost poke fun at the world events of the week prior, we the audience are subconsciously understanding that Saturday Night Live uses a blend of satire and comedy to hold politicians, institutions, and political forces accountable for the key role they play in our everyday lives. 

Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live

Colin Jost (left) and Michael Che (right) hosting the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live | Source: NBC

By reducing the current American political system to, for example, “Donald Trump is a man-child who talks with his hands a lot” and “Oh wow, Florida passes a lot of stupid laws,” we can understand how flawed and abusive this system really is; that the people we elected to have such a powerful influence in our lives cannot do things in our best interest. Only then does it allow and encourage powerful conversations and critical analyses of our political state.

Shows like Saturday Night Live, and even fictionalized ones like Veep and House of Cards don’t just acknowledge how messed up politics can really be, especially in 2023, but they joke about it in a way that makes the right audience perceive what they’re watching as not fiction, but reality. Political satire and comedy is an important way to critique the systems of politics that we engage in today.

Saturday Night Live (NBC)

Alec Baldwin impersonating Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live | Source: NBC

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We've discussed how political satire and comedy can be used to hold politicians and institutions accountable, but let's shift gears and talk about another popular target of satire and comedy: the rich and famous. I think everyone enjoys a great roast of the top 1%. There's just plenty of engaging material to work with, ranging from the extravagant lifestyles they live to over-the-top ridiculousness we see daily. And, to be honest, there's something inherently satisfying about seeing the rich and powerful get knocked down a peg or two. So, now let us dive into the world of societal satirical comedies about the rich and famous.

I, and many others, spent the majority of last year obsessing over The White Lotus, an anthropology show on HBO Max that centers on the egotistical and snobby wealthy guests and employees of the fictional White Lotus resort chain whose stay is affected by their various “psychosocial dysfunctions.”

The White Lotus is objectively goofy; I can’t even describe it in a different word, it’s just so goofy.

The show uses satirical comedy to subtly make fun of the absolute insanity of the rich and privileged. It’s a show that hooks the average watcher, someone who has no business complaining about being in the wrong, objectively better, suite. I find what makes watching an over-exaggerated, satirical, piece on the internalized destruction of rich people is that the situations like those in shows like The White Lotus feel too good to be true; we consume these shows in a way that exposes our disconnection from the top 1%. 

Succession, also on HBO, isn’t completely outright about being comedy in its subject matter, but there are just moments watching the show that make you audibly burst out laughing because of the ridiculousness of how privileged the Roy family is. Succession is a dark satirical dramedy which follows the very powerful and wealthy Roy family and how they navigate the ups and downs of running a media dynasty. The use of satire in not only these shows, but many others, to portray the negative aspects of wealth and privilege conveys a unique perspective on the behaviors and attitudes of wealthy people and actively encourages the audience to think of the consequences of extreme wealth hoarding.

The Succession Cast for HBO

The Succession Cast | Source: HBO

The Roy family, Tanya McQoid, and many others are not real portrayals, but it’s the fact that they could be real is what makes it so entertaining. The real millionaires and billionaires of our lives are so closed off that we find ourselves clinging to fictional characters that represent the puppeteers behind the curtain and I’m positive this is what makes watching these satirical critiques of the rich so hilarious. The people who are watching the show can laugh at the entitlement, the surreality, and the whimsicality of the characters and the situations they are in because we never have to face that.

Like I said, who doesn’t love to see a rich person knocked down a peg or two; I feel they deserve for it hoarding all that wealth! However, after all of this, I can’t lie and say I’m not going to be seated for each weekly episode of season four of Succession because… I am.

Just like with comedies poking fun at the wealthy, horror movies can also use humor and satire to critique societal norms and values. By injecting humor into their depictions of fear and the macabre, horror films can subvert expectations and offer a unique commentary on the world around us. There are so many examples of this trend shown in film and television. One of my favorite movies from last year, Bodies, Bodies, Bodies delivers on an excellent combination of the two genres; satirical comedy and horror. The film centers a group of friends who find a dead body amongst them, trust broken between them in order to discover the killer. Bodies, Bodies, Bodies is a movie that flips our understanding of horror and merges the core of it with a modern twist, still making it quite hilarious.

The movie brings into question why and how many of us have succumbed to the forces of social media and cancel culture, which is something I adored throughout. As mentioned previously, Scream Queens is another show that diverges from the general horror stereotypes and actively makes fun of it, while using satire to scorn the Greek life society at colleges . The use of the sickeningly offensive humor and satire in Bodies, Bodies, Bodies and Scream Queens is what makes these portrayals so good at tearing down our current understanding of horror and societal expectations.

Whether it's taking on rich people, poking fun at traditional horror tropes, or critiquing our political system, satire and comedy can be powerful tools for critiquing and commenting on society. 


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