SUBJECTS — ELA: Social Satire;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Romantic Relationships;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Caring.

AGE: 13+; MPAA rating PG-13 (for language, including some sexual material, and a drug reference);

2009, 100 minutes; color. Available from

Note to Teachers:

The introduction and the assignments are suitable for any film that contains social satire. Discussion Questions 1 – 3 are particular to The Invention of Lying. Discussion questions 4 and 5 are suitable for use with any film.

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This warm-hearted comedy presents an alternate universe which is the same as the modern day U.S. except that no one knows how to lie and everyone speaks exactly what comes into their heads. There are no “white lies,” there is no fiction, and everyone can be absolutely trusted. There is also no religion.

As the movie opens, the audience is introduced to Mark Bellison, a slightly overweight young man with a pug nose who is unsuccessful at work and unlucky in love. In short order, Mark is rejected by a beautiful woman, gets fired from his job, and is about to be evicted from his apartment. The movie shows how Mark discovers the ability to lie while poking fun at modern society and some of our most cherished institutions.


Selected Awards: 2010 Evening Standard British Film Awards Nominations, Peter Sellers Award for Comedy: Ricky Gervais;

Featured Actors: Ricky Gervais as Mark Bellison, Jennifer Garner as Anna McDoogles, Jonah Hill as Frank, Louis C.K. as Greg. Jeffrey Tambor as Anthony, Fionnula Flanagan as Martha Bellison, Rob Lowe as Brad Kessler, Tina Fey as Shelley, Donna Sorbello as Anna’s Mother Gordon-Levitt, Jay O. Sanders.

Director: Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson.


This humorous film is an excellent example of social satire, a literary genre that began with the plays of Aristophanes and has continued in all art forms through the ages. Examples in literature include, Candide, Gulliver’s Travels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Catch 22. This film, like all good social satire, has meaning beyond the laugh, spoofing social status, social conventions, religion, advertising, and more.


Minor: There are references to masturbation and sex. Like all good social satire, The Invention of Lying challenges strongly held beliefs and important institutions, including religion. It will infuriate some, but give new perspectives to all.


Watch the movie with your child and laugh. Talk about a point of social satire in the movie that you liked and one that you thought missed the mark.


Social satire can be introduced through direct instruction or by having students research the genre and provide examples for the class in various forms of expression such as the visual arts, literature, drama, music, television, film, political cartoons, comic strips, and jokes. The class can be divided into groups and assigned to find and present to the class an example of social satire in each of these forms. Other groups of students can be asked to report on how satire works.


An excellent way to start any presentation about social satire is to show the following picture.

Ask the class the question, “What is this artist trying to tell us?”


Tell the class that this is an example of a genre of art called “social satire”, which is the effort to use humor in a way that makes us look at our lives, our institutions, or our culture in a different way. Social satire exposes the contradictions and foibles in our institutions, our society, and ourselves.

Techniques of social satire include irony, hyperbole, demonstrating incongruity, for example showing the differences between how we behave and what we say we believe in, and fantasy.

Ask students to give specific examples of social satire on television, in movies or from books they have read. [Examples can come from TV programs such as The Simpsons, Southpark, Family Guy, movies like Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, poetry, such as “The Unknown Citizen” by W.H. Auden, or literature such as Catch-22, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote, Candide, Mark Twain’s “A Toast to the Oldest Inhabitant . . .”, Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, “Game” by Donald Bartholemew, “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, and “The Princess in the Tin Box” by James Thurber].

Tell the class that one of the earliest practitioners of social satire was a Greek playwright named Aristophanes, who poked fun at the gullibility and greed of the people of Athens in their willingness to follow whichever leader promised them the most food and benefits.


There are magazines and websites devoted to social satire. One website is The Onion.

Many cartoons and comic strips are works of social satire. Doonesbury is an example. Political cartoons can contain social satire. Jokes are a source of social satire.

