Satire! A brief history, and how it can save the world

White Man Behind a Desk traces his roots and Toby Manhire argues how satire can save the world.

We're proud to present a satirical double-header:

New Zealand's best-dressed satirist, White Man Behind a Desk, charts the history of white men behind desks in A Brief History of New Zealand Satire; meanwhile New Zealand's down-dressed satirist Toby Manhire offers his very earnest beliefs on How Satire Can Save the World.

I Am Satiricus, or, How Satire Can Save the World

Toby Manhire


The truth is no one can be completely certain Satiricus existed at all.

He lives and breathes most surely in the pages of a particular strain of 20th century classical scholarship, wherein he manifests as the rapscallion of comedic theatre, a favourite of Aristophanes and darling of City Dionysia’s famously raucous audiences. As an actor in The Clouds, The Wasps and Thesmophoriazusae, Satiricus would “routinely wander from the script, embroidering the story with topical barbs, double entendres and animal noises”, writes Tomas de la Follághry, a founding member of the notorious “East Coast New Classicists” in his seminal 1965 text The Penis Mightier than the Sword: Life and Lives in the Ancient Greek Comedy[1]. As a director, meanwhile, he “dared to examine, nay ridicule, the consciences of those same patricians whom so lustily cheered on his scatological entertainments”.

In De la Follághry’s telling, Satiricus appears an impish, yet oftentimes ruthless pricker of pomposity, a man whose distaste for corrupt politicians, tax collectors and daylight saving was surpassed only by his contempt for bad playwrights.[2] Our modern concept of satire, De la Follághry insists, derives not just from Satyrs, the equine, artificially aroused entourage of the god Dionysus, but refracted unmistakeably through the reputation of the man whose feats saw him rewarded with a moniker in their honour.

And yet doubts continue to rise, like so many undead zombies. All of it is complicated, of course, by disputes over translation[3], but several scholars today argue that nowhere in the primary sources upon which De la Follághry relies is there any conclusive evidence that Satiricus was a human individual, with a beating heart and other physiology typically associated with human individuals.

Some suggest that De la Follághry – and here one must tread carefully given his litigious appetite[4] – may have built some kind of composite in Satiricus, weaving together several disparate threads from Aristotle, Plutarch and elsewhere into a fresh biographical fabric. De la Follághry would almost blanch at such a claim. But at the same time there are matters of public record that invite questions over his integrity: not only has he struggled with alcoholism and pseudoephedrine, but today, in his late 70s, he remains in home detention, a bracelet strapped around his ankle, after protracted disputes relating to indecent exposure and plagiarised material on his now defunct political attack blog[5]

The sometimes passionate discourse probing the authenticity of Satiricus has, however, effected a surprising, if not paradoxical, resurgence in enthusiasm for the figure. Within youth satirist communities the world over, Satiricus is today revered almost to the point of beatification. He has become for them a kind of patron saint: an embodiment of the potent, timeless and ineluctable purpose of satire: to save the world.


Satire. Six small letters that scale such heights. Satire. Do the sssss! and the attire evoke something for you? A snakeskin blazer, perhaps – Nicolas Cage in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart? Or do you hear sat and ire – the sedentary fury of an acerbic wit, tappity-tapping thoughts about our society into life on a word processor? Or do you think of Satya, the Indian restaurant group that does an excellent chicken palakura at a reasonable price?

We are, of course, speaking of something both timeless and ubiquitous. “In whatever department of human expression, wherever there is objective truth there is satire,” said Wyndham Lewis. Satire is, mused John Dryden, “a kind of poetry in which human vices are reprehended”. Nabokov meanwhile warned us not to confuse satire with parody. For while “satire is a lesson, parody is a game”, he cautioned, before getting back to his filthy novels. Bill Bryson, for his part, asked of us: “If you can imagine a man having a vasectomy without anaesthetic to the sound of frantic satire-playing, you will have some idea of what popular Turkish music is like.”[6]


The sixth floor of a low-rise tower block just off Van Brienenoord Bridge provides an unremarkable home for the Rotterdam Institute for Topical Comedy and Satire. Regarded by many as the essential meeting point for practitioners and academics in topical comedy and satire, the tan-carpeted Institute was founded in the middle of last century as a “temple” of ’Pataphysics, and while its focus has evolved, to this day it abides by the ’Pataphysical calendar, in which the year comprises 13 months, each with 29 days, where the 29th day is imaginary, apart from in two months when it isn’t.

