Satire is a tricky tightrope to walk. You want to be cheeky, but not offensive — funny, but not overbearing. At the same time, you want to bring something to light, spark a debate and provoke emotion, whether those emotions be humor, anger or something in between.
According to “Power and Resistance: A Case Study of Satire on the Internet,” there are two components to satire: attack and wit. This combination gives us satisfaction because it demonstrates our ability to understand and control the world. Satire offers a sense of moral victory and acts as a valve for pent-up emotions. As George Orwell once said, “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
But satire is notoriously difficult to do well. If you don’t go far enough, it just reads like an opinion article; if you go too far, you lose the humor. To help guide you along your way to comedic relief, I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite pieces of satire along with tips on how to write your own.
Satirical articles done well — like LOL well
1. “What Is Pokémon Go?” by The Onion
Ah, Pokémon Go. Was it so long ago that Nintendo launched it and it took over our lives? And of course, The Onion, a satirical news site, does not disappoint. My personal favorite from this article? “Q: What are Pokémon? A: This is not for you.”
Why it’s great: The article has a question-answer format, which reads easily and is extremely quotable. All the questions are real ones that many people probably have, but the answers poke fun at big corporations’ obsessions with data and our own addiction to mobile games.
How to emulate it: Find a topic you know well or like, ideally one that people ask you so many questions about that you get annoyed. Now channel that annoyance into humor and sarcasm. Think about the different parties involved (for Pokémon Go it was the users, the Pokémon and Nintendo) and figure out how you can incorporate jokes about each of them.
2. “9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women” by The Cooper Review
The Cooper Review is a fantastic source of tongue-in-cheek business advice. This particular article is one of my favorites because it made me laugh — but it also made me sit back, evaluate myself, and rethink how I interact with my coworkers. Sometimes when I’m typing out an email or speaking in a meeting, I’ll actually think about this article and the “non-threatening” quotes in it. If you can write a piece of content so sticky that your readers think about it regularly, you know you’ve struck gold.
Why it’s great: The headline, no matter where you stand on the topic of women in business, provokes a reaction and immediately raises questions. Cooper’s also funny from the start (“IS IT? Sorry I didn’t mean to get aggressive there”) to finish (“When all else fails, wear a mustache so everyone sees you as more man-like”).
How to emulate it: Is there something about society that bothers you? Or things that people do too often that you find comical? Poke fun at them. (Just make sure it’s something you’re not afraid to stand behind, because there is a possibility you’ll get some backlash.)
3. “Which Nintendo Character Are You?” by Dorkly
Most quizzes you see on the internet have results that are endlessly complimentary and positive, no matter which answers you choose. That’s because most interactive content is designed with one of three purposes in mind: to provide entertainment, to get you to share on social media, and/or to put in your contact information at the end. It’s pretty simple human psychology — either the quiz gives you compliments and you give back by filling out a lead gen form, or your vanity prompts you to share your fantastic result with all of your friends and followers.
However, Dorkly went the other way with their Nintendo quiz. Here’s a snippet of the outright insulting description for the result I got (Yoshi):
“You are the world’s Kleenex — except your ultimate fate will not have the dignity afforded to a used Kleenex.”
Ouch! So why in the world has this quiz been taken over 270,000 times and why did it go viral? Well, the descriptions are all well-written, funny, and have a prophecy-like tone that connects well with their audience. Plus, when you know it’s a joke, it’s easy to laugh off. Because it doesn’t actually describe you at all… right?
Why it’s great: It’s OK to make fun of your audience, and this post shows that. As much as we all like to hear that we’re awesome, sometimes a wash of stone-cold truth so exaggerated that it’s funny just hits the spot. It becomes a competition between you and your friends for who can get the worst result.
How to emulate it: First and foremost, know your audience. If you have readers you suspect won’t be receptive to this, it might be better to avoid it. If you’re ever insulting someone or something satirically, the most important thing is to really pile it on so your audience knows you’re joking.
How to write satirical content, by The Onion co-founder
We couldn’t leave you without giving some inspiration for your own satirical content pieces. I can’t pretend to be an expert on this, so to bring you some domain expertise, I found some tips from Tim Keck, the founder of The Onion, on how to write a perfectly satirical article.
Here are his top satirical tips (with examples):
1. Include the elephant (as in, the elephant in the room): “Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell” (in The Onion’s first post-9/11 edition)
2. Religion is dumb: “God Answers Prayers of a Paralyzed Little Boy”
3. The honest character (people talking about what everyone knows they’re thinking): “Aw, Who’m I Kidding… I’ll Never Top 21 Jump Street”
4. The big/small switcheroo. Talk about big things in a small way, and talking about small things like news: “Teen Had Absolutely No Say In Becoming Part Of Snapchat Generation” (small thing in a big way); “Black Guy Asks Nation For Change” (big thing in a small way)
5. Write something as mean as possible: “Study: Many Americans Too Fat To Commit Suicide”