Political Humor and Its Effects
- LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0350
- LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0350
The historical evidence suggests that political humor (PH) is endemic to the human experience, and many assume that various political humorists or works of PH have been responsible for producing social or political change. Implicit in this assumption is the idea that exposure to PH can affect how individuals understand the political world. Interestingly, it’s not until fairly recently that this notion has been explored in any systematic way. This review focuses on this PH effects research. After briefly exploring different aspects of the genre, the essay discusses research on the effects PH has on individuals’ cognition, attitudes and political engagement, including political participation.
Political Humor: Types & Content
Political humor is a humorous message, communicated via any medium that references some aspect of the political world. Because various sub types of PH have different effects on those exposed to PH, it is important to differentiate between them. Young 2016 distinguishes between political comedy and political satire. Political comedy is centered around a political subject, but the primary objective is to make people laugh. Examples are jokes told by talk show hosts (e.g., Jimmy Kimmel) during their monologues or simple sketch comedy found on Saturday Night Live. Political satire is a message which makes a political point but is delivered humorously. It can take many forms, including exaggeration, irony, incongruity, parody and more. Holbert, et al. 2011 suggests that scholars differentiate between classical Juvenalian and Horatian satire. Baumgartner 2021 suggests that for the purpose of examining basic effects, researchers should distinguish between what he referred to as simple and complex satire. Simple satire has a simple, singular message and is easy to interpret. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show material was a good example. Complex satire, sometimes known as “ironic” satire, has both explicit (or direct) and implicit (or indirect) messages. What the satirist is explicitly saying is not what is actually meant. A classic example is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal; a more modern example is The Colbert Report. A final type of PH is self-deprecating humor, where a politician makes fun of him or herself. Although there is an increasing amount of user-generated PH content that can be found on the Internet, the overwhelming majority of research examining the effects of viewing PH focuses on viewership of televised PH. Relatively little examines the effects of exposure to PH in other media. Some few exceptions include Baumgartner 2007, Baumgartner 2008, and LaMarre, et al. 2014. Similarly, while most effects research focuses on PH content produced in the United States, an increasing number of studies examine non-US-based PH. The edited collection Baym and Jones 2013 is a good example of this scholarship. Other aspects of PH content have also been examined. Several works, including Brewer and Marquardt 2007 and Feldman 2013, have found a good deal of factual news content in political satire. Baumgartner, et al. 2014 finds that individuals, in particular presidents and presidential candidates, are the focus of the majority of jokes told on late-night talk shows. Relatively little PH concerns itself with policy or process. Niven, et al. 2003 concludes that PH is overwhelmingly negative in its orientation. Tone is also the subject of studies by Dagnes 2012 and Young 2020, who discuss why contemporary televised satire is overwhelmingly liberal (see also Baumgartner, et al. 2014). Finally, numerous qualitative PH studies, including Gray, et al. 2009 and Jones 2010, have been produced over the past few decades. These are beyond the scope of this review of the empirical effects research.
Baumgartner, Jody C. “Humor on the Next Frontier: Youth, Online Political Humor, and the JibJab Effect.” Social Science Computer Review 25.3 (2007): 319–338.
Focused on the self-deprecating humor of a mock first-person clip of President George W. Bush, this experimental study showed that the clip had a positive effect on evaluations of him. The study shows the importance of specifying type of humor when studying the effects of viewership.
Baumgartner, Jody C. “Polls and Elections: Editorial Cartoons 2.0: The Effects of Digital Political Satire on Presidential Candidate Evaluations.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 38.4 (2008): 735–758.
This article examines the effects of animated Flash cartoons on the Internet on presidential candidate evaluations among 18–24-year-olds. The experiment showed that while the clips had no effect on candidate preferences among viewers, they negatively affected evaluations of five of the six (three Democrat and three Republican) candidates.
Baumgartner, Jody C. “Political Humor.” In The Social Psychology of Humor. Edited by Thomas Ford and Madelijn Strick, 20–38. New York: Routledge.
An overview of research on the content of political humor and the various effects that result from political humor exposure.
