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date: 22 February 2018

Theories and Effects of Political Humor: Discounting Cues, Gateways, and the Impact of Incongruities

Abstract and Keywords

As both an art form and a mode of persuasive discourse, the use of political humor dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. For centuries politicians, citizens, and elites have marveled at and even feared its powerful—and magical—influence on public opinion. By reflecting on various approaches to the study of political humor’s content, audience, and impact, this chapter offers scholars multiple ways to consider the effects of political humor on individuals and society. It culminates with a consideration of the latest advances in the study of political humor and humor theory and poses challenges to those in the field to better explicate micro-level processes that incorporate structural elements of the text and characteristics of the audience.

Keywords: political humor, late-night comedy, political satire, irony, parody


As both an art form and a mode of persuasive discourse, political humor dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. For centuries politicians, citizens, and elites have marveled at and feared its powerful—and magical—influence on public opinion (Caufield, 2007; Test, 1991). Writing almost four hundred years bc, the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, “the comic genius of political criticism” (Schutz, 1977, 10), explored themes of status, power, and war, all within the frame of a play that rendered his satire both humorous and incendiary. Socrates, the great ironic “sage satyr” (Schutz, 1977, 79), offered subtle critiques of Athenian society through the voice of a playful clown. In spite of this rich history, scholars have only just begun to quantify the impact of political humor on attitudes, cognitions, and behaviors.

Scholars from linguistics, psychology, and sociology have developed theories to account for humor’s role in society and impact on the audience. The core empirical work on the impact of political humor has emerged over the last decade from the disciplines of communication, political science, and psychology. In the late 1990s, as political candidates appeared on entertainment programs and talk shows, media effects scholars began studying the impact of nontraditional forms of political information on the audience. While first included under such umbrella terms as “soft news” (Baum, 2003) or “talk shows” (Davis and Owen, 1998), political humor soon became a dedicated area of media effects research.

(p. 872) The rise in scholarly attention to political humor can be attributed to the increasing prevalence of hybrid forms of political information over the past twenty years. This includes the frequency of political themes in the monologues of late-night comedians like David Letterman and Jay Leno throughout the 1990s; the emergence of dedicated political satire programs on the cable network Comedy Central (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, now Trevor Noah, which launched in 1999; the Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert; and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore); and alternative entertainment political formats like Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher (first introduced on Comedy Central in 1993) or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO, as well as the rise of online political humor sites such as Funny or Die (launched 2006) or the Onion News Network (launched 2007). As chronicled by Geoff Baym (2009a), these hybrid forms of political content have their roots in the deregulation of the media industry in the 1980s and the simultaneous rise in digital technologies in the 1990s. Together, these changes fostered a media environment in which the once-formal distinction between news and entertainment disappeared (see also Williams and Delli Carpini, 2002). As news programs had to compete with entertainment shows for ratings, news executives increasingly adopted entertainment production norms. Meanwhile, the rise in digital technologies meant that media conglomerates could efficiently repurpose content across their many outlets and platforms (see Jenkins, 2006). Hence, entertainment creators increasingly experimented with political themes—leading to the late 1990s influx of hybrid political entertainment genres.

The Content of Political Humor

When scholars discuss the content of contemporary political humor, they are usually referring to a set of texts ranging from the political jokes of late-night comedians like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel, to online political parodies, to the playful cultural critiques on the animated series The Simpsons, to longer ironic or satirical segments from the likes of Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver. Early studies of the content of late-night comedy monologues suggested that late-night political jokes tended to focus on the executive branch and were almost “devoid’ of policy content, focusing instead on personalities and weaknesses of individual politicians (Niven, Lichter, and Amundson, 2003). Recent research on the content of televised political humor complicates these initial observations. The themes included in the content of The Daily Show, for example, are often more issue-oriented than those of Leno or Letterman (National Annenberg Election Survey, 2004). In fact, scholars have found comparable treatment of substantive issues across the content of The Daily Show and network news broadcasts during the same time period (Fox, Koloen, and Sahin, 2007).

These competing findings reflect an evolving political media landscape, but also an imperative need to understand what we’re talking about when we say “political humor.”

