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Satirical Satire

On August 16th, 2015, John Oliver’s news show on HBO, Last Week Tonight, shed a cutting light on religious ministers who devote the majority of the ministry through television broadcasting. Mainly Christian, these ministers, known as “Televangelists”, and can be either official or self-proclaimed ministers that enlist their followers into “seed faith”. Defining this term, Televangelist Rick Warren explains the principal of “seed faith”, or “sowing and reaping” as sending money to his church -“planting the seed”- whenever you might have or ask for a need from God.

Given time you will “harvest” the benefits and gain what you originally asked for with blessings (Warren). Oliver, however, has a different view about such prosperity gospels and made it bitingly clear to his audiences both live and at home that he does not condone these “seed faith” actions. Instead, he implored that Televangelists, “exploit people’s faith for monetary gain” (Oliver) and exemplified this viewpoint using both characteristics of satire and parody. Primarily, Oliver uses satire in his argument by making multiple, uncensored jokes at the expense of the Televangelist operational practice of “seed faith”.

For example, a particular joke from the episode played on the fact that the investment vale of sending money to a Televangelist church. This is referred to as “sowing your money in the ground”, and would theoretically reap returns multiple times over depending on the quantity of the seed. Oliver instead suggested that the audience would be, “better off burying your money in the actual ground, because that way there is a chance your dog might dig it up and give it back to you one day,”.

As a tool, Oliver used satire to point at the social convention of sending money under the guise as an investment, drew it out and sanctioned critical analyzation of it, toning down sneers to a silly observational comparison (12-13). After a few more jabs at this with a great laughing response of the audience, Oliver turns his scathing eye to the IRS and their legal response to religious organizations in tax exemption and auditing practices – or lack thereof.

Requirement guidelines the IRS supplies for religious organizations like churches are “sometimes a little vague” and are allowed to operate as such as long as the practices “are not illegal and are truly held beliefs. ” To this, Oliver points out ridiculous and frivolous beliefs that are also legal such as, “bros before hoes” or, “red vines are better than twizzlers” to which the audience rejoins with hearty laughter.

Here, the characteristics of a satire that demands three things of Oliver’s audience emerges: their attuned awareness of the lax relationship between religious institutions and the IRS, prior knowledge of imprudent proceedings of purposely vague laws and cognitive participation of insane comparisons (Gray, Jones and Thompson). Secondarily, Oliver then engages in two exercises of parody to further satirically comment on Televangelists and their custom of “seed faith”.

The first form of parody is when Oliver involved himself in a mailing correspondence with minster Robert Tilton, a famed Televangelist. Tilton’s mailing exchange included suggestions of quantified seed in dollar amounts for Oliver to send as a member on the mailing list, which Oliver complied to, totaling up to $50 dollars out of pocket, “we’re just two letters in, and already its like having a penpal who is in deep with some loan sharks,” Oliver satirically commented, gaining yet another laughing response at the poke.

This is evidence that parody works in cooperation with satire, though parody hardly can exist outside of satirical context. The mailing correspondence engages in a normal practice of those who are exploited by the Televangelist Tilton, but the latter joke comparing him to an “in deep penpal” is the scornful remark of satire. The second, and perhaps more important utilization of parody Oliver activated to destroy the “seed faith” practice in the public eye was setting up his own, legal church under vague IRS laws that allowed him to elicit money from his audience through his televised show.

In the simplest sense, Oliver himself becomes a minister, proclaiming himself, “Megarevernd and CEO” of registered church, “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption”. Here, the regular set of the show switches to the set of a nicely decorated living room with Oliver and his “wife” – who is Saturday Night Live’s Rachel Dratch -Wanda-Jo Oliver.

Together, the pair enter into the parody, taking up conventionalized phrases that Televangelists say such as, “praise be”, “hallelujah! , “it’s a miracle! ”, and “be gone demons! ” in distinctive southern accents to further perpetuate the characteristics. They go on to specify the kind of “seed” that the audience should send, “we want your actual money, do not send seed,” Dratch as Wanda-Jo comments with a drawl, and asks for them to call 1-800-THIS-IS-LEGAL to plant seed. The parody finishes off with the typical use of choir music with an ensemble of clapping, vocalizing, and repeating “give us money! ”.

This implemented imitation of how the televised christian convention is designed in a public context, Oliver managed to break and tear its functioning down, laying bare the core of Televangelists intentions; money. Repeating church like norms incited consideration of the true operation itself, driving the satirical aspect of the parody. By engaging the audience in communal laughter and allowing social judgement to be made of the societal christian convention, Oliver successfully replaced indignation with playful examination of seed faith.

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