Baumgartner, Jody C., S. Robert Lichter, and Jonathan Morris. Politics Is a Joke! How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2014.
A comprehensive empirical examination of the jokes told on late-night talk shows from 1991 through 2011. Among other findings are that presidents and presidential candidates are the most frequent targets of hosts, that Republicans are targeted more frequently than are Democrats, and that shows on cable networks are more likely than those on broadcast networks to make jokes about policies and institutions.
Baym, Geoffrey, and Jeffrey P. Jones, eds. News Parody and Political Satire Across the Globe. New York: Routledge, 2013.
This collection provides a comprehensive overview of news parody programming, similar to The Daily Show, in twelve countries around the world. One of the main points to emerge from this book is that the “fake news” format is easily transferable across cultures.
Brewer, Paul R., and Emily Marquardt. “Mock News and Democracy: Analyzing The Daily Show.” Atlantic Journal of Communication 15.4 (2007): 249–267.
A content analysis of fifty-two episodes of The Daily Show, which found a high degree of political content, including stories and interviews about world affairs. The authors suggested that the program had the potential to educate viewers about politics and public affairs.
Dagnes, Alison. A Conservative Walks into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.
A comprehensive review of the landscape of televised (and some other) PH from the late 1950s through the first decade of the 2000s. Asks, “why no conservative PH”? Partial answers include the idea that satire is fundamentally anti–status quo, and that most comedy writers and comedians are liberals.
Feldman, Lauren. “Cloudy with a Chance of Heat Balls: The Portrayal of Global Warming on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 430–451.
Another content analysis of stories and guest interviews on both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, specifically about the subject of global warming. Shows that these programs affirmed the reality of global warming and were highly critical of climate skepticism and that the issue was depicted largely in scientific rather that political terms.
Gray, Jonathan, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson, eds. Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
A more comprehensive look at the landscape of televised political satire, including chapters on The Daily Show, stand-up comics like Dave Chappelle, and animated sitcoms like South Park.
Holbert, R. Lance, Jay Hmielowski, Parul Jain, Julie Lather, and Alyssa Morey. “Adding Nuance to the Study of Political Humor Effects: Experimental Research on Juvenalian Satire Versus Horatian Satire.” American Behavioral Scientist 55.3 (2011): 187–211.
Experimental research on the various effects of two different types of satire on and viewers’ thoughts and opinion. However, the main contribution is the idea that humor-effects research should differentiate between Juvenalian and Horatian satire.
Jones, Jeffrey P. Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.
An early work that bridges the qualitative and quantitative, examining links between political satire and political engagement. The authors focus particularly on how The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Politically Incorrect/Real Time with Bill Maher, and Michael Moore’s TV Nation and The Awful Truth help citizens make sense of the political.
LaMarre, Heather, Kristen Landreville, Dannagal G. Young, and Nathan Gilkerson. “Humor Works in Funny Ways: Examining Satirical Tone as a Key Determinant in Political Humor Message Processing.” Mass Communication and Society 17.3 (2014): 400–423.
Uses digital satire in the form of animated YouTube clips to examine message discounting and cognitive resource allocation in two different types of satire. The study finds less evidence of the attitude change resulting from PH viewership. Authors attribute this to the idea that people know they are viewing humor and thus discount the message.
Niven, David, S. Robert Lichter, and Daniel Amundson. “The Political Content of Late-Night Comedy.” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 8.3 (2003): 118–133.
Empirical examination of jokes told on late-night talk shows on broadcast network television. Shows that late-night humor is heavily skewed toward presidents and presidential candidates, and in particular, their personal characteristics and habits. There is almost no issue content in this type of PH. Also shows that jokes are overwhelmingly negative in tone.
Young, Dannagal Goldthwaite. “Humor and Satire, Political.” In The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication. Edited by Gianpietro Mazzoleni, 487–494. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
A general article about PH and satire, providing clarity about the distinction between political comedy and satire.
Young, Dannagal Goldthwaite. Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
Evidence-based argument that televised liberal satire and conservative talk shows (radio and television) perform similar functions for their audiences, based on the general psychological profile of each.
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