“Political humor” is an umbrella term that encompasses any humorous text dealing with political issues, people, events, processes, or institutions. Within that broad (p. 873) category, political satire occupies a specific role. According to humor scholar George Test (1991), political satire is playful and is designed to elicit laughter, while simultaneously casting judgment. It is this function of “casting judgment” that separates satire from broader notions of political humor. Jokes and texts that treat political topics in a lighthearted manner but offer no criticism of institutions, policies, or societal norms do not constitute satire. Rather, satire questions the existing political or social order, usually by juxtaposing the existing imperfect reality with visions of what could or should be. So, while satire can be biting and even aggressive in tenor, the underlying premise of a satirical text is often optimistic, as it suggests we (collectively) deserve better. In the words of Bloom and Bloom (1979), “The satirist who goes about his task skillfully gives the reader a double reward: the pleasure of an aesthetic experience coupled with the reasonable hope that a stable political order may be attainable” (1979, 38).

Parody, a subcategory of humor that often overlaps with satire, relies on the audience’s prior knowledge of an original text or concept by exaggerating its most familiar aspects (Gray, 2005; Gray, Jones, and Thompson, 2009). Caricatures, or visual exaggerations of a known person’s most identifiable characteristics, are an example of parody. Other examples include impersonations of political figures as well as programs and texts that exaggeratedly (or ironically) mimic a political concept, event, or genre. The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert, for instance, constitutes parody, as the structure of his mock cable -news program and his very persona are based on Bill O’Reilly’s No Spin Zone on Fox News (see Baym, 2009a). While parodies are not always satirical, they can be. Friendly political impersonations, such as those of Rich Little in the 1970s and 1980s, offer physical and verbal exaggerations without casting judgment. Other parodies, such as Saturday Night Live comedian Tina Fey’s impersonation of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, constitute political satire. Fey’s Palin impersonation not only exaggerated the Alaskan governor’s folksy accent and winking appearance, but also criticized her conservative issue positions with statements such as, “I think that Global warming is … just God huggin’ us closer” (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, 2008).

In addition to satire and parody, it is important to consider the role played by irony in a political context. Irony is present when a text exposes a gap between what is stated and what is meant. Bergson notes: “Sometimes we state what ought to be done, and pretend to believe that this is just what is actually being done; then we have irony” (1921, 127). Irony is a common rhetorical tool of the satirist. Just as satirical texts present critiques of society’s ills through a humorous lens, irony offers a useful mechanism to playfully expose the gap between the way things are and the way things should be. Jonathan Swift’s (1729) A Modest Proposal, for example, proposes a detailed plan to remedy the economic and social problems of Ireland by feeding poor malnourished children to Ireland’s upper class. The text is both ironic, as Swift certainly does not mean what he says, and satirical, as the act of comprehending the text requires the reader to question the dispassionate rational perspective underlying his economic argument. Similarly, The Colbert Report is a complex example of satirical irony (see Lamarre, Landreville, and Beam, 2009). Colbert’s character rails against liberal policies under the guise of an ill-informed right-wing pundit, who doesn’t let facts get in the way of “truth.” This playful (p. 874) inversion of reality (the real Colbert believes the opposite of what he states on the show) forces the audience to see the conservative arguments made by his character as shortsighted and ill-informed at best, or hypocritical and malevolent at worst.

Several additional approaches to the categorization of political humor have helped make sense of this rich body of content. The Roman satirists Horatio and Juvenal codified two broad subgenres of political satire: Horatian satire was lighthearted and playful, and Juvenalian satire articulated outrage and pessimism about the evils of society through sarcasm and irony. These categories continue to inform how political communication researchers think about political humor’s content and impact (Holbert et al., 2011). Integrating a more generalizable vocabulary into the study of political humor, Paletz’s (1990) typology considers it as a function of four elements: target, focus, acceptability, and presentation. Together these dimensions determine how a humorous political text ranks on a spectrum, from “supportive” of the existing political order to “subversive.”

The Audience of Contemporary Political Humor

Much of the interest in political humor as a source of political influence stems from its perceived accessibility to broad audiences. During the past decade several reports from the Pew Center for the People and the Press concluded that young people, more so than older people, were increasingly reporting learning about politics from comedy shows (Pew, 2004). At the same time, young people were reporting lower rates of learning from traditional news programming. Yet the contention that young people are abandoning traditional news in favor of comedy programming is not supported by existing research (Young and Tisinger, 2006). Youthful late-night comedy viewers are more likely to be consuming news on cable networks, on the radio, and online than their non-comedy-viewing counterparts. Cross-sectional studies also contradict the assumption of the “politically disengaged” audience, as late-night comedy viewers, particularly those of the Daily Show, are more politically knowledgeable, more participatory, and more attentive to politics than non-late-night viewers (Brewer and Cao, 2006; Brewer, Young, and Morreale, 2013; Cao, 2010; Cao and Brewer, 2008; Young and Tisinger, 2006).

