Comedy Central gurus Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart just announced their two-year contract extensions.
The pair, who started their satiric programs a few years ago (Stewart’s The Daily Show in 1999, and Colbert’s Report in 2005), has gained a cult following of politically-charged young adults. Tickets to The Colbert Report, for example, are sold out “in about 12 minutes,” according to an ABC News report. Thanks to these satirical shows, teenagers across America have become passionately engaged in politics—a realm once reserved for law school elites and retired members of Congress.
Though they risk embarrassment on a national level (the 2006 White House Correspondants’ Dinner, anyone?), Colbert and Stewart still manage to get their point across, clearly and firmly. They make us recognize ourselves—our vices, our bad habits, our misfortunes—in the characters at whom we are laughing. They force us to learn, to question.
In honor of the genre that colors our political world today, here’s a glance at four famous satirists of the past and present.
Date: 65-8 BCE
Best quote: “Make money, money by fair means if you can, if not, but any means money.”
Why he’s great: Horace is the creator of “horatian satire,” a literary style noted for its benign and playful jeering. A connoisseur of fine arts, he published satires and odes on topics ranging from will-hunting to carpe diem. Horace was a fervent critic of fellow satirists like Lucilius, whose satires, according to Horace, provoked anger instead of intellectual curiosity. His works highlighted the treatment of Ancient Roman slaves without violently attacking anyone. He’ll be forever known as the nice satirist.
2. JONATHAN SWIFT
Best quote: “I am assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London; that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food.”
Why he’s great: Swift was the most prolific satirist of 18th century Great Britain; his works have engendered movies like Gulliver’s Travels and debates on this very site. He updated, nay revolutionized, political comedy in that he used vivid and vile imagery to get his point across. Gone were the days when satire mildly poked fun of politicians in the style of Horace—Swift created satire that screamed criticisms and demanded change.
Best quote: “The composition of a tragedy requires testicles.”
Why he’s great: Voltaire was a bastion of French intellect and humor at a time that required mockery and mirth. Despite the fact that he often rubbed elbows with Frederick the Great, Voltaire had his fun trash-talking his own government officials. He spent three years exiled in Great Britain, but didn’t seem to learn his lesson—he published over twenty20 more satirical works after that. His works spearheaded the French Revolution, and instigated other independence movements as well.
4. SALMAN RUSHDIE
Best quote: “So India’s problem turns out to be the world’s problem. What happened in India has happened in God’s name … The problem’s name is God.”
Why he’s great: I was exposed to the complex, fantastical world of Salmon Rushdie this past year. Although he is not typically labeled a satirist, he represents a kind of political commentary that combines Indian history and allegory. His writings have stimulated the same uproar as Voltaire; in the ‘80s his Satanic Verses led to a fatwa issuing and censorship campaigns in the Middle East. Only a true satirist creates that much chaos.