Communication Currents

What Do We Need to Know About Political Comedy?

February 1, 2014
Political Communication

These days, it’s important for politicians to be as comfortable talking policy as they are telling a good joke. It doesn’t hurt to be able to take a joke either. In truth, politics and comedy have a long, storied history—in the past few decades comedy and politics have gone from strange bedfellows to an inseparable alliance. Satirical programming such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report has become part of our common political culture and a primary source of news and information for youth. Saturday Night Live continues to present entertaining takes on the day’s political events, while newer forms of communication like YouTube videos, Twitterfeeds, and Tumblr memes regularly tackle political themes and poke fun at political candidates.

These developments raise important issues. Does comedy influence young people’s political behavior? Do citizens become more or less civically engaged as a result of watching impressions of political candidates, such as Tina Fey’s impersonations of Sarah Palin? Does Jon Stewart’s language and style of communicating offer our public discourse anything? And what kind of reactions do different audiences have to Stephen Colbert’s nightly rants? Where media coverage has tended to speculate about the impact of political comedy, communication scholars have taken a keen interest in studying and actually answering these kinds of questions. 

In our recently published article in the Review of Communication, we took a comprehensive look at communication research focused on comedy and politics to find out both what we understand and what needs to be known about this growing area. We discovered that work has mostly focused on political comedy’s “features” and “effects,” with many surprising insights showing political comedy is more than just a laughing matter.

When looking at political comedy’s features, communication scholars have provided a wealth of research on humorous devices and conventions, explaining everything from how visual jokes work to how humor can create spaces to talk about taboo subjects. Researchers in this tradition also have examined political comedy’s ideological and ethical functions—for example, analyzing how certain films or television shows use comedy to challenge or perpetuate racial/ethnic stereotypes. Similarly, in covering political comedy’s contributions to public affairs, some communication researchers have explored the functions of applause and laughter in political discussions, the types of political satire now developing in different countries, and the civil and playful features of interviews on The Daily Show and other programs as models for civic engagement.

In the area of comedy effects, we found a decade of work considering the effects of exposure and attention to late-night comedy content on democratic citizenship. One set of variables has dealt with citizens’ knowledge and learning, showing that such content generally increases knowledge about politics and helps people pay more attention to elections. This research also has looked at the impact of comedic messages on people’s attitudes and opinions, and the overall levels of cynicism and engagement that result. One overarching finding is that political comedy appears to promote more cynicism toward politicians, the government, and the media, but also tends to empower citizens to think they can contribute to and make a difference in politics.

We also looked at what studies have found about how viewers process, interpret, and understand political comedy content, and people’s preexisting preferences or affinities for comedy and politically entertaining media. One worrying finding is that political jokes often seem to prevent criticism—citizens work on getting jokes but appear to lack an ability to carefully inspect claims when they’re delivered in comedic wrapping.

After mapping these studies, we looked to bridge the features and effects traditions and forecast where political comedy research appears to be headed. We see five pathways for future work in this area that will keep communication scholars in dialogue and foster deeper answers to emerging questions.

First, communication researchers can bring much conceptual clarity to political comedy’s boundaries, terms, and definitions. In other words, we need a sharper vocabulary for dealing with political comedy. A wealth of politically entertaining media is worthy of careful study—satirical situation comedies, fictional political dramas, entertainment television events, to name just a few. Features research can refine a set of classifications or terms useful for testing the effects of differing comedy types (for example, words such as “satire” and “parody” may not do justice to the different types of humor evolving in public affairs), while effects research can help refine justifications for and evaluations of political comedy content.

Similarly, we need to know more about the proliferation and diffusion of political comedy. Much has been written about how the Web 2.0 environment allows anyone with a webcam to become an overnight sensation on YouTube, including the viral reach of both user-generated and professionally produced online political comedy content. The diffusion of this kind of content as it circulates across the Internet, builds subcultures, and influences the political process will continue to present an intriguing area for research.

Third, we believe the role of political comedy audiences provides a clear point of intersection for answering future questions. Traditional mass communication approaches toward studying media exposure and audience evaluations—including classic audience reception studies—can help to shed light on the ways in which average viewers receive, process, and interpret a wide range of content. Collecting big data about how audiences have responded to such content is well within reach now, whether through direct analyses of online discussion board threads or traditional methods such as surveys and experiments.

Fourth, understanding the institutional structures and the larger post-broadcast environment within which political comedy fits raises issues about the types of humorous content available to citizens. For example, shows like The Colbert Report still subsist upon advertising revenues, so it’s worth considering what effects, if any, money or legal policies play in what we see on such programming. For some segments of the population, especially youth, the preference for entertaining, funny news is driving viewing patterns that may play into larger structural aspects of our media environment. The implications of this dynamic and the consequences for public culture and political behavior have yet to be fully understood.

Finally, future work in communication should be able to tell us what features and impacts of comedy content are important across time. This could include how jokes in political speeches or late-night monologues have changed through different periods, or even how citizens’ perceptions of candidates shift in watching comedy over, for example, a six-month election cycle.

Communication scholars have been at the forefront of research on political comedy. From studying the pressures political comedy puts on our public discourse to its direct and indirect effects on citizens, communication studies will continue leading efforts to examine the seriously funny.

About the author (s)

Amy Bree Becker

Loyola University Maryland

Assistant Professor

Don Waisanen

Baruch College

Associate Professor