Humor Theory

For centuries, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists have attempted to untangle the mystery that is “humor.” Why do people enjoy humor? How does humor work? In addressing these questions, scholars have pursued several broad theoretical (p. 875) perspectives. Superiority theory, the roots of which are in the writings of Hobbes (1650), proposes that humor capitalizes on the “sudden glory” of realizing that we may be superior to someone else. Release or tension theories in humor research are an extension of concepts from Freudian psychology. Here humor is conceptualized as a “safety valve” that expels excess energy or passions that might otherwise transform into sexual or aggressive energy (see Raskin, 1985, for a review). Finally, the class of humor theories most often integrated into cognitive models of media effects is “incongruity theory.” While incongruity theory has been elaborated upon by Koestler (1964) and Suls (1972), among others, the approach is often attributed to Kant’s observation that “laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” (2007, 133). This notion of unmet expectations has been adapted by cognitive scholars who see humor as the intersection of two incompatible schemas in memory.

Perhaps because of its compatibility with concepts such as mental models, schemas, and associative networks in memory, much of the recent empirical work on the cognitive impact of political humor has been theoretically grounded in incongruity theory (Nabi, Moyer-Guse, and Byrne, 2007; Young, 2008). Incongruity theory assumes that a humorous text begins with one apparent or conventional script: an initial story or set of predictable constructs (Raskin, 1985). Side by side with the conventional script is one that is hidden until it intersects with the first (Koestler, 1964). Humor is experienced when the listener becomes aware of the two coexisting incompatible scripts or frames (Attardo, 1997) and has to reinterpret the old information in light of the new (Giora, 1991). This is ultimately the unique element of humor as a form of discourse: the participatory role of the audience in “reconciling” the incongruity and interpreting the original schema in light of this new frame of reference (Koestler, 1964). Because the audience of a humorous text must participate in its construction and appreciation, the audience is complicit in the creation of its meaning.

The Question of Impact

Persuasion, Priming, and Cognitive Elaboration

While Athenian society viewed satirists as possessing a magical persuasive power (Caufield, 2007), historians do not agree on the amount of influence these humorous texts actually had on Athenian citizens. Lord argues that Aristophanes’s audience could not “distinguish between the caricature [of Socrates] and the reality” (1925, 40), hence leading to Socrates’s conviction and execution. Stow (1942), on the other hand, argues that Aristophanes’s impact on the citizens of Athens was negligible—his power was in revealing the sentiments of Athenians, not in shaping them.

Contemporary empirical research remains focused on this same question: Is political humor an agent of influence or merely a barometer of public opinion? If the audience is complicit in the creation of meaning through humor, could that enhance its persuasive (p. 876) capacity? Intuitively we know that topics treated in a humorous way are often perceived as less offensive than when presented seriously. If humor can playfully present information or argument without eliciting a negative audience reaction, then employing it could be a promising way to incite attitude change. Indeed, research consistently indicates that humor reduces counterargumentation, or argument scrutiny, in response to the premise of that humorous text (Nabi, Moyer-Guse, and Byrne, 2007; Young, 2008). However, the mechanism responsible for this phenomenon remains elusive. On the one hand, some scholars suggest that the complex task of reconciling incongruity reduces cognitive resources available to scrutinize message arguments (Young, 2008). On the other, some studies suggest that the reduction in argument scrutiny is a result of the listener discounting the message as “just a joke,” a mechanism referred to as a discounting cue (Nabi, Moyer-Guse, and Byrne, 2007). While this debate may seem tedious, the implications are profound. If humor’s ability to suspend argument scrutiny of the listener stems from the listener’s decision to treat the text as “just a joke,” then the potential power of humor depends on the audience’s willingness to play along. If, however, the reduction in counterargumentation is a result of humor’s drain on cognitive resources, then the listener is at the mercy of the humorous text.