An Exercise in Social Satire on Both Sides of the Political Spectrum:

Note to Teachers:

Different levels of students will appreciate different levels of humor. The following exercise is suitable for honors or AP level classes. If the class does not have the background or frame of reference to appreciate what follows, try using the “Only in America” jokes in Discussion Question #4. Another alternative is to ask the class to find jokes that are examples of social satire. Be sure to instruct students that racist and sexist jokes or jokes demeaning a particular nationality or the handicapped are not acceptable.

Have students compare this series of short jokes:


You know that you are on the left side of the political spectrum if:

  1. You believe that the logging industry in an entire region should be decimated and hundreds of loggers should lose their jobs, just to allow a few spotted owls to live in their preferred tree;
  2. You believe personal injury lawyers when they say that they are just trying to defend the little guy;
  3. You believe that those profit mongering drug companies could find a cure for AIDS if they really wanted to;
  4. You believe that animals on factory farms are like victims of the Holocaust;
  5. You think that any money spent on anti-poverty programs is well spent.


You know that you are on the right side of the political spectrum if:

  1. You believe that the interests of a few hundred loggers in keeping their jobs justifies the extinction of an entire species of owls;
  2. You do not believe that products liability lawsuits force industry to create safer products;
  3. You believe that corporations have the best interests of their customers at heart;
  4. You believe that factory farming is a humane institution;
  5. You don’t believe that it’s worth taxing the rich to pay for medical care for poor children.


Ask students to state or describe the larger point, the concept behind the laugh, for each set of one-liners. Note that the positions below are not set out as correct political or social beliefs; they are only the concepts that are the source of the humor in the one-liners set out above:

Suggestions Response:

  1. extreme environmentalists don’t consider the needs of people vs. those who do not want to restrict human activities for the benefit of the environment fail to understand that people can usually find another job but extinction is forever;
  2. many participants in the legal system are in it for the money, not for justice vs. the failure to see that the legal system can benefit society as a whole by forcing companies to act more responsibly;
  3. while drug companies are profit-making organizations, the sales and prestige that would come with finding a cure for AIDS makes it highly unlikely that any company would not try to find a cure for that disease vs. a naive belief that corporations will not usually act to maximize their profits, even at times at the expense of their customers;
  4. as much as animals can feel pain, they are not human beings vs. it is justified in the name of profit to torture and brutally kill animals like cows, pigs, chickens and geese who have feelings and experience terror;
  5. there is waste in some antipoverty programs; some work and some don’t vs. there are many things that can be done to ameliorate the bad effects of poverty and that the wealthy, who benefit the most from our society, should be taxed to pay for that.


Humor is based on an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs. Just think of the punch line of the last joke that you heard. But humor is funniest when it relates to something which troubles us, consciously or subconsciously, and allows us to discharge some of the mental energy that is generated when we think about those topics or when we repress what troubles us.

Thus, at the opening of the movie, The Invention of Lying, a worker is shown calling in sick, telling the people at work what he is really thinking, “I’m not sick, I just hate it there.” The incongruity is stating what he really feels in a situation in which, in real life, no one would do that. The bit works because we’ve all wanted to call in sick or stay home from school or not going to a family event, not due to illness, but because “We hate it there!” However, we’ve controlled ourselves and kept to the lie or gone anyway and those actions built up mental energy surrounding the idea of calling in sick which is released by this little comedic sketch.


After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.


1. In a world in which everyone believes everything you say without question, what would you do? Would you tell “white lies” to avoid hurt feelings? Would you lie about anything important?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response.


2. When Anna interrupted her wedding asked Mark to tell her what the man in the sky wanted her to do, why wouldn’t Mark tell her? After all, she would have believed him without question.

Suggested Response:

He didn’t want her to choose to marry him based on a lie. The marriage would have felt false all his life.


