Jonathan Swift

“If the unemployed are hungry, why don’t they eat themselves?”: Thinking Satire in a Tragi-Comic Age

Video Credit:

John Lloyd, producer of Spitting Image (1984–1996), tells a story of how he was asked to validate the "humor" of the title ('If the unemployed are hungry, why don't they eat themselves') to television executives who missed his allusion to Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal (8:08 min). He had given these lines to the puppet of conservative MP Norman Tebbit (with bat above). Lloyd’s story gestures to two limitations to satire on the boob tube:

1. The public's general lack of familiarity with the satirical tradition

2. A pervasive demand for our ‘satirists’ to operate as ‘comedians’

A brief explanation through the lens of satires during Jonathan Swift's era (17th–18th c.) might clearly show that the english language/english-speaking population once possessed:

1. a refined and self-conscious conception of satire

2. a definite distinction between comedy and satire

To begin, if we consider Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary—published in the golden age of British satire—we find a striking differentiation between:

Comedy: [comedia, Lat.] A dramatick representation of the lighter faults of mankind

Comical: [comicus, Lat.] (1.) Raising mirth; merry; diverting

Comedian: A player or actor of comic parts

Satire: [satira, anciently satura, Lat. Not from satyrus, as satyr] A poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.

Satirick: (1.) Belonging to satire; employed in writing of invective; (2.) Censorious; severe in language

Satirist: One who writes satires

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