In spite of political humor’s documented ability to suspend argument scrutiny, researchers have yet to find strong and consistent evidence of humor’s persuasive capacity. Young (2004) found more negative appraisals of candidates’ most caricatured personality traits as an outcome of viewing late-night comedy programming, particularly among those low in political knowledge. Similarly, Morris (2009) documented more negative ratings of Republican candidates among viewers of The Daily Show during the 2004 Republican conventions, consistent with the tenor of the show’s content during that time. Research has also demonstrated that exposure to political humor can increase the salience of certain issues or constructs in the minds of the audience (Moy, Xenos, and Hess, 2006; Young, 2006). Here, the focus is not on attitude change per se, but rather on the priming of certain issues, events, or traits that could affect subsequent decision-making processes (see Iyengar and Kinder, 1987).

Learning, Recall, and Information Seeking from Political Humor

In addition to examinations of humor’s role in persuasion, scholars have studied how political humor affects information acquisition—both directly and indirectly. To date, studies suggest that exposure to political humor may be associated with information recognition and a viewer’s sense of being informed (Hollander, 2005). However, experimental research indicates that exposure to late-night comedy may result in lower acquisition of detailed factual and issue knowledge than traditional news viewing (Kim and Vishak, 2008). Complicating these findings is the observation that viewers of late-night comedy programs consistently score higher on political knowledge tests (p. 877) than nonviewers, even in the face of controls (Cao, 2008; National Annenberg Election Survey, 2004). Overall, it seems that political humor audiences likely come to the viewing experience with above average political knowledge, but the direct impact of that exposure on information acquisition depends on the nature of the humorous content and on how viewers conceptualize that content (Feldman, 2013). One of the strongest examples of satirical programming serving this educational role comes to us from the ironic satirist Stephen Colbert. Hardy, Gottfried, Winneg, and Jamieson (2014) found evidence that citizens watching The Colbert Report had significantly greater understanding of the complexities of the 2012 campaign finance reform debate. Here, Stephen Colbert had engaged in months of humorous segments that digested the issue for his viewers, going so far as to launch a super PAC himself to try to understand the limits of campaign finance reform. Viewers came away feeling more knowledgeable and, more important, actually possessed more knowledge on the issue.

Additional research has moved beyond direct learning models to assess political humor’s possible “gateway” effect (Baum, 2003). According to Baum, “soft news” (including political humor) serves as a gateway to politics for viewers who are otherwise politically inattentive. By covering politics in an entertaining way, these programs may motivate politically inattentive viewers to seek out additional political information. Cross-sectional research supports Baum’s general model, with evidence that viewers of late-night comedy are more attentive to politics (Cao, 2010; Young and Tisinger, 2006) and that exposure to political humor among politically inattentive audiences is associated with increased attention to high-profile political stories (Cao, 2010) as well as issue-specific news items (Feldman, Leiserwitz, and Maibach, 2011). Time series analyses reveal that viewers of late-night comedy programming experience a steeper increase in news attention than noncomedy viewers during primary campaigns (Feldman and Young, 2008). Also consistent with the gateway hypothesis, experimental work by Xenos and Becker (2009) illustrates enhanced attentiveness to news after exposure to political humor programming among less politically interested viewers. In this same study, politically inattentive viewers experienced higher rates of learning from subsequent news exposure. Together, these findings speak to the potential of political humor to increase viewers’ attention to politics, hence indirectly fostering certain kinds of political learning, particularly among those with the least political interest from the start.

Political Participation, Discussion, Engagement, and Trust in Government

At the heart of this effects research is a question of how political humor might affect democracy. The US Supreme Court has consistently upheld parody and satire as protected forms of expression, a fact that speaks to humor’s privileged role in a democratic society. As conceptualized by literary scholars Bloom and Bloom, satire is intended to “plead with man for a return to his moral senses” (1979, 38). When successful, they state, satire can “effect a gradual moral reawakening, a reaffirmation of positive social and individual values” (17). If these contentions were true, exposure to political satire, such as The Daily Show, should result in higher rates of political participation and discussion and other characteristics of an engaged citizenry, such as attention to politics or political efficacy (see Jones, 2009).

Cross-sectional studies consistently find that the audience of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart participates in politics more (Cao and Brewer, 2008; Hoffman and Young, 2011) and is more likely to discuss politics with friends, family, and coworkers than are nonviewers (Young and Esralew, 2011). Using panel data, Landreville, Holbert, and (p. 878) Lamarre (2010) demonstrated that Daily Show viewers experienced increases in political discussion, a process mediated by increased debate viewing. Such findings suggest that Baum’s (2003) gateway mechanism might extend beyond attention and learning, to include other beneficial democratic behaviors like political discussion. Moy, Xenos, and Hess (2005) found that late-night comedy viewing in general (which includes exposure to Leno and Letterman) was associated with increased vote intention and political discussion, though these effects were limited to political sophisticates. In an experimental context, Becker (2014) found that consumption of political satire that targets one’s outgroup does indeed increase political efficacy, especially among viewers who consume political humor to reduce anxiety. Although not all of this research establishes causality between exposure and efficacy/participation/discussion, experimental and time-series studies of political attention and information seeking have pointed to a causal relationship, with exposure to political humor fostering these democratically healthy outcomes (Feldman, Leiserwitz, and Maibach, 2011; Feldman and Young, 2008; Xenos and Becker, 2009).

