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No One Really Knows What Satire Is

April 21, 2015

While re-watching an episode of 30 ROCK for the fifth or sixth time, I witnessedJack Donaghy say to Liz Lemon, “no one really knows what satire is.”

What wise words these are. I had to wonder, how true are they? We’ve heard the word and of works being a satire of something, but how many folks actually understand the difference between that and an adaptation?

A satire makes fun of a something (politics, ideas, theories, etc), while an adaptation is based on a prior work. For example, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by Jonathan Swift (love it), makes fun of party politics in England. Political cartoons might target a particular candidate or party view (see below).

An adaptation, in contrast, is based on another work. I recently read THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING, which is a fun take on THE GREAT GATSBY. BRIDGET JONES, which I have read approximately 413 times, is a loose adaptation of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. (Why did Helen Fielding kill off Mark Darcy in the sequel? Why? I demand answers!). CLUELESS is a valley girl interpretation of EMMA. Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is based on THE JUNGLE BOOK.

I’m glad Jack Donagy raised this issue in 30 ROCK, because quite honestly, I haven’t thought about the distinction in years; and as a writer, you need to constantly educate yourself. I will never forget getting a rejection on a query I sent to an agent back in the day, when I first started looking for representation, and s/he kindly pointed out that I shouldn’t be calling my book a “fiction novel.” Oops.

The distinction is also particularly important to me because of my new project, which is loosely based on Stephen King’s NEEDFUL THINGS. It is not a satire, it is an adaptation; and I confirmed this to be sure I was referring to it properly.

I maintain that was a smart move. Because after all, in the words of Jack Donagy, “no one really knows what satire is.”

Below: An example of what satire really is, from Belleville, Illinois-area cartoonist Glenn McCoy:


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  1. Dave permalink

    Pam and Archer have this same exchange in Archer Vice: “Southbound And Down” Archer and Pam argue about what would constitute “ironic” in their current predicament, and Pam concludes by asking what satire is. “No one really knows!” Archer says.

  2. SGT MIKE permalink

    Don’t blame me, I went to public school! 😛

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