I’ve been studying the effects of exposure to political comedy for about a decade. I'm currently a professor of communication at Loyola University in Maryland, and the close examination of political comedy and entertainment is an integral part of my syllabus and my research agenda.
Through my work, I’ve found that political comedy is an important force in each new election cycle because it shapes voters’ evaluations of politicians and their beliefs about their own ability to understand and participate in the political process — something we in political communication call political efficacy.
Every four years, political communication scholars like me yet again consider just how much impact comedy will have on viewers, candidates, and, ultimately, the vote. Given that we have a reality TV star at the top of the GOP ticket, the 2016 race is unique. And political comedy is already having an impact on the 2016 campaign, asserting itself as a more important force than ever.
In effect, political comedy tells voters what to think about and sometimes how to feel about a particular candidate. This year, it is trying to make us especially skeptical of Donald Trump. And at this point in time, I think it’s working.
Why politicians flock to late night
While Mike Pence is no Sarah Palin (she really was the comedy gift that kept on giving), between Larry David’s version of Bernie Sanders on Saturday Night Live and the constant stream of gaffes that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth and dominate his social media feed, we are already seeing political satire shape the 2016 election.
And don’t forget: Political comedy has had a long time to get to know and learn how to impersonate Hillary Clinton. Much of the comedy targeting her during the primary season focused on this reality and mocked an almost singular focus on getting elected.
Like Sanders, Clinton and Trump both engaged with this type of humor in guest appearances on SNL. Both Democratic candidates and even Trump himself understood the inherent strategic value of being in on the joke. This is not a new trend — politicians have popped up on SNL and given interviews on political satire programs in past election cycles. In 2016, however, nontraditional media like comedy is even more important in an effort to reach millennials and an increasingly fragmented and shrinking news audience.
While Trump’s appearance was just another moment in the spotlight for a well-seasoned reality star, appearing on SNL was a plus for Bernie Sanders given all the attention paid to earlier Larry David impersonations. For Clinton, the appearance likely helped her with her ever-present favorability problem, particularly among younger viewers who remain more skeptical of her candidacy.
Why do we like political comedy so much?
As research from the Pew Research Center has consistently shown, millennials prefer political satire programs like The Daily Show and, when it was on, The Colbert Report over traditional news. While research by Danna Young and others suggests that young viewers seek out political comedy because it’s entertaining, they also find it informative and report that they learn something about what’s going on in the world by tuning in.
Contrary to popular belief, political comedy viewers don't just watch comedy — they pay attention to traditional news as well. This means that while they’re primarily looking to laugh about politics, they are also more likely to closely follow campaigns and candidates than those who only watch traditional news.
Political comedy, whether we want to believe it or not, also sways our political attitudes and how we evaluate political candidates. Do you remember Sarah Palin, or do you remember Tina Fey’s version of Sarah Palin more?
As my research with Mike Cacciatore and colleagues has shown, voters incorrectly attributed statements made by Fey on SNL to Palin, assuming they were part of one of her media interviews. Turns out Palin didn’t actually say, "I can see Russia from my house," but thanks to political comedy and Tina Fey we all think she did. Other colleagues like Jody Baumgartner also found evidence of a "Fey effect" during the 2008 election cycle.
The key takeaway: Watching Fey play Palin on SNL made us think more negatively about Palin, her candidacy, and her competence as a politician.
In general, political comedy makes candidate traits become more salient and top-of-mind. So at the very least, when political comedy makes fun of Donald Trump’s wraparound hairstyle, his physical appearance becomes something voters really think about.
Did you Google "Donald Drumpf" after John Oliver coined his new nickname? A lot of Americans did. The segment, the most watched Last Week Tonight clip to date, with 27.5 million views on YouTube alone, was rehashed across multiple media outlets. Spanning more than 20 minutes, the segment offered an in-depth, critical take on Trump’s business deals, his honesty, and his character, and ultimately suggested that his candidacy offered frightening prospects for the United States.
When a satirist like Oliver calls into question a candidate’s honesty, viewers think more about that candidate’s character and trustworthiness than they do about the issues at stake in the election.
"Donald Drumpf" was not an isolated incident: So far this cycle we’ve seen Oliver, Trevor Noah, and others go after Trump more than the Democrats or other Republican primary candidates. Part of this is preaching to the choir, as comedy viewers tend to be younger and more liberal on average.
In many respects, political comedians are simply echoing sentiments expressed by the mainstream media; the difference is they are doing so with a satirical, hypercritical take. In the end, satirical attacks on Trump and his candidacy should encourage voters to be more skeptical of the reality star’s promises and priorities. The traits comedians pick at will be the things that linger in voters' minds and could be important factors shaping their ultimate decision come Election Day.
Despite a growing cynicism toward politics, my research has also shown that watching political comedy makes us feel better about our ability to effectively understand and participate in politics. Political comedy encourages us to believe that we can make a difference and, more so than news, gets us to engage in low-cost forms of political engagement, like signing a petition or attending a demonstration.
While we can’t say whether political comedy can translate into greater voter turnout or more votes for one candidate over another on Election Day, the general consensus is that political comedy does good, not harm, and encourages young people in particular to participate in politics.
Why we need satire now more than ever
Part of enjoying political comedy is getting the joke. If you didn’t watch Melania Trump’s speech, Laura Benanti’s version on Colbert’s The Late Show won’t make you laugh very much.
For those not in on the joke, my research with Mike Xenos has shown that being exposed to political comedy encourages individuals to seek out more information from traditional news sources. These viewers not only end up with a better laugh but also learn something about current events in the process. So if you first catch the parody version of Melania’s speech, you might then be more motivated to seek out the original in order to be in on the joke.
What makes political comedy unique?
Political comedy comes in many forms — we’re not just talking about cable or network TV but also viral videos, political cartoons, fake political ads, Twitter hashtags, and internet memes.
What sets comedy apart from other forms of persuasive political communication, like ads? Well, comedy is funny, it’s satirical and sharp, and it makes us smile and laugh. The last political ad I watched made me scared for my son and daughter’s future and want to cry, not laugh.
Amy Bree Becker is an assistant professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland. She researches political comedy and entertainment, public opinion, and new media. She lives in Maryland with her husband, daughter, and son. Find her on Twitter @amybree.