Because of contemporary political humor’s frequent criticism of politicians and governing institutions, some fear that routine exposure to such critical examinations of government may erode citizens’ trust in institutions and faith in the democratic process (Baumgartner and Morris, 2006; Hart and Hartelius, 2007). While isolated studies have found that viewers of The Daily Show are less trusting of government (Baumgartner and Morris, 2006), questions remain regarding whether a lack of government trust is necessarily a bad thing for democracy, as government trust is often lowest among our most politically active and engaged citizens (Cappella and Jamieson, 1997; de Vreese and Semetko, 2002; de Vreese, 2005). If the fundamental proposition of political satire is that we deserve—and can attain—something better, then it is logical that audiences would see this message as both an indictment of the existing political order and a call to strive for its improvement. In fact, work by Lee and Kwak (2014) suggests that political satire can elicit strong negative emotions from viewers, as they become frustrated with targeted government policies, and that this negative emotion then spurs political action.

The reason for scholars’ fundamentally different conclusions about satire’s role in a democratic society may stem from the polysemy inherent in humor. The meaning of humor is not in the text itself. Instead, it is in the reconciliation of the incongruity which, in turn, is at the mercy of whatever the listener brings to the text. Perhaps this is why we find such differences in the effects of political humor as a function of various individual-level characteristics: political knowledge (Young, 2004), interest in politics (Xenos and Becker, 2009), age (Cao, 2008), and political ideology (Lamarre, Landreville, and Beam, 2009). With different experiences and understandings of politics, these distinct groups will likely construct different meanings from political humor, thereby fostering different processes and different outcomes.

Illustrative of the importance of a listener’s cognitive contribution to meaning construction in humor are Lamarre, Landreville, and Beam’s (2009) findings regarding the perceived meaning of The Colbert Report among conservatives and liberals. The authors found that liberals interpreted Colbert’s ironic performance accurately—as a criticism of conservative policies and values. Meanwhile, conservatives found humor in Colbert’s show, but interpreted it literally, as an exaggerated indictment of liberal politics. Hence, selective perception altered the audience’s construction of Colbert’s meaning. Such findings demonstrate the importance of exploring individual differences as moderating variables in studies of humor’s impact.

(p. 879) Where We Are and Where We’re Going

At present, political humor’s impact on knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors is far from clear. Reports of humor disrupting argument scrutiny, but not necessarily leading to attitude change, suggest that whatever counterargument-disruption mechanism is operative in humor might suspend other forms of processing as well. Humor’s limited ability to foster detailed information recall, in spite of its positive impact on construct recognition (Hollander, 2005) and overall impressions of political constructs (Kim and Vishak, 2008), illustrates a similar phenomenon. Perhaps political humor activates online, rather than memory-based, processing (see Kim and Vishak, 2008), rendering it suitable for impression formation and heuristic evaluation, but not for central message processing or detailed information acquisition (see Baum, 2003). These micro-level processes need to be better explicated, perhaps through the integration of physiological measurements or with novel imaging techniques emerging from neuroscience (Coulson, 2001; Coulson and Williams, 2005).

Because the comprehension of and meaning derived from political humor depend on the cognitive contribution of the audience, future work on political humor’s impact ought to link detailed analyses of humorous texts to audience characteristics, psychology, and viewing motivations. In particular, future work ought to develop effects mechanisms that emphasize the importance of the structure elements of the humorous texts and the individual-level characteristics of the audience:

  1. 1) Structural elements of the humorous text: Since humorous texts are incomplete until reconciled by the audience, the nature of the incongruity helps determine what kind of contribution a listener will make and hence what that text will ultimately come to mean. In the case of a punchline-oriented late-night joke, the incongruity might simply be a pun or play on words that unexpectedly highlights a candidate’s physical or personality flaws. In the case of satirical irony, the incongruity is presented by the gap between what is said and what is meant—or between what reality is and what it ought to be. To better understand the potential power of humor to shape audiences, scholars must dissect these underlying incongruities and link them with cognitive contributions made to reconcile them.

