In satire, a situation containing a violation is presented without any explicit acknowledgement of the existence of the violation(s). The violations are presented deadpan, as though there were no violation at all, so that the reader must detect or miss the violation on her own, actively using her own moral conscience. Those readers that do detect the violation may find it hilarious, because of the humorous structure: a moral violation is juxtaposed simultaneously with the deadpan view of the situation in which it appears normal or unremarkable. The special feature of satire, however, is that the deadpan presentation is given to an implied audience of readers or listeners who do not detect the violation. The inability of this audience to detect moral violations is itself a moral violation, since people believe that normal people can and should tell right from wrong; this further violation contributes additional complexity to the humor, making it even more funny. Now, there may in fact be no readers fooled by some particular satire. It could be that noone missed the satirical nature of Swift's A Modest Proposal, for example. But satire has a deadpan character, as if there were an uncomprehending audience, even if that audience does not actually exist.
One of the most interesting features of satire is that it is almost universally believed to be a persuasive writing form. In actuality, it appears that most written satire actually fools most of its readers, so that, far from being persuasive, it is often not even understood. Gruner's (1992) survey of the literature on the persuasive impact of satire turned up very little confirmation of it. Satire was found to have a persuasive impact only for those subjects that 1) understand the satire's rhetorical point (apparently very few in most studies) and 2) share the opinion being communicated. The particularity of this result calls out for an explanation. The present theory of humor provides one.
Raskin (p.c.) has insightfully observed that being persuaded of a satire's rhetorical point is a prerequisite to understanding the satire of it, and the explanation provided here is an elaboration of Raskin's idea. In terms of the present theory satire persuades only the previously persuaded because, in order to understand a satire as a satire, in the first place, a person must see it as presenting actual moral violations to an uncomprehending audience. To see actual moral violations in the situation, she must have a view of the way things are supposed to be in the situation, she must care about it, and she must see that things are not that way in the depicted situation. In short, she must agree that the situation is a moral violation. This amounts to already being persuaded of the satire's point, which is nothing other than that the situation depicted is a moral violation. Therefore, indeed, communication is limited to those who agree. Since persuasion can have no effect on those who don't understand, the persuasive impact is limited to those who already agree with the point of the satire. This provides a needed and otherwise absent explanation for the quite specific result of Gruner's survey, an explanation which crucially uses elements of the present theory.