What is the Difference Between a Parody and Satire?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The terms parody and satire are sure to put a smirk across any English major’s face and send the rest of the world scrambling for their dictionaries. The distinction between parody and satire is complex, and can be complicated by overlapping comedic styles. Most definitions consider a parody to be a mimicry of an established idea, concept or person for comedy, while satire deconstructs a subject for humor without reproducing it directly.

Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is a popular example of satire--a type of mockery meant to instill a desire for  for social or political change.
Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is a popular example of satire--a type of mockery meant to instill a desire for for social or political change.

The difference between the two styles may be best explained through example. Parody films have become a popular genre in recent years, with break-out hits like Scary Movie, and successful follow-ups such as Date Movie, Epic Movie and Not Another Teen Movie. These movies take the conventions of popular films and recreate them for over-the-top humor. These films also create caricatures of popular recent film characters and character archetypes, such as Harry Potter and Willy Wonka.

Satire is a more subtle concept, involving mockery usually without mimicry. The style is often related to a desire for social or political change, leading some to call satire the meeting of humor and anger. One of the most famous satirical films is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a 1964 black comedy about the Cold War by Stanley Kubrick. Satire is easy to get wrong; when dealing with sensitive or personally important issues, many believe that humor should not be applied. Satire requires a degree of objectivity or personal detachment, in order to accept the humor in sometimes dangerous or devastating situations.

Parody and satire are often confused or reversed in definition. Part of this may be related to the fact that satire sometimes used parody as a tool for getting humor across. The fake-news show The Colbert Report is often described as both parody and satire. Accurately, it is a parody of news pundits such as Bill O’Reilly, used to make a satirical point about real socio-political commentary shows.

A major distinction between parody and satire is the goals which they try to attain. While both are considered styles of humor, their purpose may be very different. Almost exclusively, satire explores an anger or frustration at the status quo, using humor as a tool to make the subject palatable. Parody may or may not have a desire to incite social change, and can be used for pure entertainment through extreme portrayals of established ideas or characters.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@subway11: I think you may have read The Onion article you're addressing incorrectly. They were satirizing the whole idea of death panels because they never existed in the first place! The thought that people believed in them (mainly due to Sarah Palin) was ludicrous. They were making an even more ludicrous article to make fun of the death panel critics who were using death panels to oppose the entire Affordable Health Care Act. That's the funny thing about satire: sometimes people don't understand it in its entirety.

What was coined "death panels" was really a move to allow people to plan out what their care would look like when they became terminally ill before they became terminally ill.

Often, people become ill and it's too late for them to decide what their care will be, leaving that care up to doctors or family members who don't really know what the ill person really wants. The whole idea came from a group of doctors in the midwest who were responding to a problem they noticed regarding terminally ill patients, mostly elderly, who had not planned out what should happen to them when they were too incapacitated to make decisions on their own. Basically, this provision allowed people health coverage to make plans with their doctors about end of life care. This would allow them to get advice from their doctor for end of life care for free, and before it was too late.


SurfNTurf -I love all of the Rush Limbaugh parodies. He also sells the Club Gitmo parody tshirts which are a response to the comfortable living standards that the Guantanamo detainees are living.

This developed because some in the press complained that the detainees lived in some substandard cells with poor living conditions but this really could not be further from the truth which is why the term Club is used.


Subway11 - I really appreciate the difference between satire and parody. Satire is a really sarcastic attempt to highlight an issue or a person.

Parody is more lighthearted but can still deal with serious matters. For example, the Rush Limbaugh parody regarding congressional spending can be heard in the song,"Every Cent You Make I’ll Be Taxing You” and Paul Shanklin’s “ In a Yugo” is a parody on how the governments pressure on increasing CAFÉ standards which will eliminate SUV’s in order for us to drive more fuel efficient cars like the tiny Yugo. The song is really funny.


There is a really interesting news satire site called “The Onion”. It talks about current events from a satirical point of view.

For example, last October it had an article about how the Obama health care program would allow seniors the right to decide how they are killed which was a direct response to the controversy regarding the death panels.

Although this is a very serious subject the attempt at humor really helps to highlight the problems with this bill and how seniors will really be at a severe disadvantage because the use of a government panel will determine their end of life care.

The outrage must have worked because this aspect of the bill was eliminated.

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