  2. 2) Individual-level characteristics: Once an incongruity is presented, the audience takes over in constructing the text’s meaning. The cognitive contribution made by the listener depends on what he or she brings to the table: political knowledge, political beliefs or ideology (selective perception), as well as psychological characteristics and viewing motivations. Viewers’ own orientations toward such programs (Do they consider them straight entertainment, or do they see them as holding some informational content?) (Feldman, 2013) shape the extent and nature of mental effort that they will dedicate to processing such programming, hence influencing the outcomes of exposure as well. Future studies need to further integrate uses and gratifications approaches (Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch, 1974) into studies of (p. 880) political humor effects. By understanding why people consume political humor, we can better capture the various cognitive processes underlying different viewing experiences.

To pursue some of the core questions regarding political humor’s role in a democratic society, researchers may need to look across discipline and method. Whether or not political satire is good or bad for democracy has proven exceptionally difficult to address with empirical effects studies. For example, operationalizing political cynicism with three items designed to measure trust in government might not adequately capture the meaning of contemporary political satire. If viewers come away from Stewart or Colbert critically challenging the current system, but striving for something better, perhaps qualitative methods (focus groups, long-form interviews, ethnographies, or textual analysis) would help us better understand these complex processes.

Indeed, humanistic studies of political humor have contributed rich theoretical and historical understanding to the approach being taken by scholars across epistemological boundaries (Holbert and Young, 2013). Qualitative and cultural research has chronicled how and why the once-strict divide between entertainment and news no longer exists (Baym, 2009a; Williams and Delli Carpini, 2002), and that scholars should explore political humor not as an alternative to political information, but as an alternative form of political information (Baym, 2009b). Work by Baym (2005, 2009a) highlights how political humor challenges the notion that journalistic practices such as objectivity and sensationalism are necessary or beneficial to society. Work by Jones (2009) and Van Zoonen (2005) suggests that by addressing political themes outside the traditional elite model of political discourse, political humor might invite more people into the political conversation.

As political comedians capitalize on advances in digital technologies to translate their message across platform and genre (Jenkins, 2006), scholars will benefit from the integration of qualitative and quantitative approaches to the study of these phenomena. Baym and Shah (2011), for example, tracked the flow and context of digital segments of The Colbert Report across the Internet landscape. Their work illustrates how activists and organizations repurpose relevant clips to help attain informational, community-building, and deliberative goals. Such innovative approaches will advance our understanding of newly emerging political humor phenomena. For example, in October 2010 Stewart and Colbert mobilized people from around the country to travel to Washington, D.C., to playfully restore civility to political discourse. Through social networking sites and broad media appearances, the shows’ hosts gathered a crowd of more than 200,000 people (Tavernise and Stelter, 2010). The rally—a mix of music festival, variety show, and political commentary—stumped journalists and politicos, who struggled to make sense of the event. And just as the rally did not fit neatly within the news/entertainment dichotomy, neither did it fit neatly into linear models of media effects.

In just the past year, numerous examples of political humor operating across platforms highlight the need for scholars to work across methodological and epistemological traditions to understand what this all means. In September 2010 Stephen Colbert (p. 881) appeared in character to ironically testify before Congress on the issue of immigration reform. Throughout 2010 and 2011 Jon Stewart engaged in satirical critiques of Fox News on his own show, while appearing as a guest on Bill O’Reilly’s No Spin Zone (on Fox) to debate and mock the host. In March 2011 Colbert launched the ironically self-aggrandizing Colbert super PAC, a political action committee designed to raise unlimited funds to help “make a better a better tomorrow, tomorrow” (

Final Word

To anchor this body of research in generalizable concepts, we must formally recognize that humor arises not only from audience perception, but from structural elements within the text that invite or signal that audience participation. The act of returning to the basic concept of incongruity and audience reconciliation will encourage scholars to build upon existing theory to advance our understanding of micro-level processes involved in humor comprehension. Finally, the complexity of the multiplatform digital environment means that linear sender-receiver models of effects will not be adequate to capture the full scope of political humor’s impact. Instead, scholars of political humor will increasingly be called upon to embrace diverse methods and innovative approaches. Only through collaborative and discursive research models will the political meaning and significance of this diverse set of humorous texts and performances be adequately understood.


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