The Institute’s biennial Autumn symposium is shrouded in secrecy – even its name is confidential – but with the permission of The Committee your correspondent is able briefly to say something of the 2013 event’s contents, and, more saliently, its fruits. An early colloquy, for example, featured an energetic exchange of views on the function of the political cartoon in coalition negotiations. The plenary session on day two was dominated by a sometimes tense, but important, debate about the difference between parody and pastiche. There was standing room only for a keynote address, How Protracted Discussions about Satire Just Make It Much Funnier, executed with panache and elaborate visual aids by the Belarussian professor Nadzeya Ostapchuk. Appearing by satellite, Edward Snowden delivered a rousing lecture entitled “I am Satiricus: Satire and the Surveillance State”.

Notwithstanding the infuriating hum produced by the Institute’s air conditioning system, the symposium was an enormous success, its attendees departing with a renewed conviction that the future of their communities, their nations, even their planet, laid in their collective comedic hands. They developed something more concrete, too. On the final day of the Rotterdam gathering, Satiristes Sans Frontières was born.


There are many ways to understand history, but the grey matter of the world’s leading thinkers has been flashing bright as a Christmas tree in recent months, alive to the possibility that it may be best viewed through the prism of satire, by the presence or otherwise of the form. Had the satire scene in Sarajevo in June 1914 been more bountiful, for example, who is to say that the great wars would never have followed and Franz Ferdinand would still be alive today? The archduke’s assassination infamously led to the outbreak of World War One, and in turn to its sequel, World War Two. The consensus among historians is that the latter war was pretty grim, but how much worse would it have been without the satirical intervention of cartoonist David Low and Charlie Chaplin’s motion picture The Great Dictator, not to mention the subversive revues in Berlin nightclubs? Not for nothing did Peter Cook explain that in opening his London club The Establishment in 1961 he was hoping to emulate “those wonderful Berlin cabarets ... which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler”.

New Zealand can congratulate itself, by comparison at least, for its commitment to satire. A recent survey commissioned by a leading international pet food manufacturer found that New Zealand ranked fifth in the world as “most welcoming to satirists”, behind Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Norway again. The most obvious signal of New Zealand’s embrace of the form is the fact that the successor to historian Michael King as the country’s pre-eminent chronicler is John Oliver, a satirist, albeit a foreign one.[7] Nevertheless, the satirist community complains that it is rarely consulted, let alone encouraged in public policy. Within orthodox political circles, few are willing to acknowledge satirists’ place in the public square, their role as the unofficial legislators of the world.


Which brings us to the internet. Have you seen it? It is impossible to properly chart the discursive waters of contemporary satire and global conflict without touching on the role of social media.8 Exemplars of satirism abound across a range of digital platforms, including but not limited to Tony Veitch’s Facebook page, the talented but borderline emaciated guy off “White Man Behind a Desk” on internet website YouTube[8], and the saucy user forums on TradeMe. Then there is, of course, Twitter, a veritable cornucopia of spoof accounts, a wellspring of one-liners and ritualised humiliation. The consensus among historians is that Twitter is the great modern mobiliser of political change. As has been made clear in several articles available to read on the internet, the medium of Twitter single-handedly paved the way for popular revolution in the Middle East, creating the Arab Spring, taming the Leviathan and delivering peace and democracy across the region.[9]

Would you believe the word satire does not appear even once in the Wikipedia page for the Khmer Rouge?

Also, Snapchat, Pinterest and Instagram.


It is into this gooey matrix of seismic world events and invigorating topical ribaldry that Satiristes Sans Frontières has plunged itself. The group’s central goal is to ensure satire permeates every part of the global system, from the grassroots in the developing world through to the top table of the United Nations Security Council.[10][11] SSF posits an international network of Satire Ambassadors, peripatetic impersonators and travelling caricaturists. In a draft manifesto they describe themselves as “the hospital clowns but just imagine if the hospital was actually the whole world”; their mission being to “reimagine the theatre of the absurd in the theatre of war”, to tear down what Winston Churchill so memorably called “the ironic curtain [that] has descended across the continent”. They have also developed a number of bold educational programmes, focusing principally on the wry haiku and lolcats.

As proved in the exhaustive survey above, the consensus among historians is that satire is an indispensable weapon, or a missile shield, or maybe that should be a sort of powder that makes weapons not work any more. To put it another way, objets de satire, whether they be spoken, sketched or scribbled, substantial or snackable, are the white blood cells of society. A thriving community of satire practitioners should matter to everyone – for it could be the difference between living a long and prosperous life and being locked forever in a tiny cell by a vicious and misunderstood dictator. It is precisely because of that sense of urgency that another, rival group has emerged on the international satire scene – a group that dismisses SSF as a coterie of establishment lackeys, incrementalists and journeyman circus clowns. Their solution, by contrast, is more radical. Dramatically so.