3. In what ways does Mark misuse his power to lie?

Suggested Response:

To steal money from banks and casinos and to make up stories that he sells as the literal truth. It can also be argued that in making up a religion based on “the man in the sky,” Mark was abusing his power. On the other hand, he thought he was just trying to make people feel better about their lives and deaths. Otherwise, Mark was pretty good about not using his power to lie to his own advantage or to hurt people.


4. Ask students the point behind each of the following “Only in America” jokes. One is not an example of social satire. Ask students to identify it.
Only in America:

  1. are parking lots sometimes larger than the buildings they serve;
  2. do people think they are watching their weight by ordering a double cheeseburger, large fries, and a diet Coke;
  3. do Creationists insist that the pharmaceutical drugs they use first be tested on monkeys and chimps because they are “so much like human beings”;
  4. is the sport called football played almost entirely without the players’ feet touching the ball;
  5. do people argue that human life is so sacred that abortion justifies capital punishment;
  6. do people value equality so much that they think discrimination should be used to create it;
  7. are academic institutions known more for their athletes than their scholars;
  8. do the terms “evil-doer” and “do-gooder” both have negative characterizations;

Suggested response:

The following are good explanations, students or teachers may think of others: (1) American life is dominated, too often, by needs of people who drive cars; (2) this mocks self-delusion; (3) this mocks hypocrisy, specifically, Creationists who accept the determinations of modern science about the genetic similarities between humans and chimps but deny the Theory of Evolution; (4) this is not social satire; pointing out the illogice in the naming of a sport has no moral point; (5) this mocks fanaticism, specifically, showing how core values can be betrayed by a fanatical outlook; (6) shows how an ends justify the means approach can lead to a betrayal of core principles; (7) points out how institutions in society stray from their intended purpose, even institutions that are intended to be repositories of wisdom; (8) points out that there is a part of us that resists change for the better, the change that the so-called “do-gooders” are trying to promote.


5. Identify a work of social satire that the class has read or watched and ask students to identify the values sought to be promoted in that work.


6. What is Mark trying to do when he tells Anna, just before her date with Brad Kessler, that the rule from the “man in the sky” is that she should not have sex before marriage? Why does this turn out to be so funny?

Suggested Response:

She has come to give him a present of birthday sex, but since they are not married and he has just told her about the new rule, she cannot go through with the present. This is funny because there is an “incongruity between what is expected and what occurs.” Mark doesn’t’ expect Anna to offer to have sex with him and only wants to stop her from having sex with Brad Kessler. It turns out that he stops her from having sex with him as well.



Answer each of the following questions with reference to the themes of the movie.


1. When Mark first met Anna, why didn’t she think he was a suitable match for her?

Suggested Response:

He wasn’t tall and good looking. This refers to a theme in the movie that people are classified by how they look rather than for their inner qualities.


2. Why didn’t Anna think that Mark was a suitable match for her when he became rich, famous and the spokesman for the “man in the sky”?

Suggested Response:

For Anna, height and looks were more important than wealth, fame or even a pipeline to the Almighty.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)


1. What has this movie told you about telling the truth?

Suggested Response:

There are a number of valid possible responses, including, that white lies help people get through the day without being insulted and it is important not to lie about important things such as when Mark declines to lie to Anna about whether the “man in the sky” can help her to decide whether to marry Brad or abandon him to marry Mark.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:


1. Students can be asked to bring to class one example of social satire from three different modes of expression and to write a short description of the moral or reformist point behind each example.


2. If you believe that the satire in the movie is in any respect off the mark and makes fun of something that you hold dear or agree with, describe the scenes in the movie that relate to this and why you believe the criticism to be unwarranted.


3. Take three attitudes or customs of our society that are satirized in the movie and describe the scene and what is being satirized.


4. Students can create a work of social satire and present it to the class. This can be a drawing, a skit, a poem, a song, a dance or however they want to express themselves.


5. Ask students to find an advertisement on television, in a magazine or in a newspaper and to convert it to an advertisement that could have been shown in the world of this film.


Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.


Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.

This Lesson Plan was written by James Frieden and last revised on April 21, 2013.

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