Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Parody and Satire in a Mad World

The Limits of Parody and Satire in a Mad World

Poe's Law states that parodies of extreme views will be taken as sincere by a percentage of readers. For parodists and satirists (and they are two different things) this can be a problem.

Then there's Bear's Law, which is the inverse of Poe's Law. It says institutions and persons can become so extreme that readers think true reports are parodies or satire.

For example, the Bear might report that the Vatican has issued a joint prayer service with Lutherans that thanks God for the "gifts of the Reformation," and "the spiritual insight of Martin Luther." Now, that sounds like one of the Bear's satires, but it is, in fact, true.

The only way a writer can parody the whole mess is to say, "Today the Vatican announced that Martin Luther will be recognized as a saint. His first miracle has already been reported. A Catholic woman in Waukesha, Wisconsin read a Bible for fifteen whole minutes after praying for Luther's intercession."

When you've got to stretch that far, you lose both the humor and the point. You literally can't parody some things.

The Difference Between Parody and Satire

Satire is parody's evil twin.
Now we come to the Bear's explanation of the difference between parody and satire. Parody is a caricature recognized as sharing actual elements with the target, although in highly exaggerated or improbable form, for the sake of humor. Parody is innocent fun whose purpose is to make you laugh. It is usually broad and obvious. Satire is like parody's evil twin. It is designed to cut, to make a point. It may or may not be funny, but usually is, and may be quite subtle.

When you enter the Bear's strange woodlands, you may encounter stories that segue from straight to parody, with a satiric stinger for good measure. For example, in one recent story, the Bear started with a real report of the Pope playing himself in a movie, then went to a parody about the Holy Father actually being a character played by Jonathan Pryce, then added satire about the Pope's off-the-cuff comments.

How to Know When the Bear is Pulling Your Leg

How do you know what's real, and what's parody or satire?

  • real stories are almost always linked to a source by the Bear; be suspicious of strange ones that aren't
  • there will almost always (the Bear is forgetful) be a "parody" tag at the bottom, indicating that there is at least some parody or satire in the article -- have fun sorting it out
  • some will just be obvious, like the "Dear Reinhard" satires -- you know that Cardinal Marx does not have an advice column; hopefully you knew that Jonathan Pryce isn't really playing a "Pope Francis" character, despite the uncanny resemblance. (We're pretty sure.)
  • parody may or may not be easier to spot than satire; for parody think of the hilarious Eye of the Tiber
  • remember that if there's something beyond making you laugh, if some point is being made, you're reading satire, although it can be mixed with parody

So there you go! Now you can safely navigate through the Bear's woodlands, where features seem to shift and not everything is what it seems. Consider it part of the fun of St. Corbinian's Bear's ephemeris.


  1. Thanks Bear. We live in an upside down world where perception is reality and the real is parody. In this environment truth become hard to determine. For example, take a straight ahead news item about Pope Francis, particularly when he is quoted. When read it sounds like a complete fabrication or a joke or a parody. So, of course, it must be rejected out of hand. Or is there another answer?

    So please, Bear, let us know how we should respond to what Pope Francis says when it seems like what he says can only be interpreted as a parody or satire.


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