At first glance, the 2013 congregation of satirists in Rotterdam was a nonpareil picture of camaraderie: laughs, lengthy conversations about semantics, and a commitment to ridding the world of the scourges of war, famine and derivative situation comedy. And yet, over the course of the weekend, the trained observer would have noticed a splinter group emerge, a dozen or so women and men with a beguilingly messianic glint in their eyes.

Officially leaderless but in practice run by a formidable woman who goes by the name Graham, the nucleus of the group first formed in a symposium workshop confronting questions about satire’s complicity in political apathy and alienation through the blanket demonisation of democratically elected representatives.

They would soon, however, come to call themselves the Satiricus Army. Inspired by the verve and lewdness of the classical figure – apocryphal or otherwise – the group has rapidly grown around the world, in a manner at once visible and invisible. Seeable and unseeable. Viewable and not able to be viewed. Almost from the get-go, the Satiricus Army eschewed the methods of SSF; not for them the engagement with official channels, the diplomatic passports and “SATIRIST”-emblazoned flak-jackets.

“Not for us the engagement with official channels, the diplomatic passports and ‘SATIRIST’-emblazoned flak-jackets,” said Twinkles in an “Ask Me Anything” session on the website Reddit. “Do you think war and famine and climate change are going to sit around waiting for SSF to climb the establishment ladder? ‘Ooh, hello everyone, I’m climate change, nice to meet you, would you like me to just hold off changing the climate while you have a nice cup of tea and wait for Boutros Boutros-Ghali to return your calls?’ No. The Army says no. We say, this is too important. As satirists, we must use whatever means necessary to effect positive change.”

The modus operandi of The Satiricus Army is, for many, frightening. Its activities reputedly range from introducing satire to children through hidden messages in popular television shows such as Dora the Explorer and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, through to directly confronting jihadi groups with improvised theatre, dance and lurid phalluses.

The Army’s most gifted generals, meanwhile, are sent into deep cover around the world, satirist sleeper cells embedded in the fabric of society. If many of the unofficial Satiricus Army affiliated online forums are to be believed, their agents may include some or all of Ali G, Stephen Colbert, Colin Craig, Donald Trump and the Nobel Peace Prize committee, each and every one tirelessly working to expose the nincompoops and numbskulls in our midst. At least one satirist is understood to be involved at a senior level in the hunt for MH370.

These individuals exist at the apex of fact and fiction. Like Satiricus.


There is a very real risk today of schism within the international satirist community – only a fool or a decadent “meta-satirist” would say otherwise. But there is at the same time hope that the two most exciting movements to emerge from satire-based discourse can put their differences to one side and form a bond much like Miss Daisy and her coloured driver did in the Academy Award winning film Driving Miss Daisy.

Satiristes Sans Frontières must continue its battle within the halls of established power and the geopolitical status quo. Good luck to them. But time is running out – and it is difficult to see the pace of change coming from anything other than a bold, radical organisation with the word “army” and also “Satiricus” in its name.

Even should the Satiricus of the ancient world ultimately transpire to be as illusory as “Peeping” Tom De la Follághry’s claim to have any moral scruples[12], the very name – Satiricus! – transports us to the very cradle of muscular, interventionist satire. And in the shape of his eponymous army, Satiricus is indubitably alive today. We can only hope, for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and their children, or to put it another way, our great-grandchildren, that these footsoldiers of satire taste victory.


[1] Published in Australasia as The Phallus Fallacy.

[2] Satiricus is said to have angrily declared a foray into comedic playwriting by the poet Eupolis “about as much fun as a Peloponnesian dinner party”.

[3] For an exhaustive study of the variance in translation of numerous texts on the subject, see the post Lust in translation: You won’t believe the variances in translation in numerous texts about Satiricus on the website

[4] As others have remarked, the figure of Satiricus depicted in De la Follághry’s scholarship would very likely blow raspberries at the thought of a writer seeking reputational redress through the instrument of state justice.

[5] The site is now defunct.

[6] Subs pls chk should that be sitar?

[7] The New Zealand Labour Party has faced criticisms for perceived “dog whistling” in rhetoric around foreign satirists.

[8] It is almost impossible to be approved for publication in a peer-reviewed journal without devoting a minimum of two paragraphs to the impact of social media.

[9] With the exception of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere.

[10] What do you think about plans for reform of the United Nations? Join the conversation.

[11] As this essay was going to press Satiristes Sans Frontières had yet to receive from the Security Council any formal response to their song-and-dance “viral” applying for permanent observer status.


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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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