Political Humor and Its Diss Contents

[14 October 2012]

By Iain Ellis

More than ever, today’s political humor infects, inflects, and injects into our national state of affairs. This is not just via our daily doses of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the late night talk show hosts, either. A cursory glance through your Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail posts today will no doubt reveal that your friends and associates also fancy themselves as skilled and authoritative political wits. Nowadays, it seems, everyone is a political comedian—or at least they think they are. This ubiquity of political humor certainly brings a lot of joy and laughter into our often humdrum lives—as well as into the dour landscape of day-to-day politics—but is America’s laugh fest a good thing for the nation at large? 

Furthermore, do political humor’s incessant and incisive barbs ever unduly influence the behavior and decisions of our elected representatives? Do these constant waves of wit distract us from the serious concerns of our time? Has this humor’s lure and appeal encouraged our hard news sources to go “soft”, as ratings are sought in the shallower waters of entertainment?  And has its all-pervasive repertoire of diss and discontent skits transformed us into bitter, cynical, and detached citizens with little-to-no faith in either our leaders or the institutions they operate within? 

Alternatively, one might rhetorically question: do political humorists instead serve the republic, offering insight into, and critiques of, corruption, hypocrisy, and extremism, all the while engaging citizens in ways neither the traditional news media nor academia can (or will) do? At its best, political humor not only attracts and delights, but teaches, too, such that options for an alternative polity and real change are either offered or inferred. Aristophanes, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain are among the many outspoken humorists whose stinging satire and broad appeal were instrumental in informing, enlightening, and inspiring their respective publics into curtailing the worst excesses of their governments. This tradition sees political humor not as breeding detachment, but as encouraging vigilance and participation. One might note the censorship (and thus paucity) of critical political humor to be found in the public media of totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or modern day North Korea; presumably their leaders would not have silenced such expression if they felt it had little or no effect.

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Laughing Matters: Humor and American Politics in the Media Age

Jody Baumgartner, Jonathan S. Morris (eds.)

(Routledge; US: Aug 2007)

Much recent argumentation around the effects and/or effectiveness of political humor has been sparked by the popularity of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Spearheading a recent wave of news/humor hybrids (alongside Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, and The Onion), The Daily Show not only entertains, but also serves as a primary source of news and information for a large—particularly young and young adult—contingent of the American populace (See Jody C. Baumgartner & Jonathan S. Morris (eds). Laughing Matters: Humor and American Politics in the Media Age. New York: Routledge, 2008. p.xvi).  On the face of it, this would appear to be a disturbing cultural phenomenon, but recent research also informs us that the audience that watches The Daily Show is actually amongst the most informed and intelligent in the nation (See Brandon Rottinghaus et al. Laughing Matters. p.279-295). 

So what does one make of political humor and its omnipresence? Thus far, critics have largely lined up around these two schools of thought:  those that consider The Daily Show and its ilk to be damaging and dangerous, responsible for breeding a cynical, disinterested electorate; and a contrary camp that finds such humor to be engaging, fostering critical thinking through its satirical provocations and parodies while official information outlets merely maintain the status quo.

The naysayers tend to bring a certain pessimism and nostalgia to their complaints, arguing that political humor is both the producer and product of a larger cultural demise. For them, political humor is meaner than ever, responsible for reducing our leaders to little more than absurd caricatures. Stereotypes overwhelm, they say, with politicians cast as liars, hypocrites, fools, or narcissists. Under this barrage of negative characterizations it’s little wonder, they argue, that citizens are skeptical and lack trust in their representatives. And while types and exaggerations may be the very stuff of satire, too much too often tends to subsume and supplant any objective reality. Moreover, it’s only getting worse in a climate where nothing and no-one is off-limits, claim these critics.

Defenders of political humorists—at least of the Jon Stewart kind—contend just the opposite. Yes, we are contemptuous of our leaders and our news media, but so we should be. It is they, not the comedians, who have been derelict in their duties. But for the vigilance of the latter, they claim, we would be largely ignorant of political malfeasance and of the contributory negligence of our slanted, sensationalizing, and profit-obsessed news corporations. Rather than the hybrid news-comedies diminishing the value of the news, arguably they offer a more open-minded and informed alternative, one which takes pride in digging for truths (i.e., muckraking) and in providing additional perspectives and points-of-view. 

The comedic angles Stewart, Colbert, and Maher bring to our national affairs offer a different model from that provided by the mainstream news services. Because the latter only consider socio-political concerns through the prism of the two-party system, they are loath to entertain any viewpoints or opinions that (might) exist beyond the parameters of the propaganda machines provided by each side. As Stewart often points out, Fox News , MSNBC, and CNN  do not offer variant voices on issues or the news, only counter-weight shouters hired to create political drama and higher ratings. Articulating this argument, Stewart’s on-air evisceration of the hosts of Crossfire in 2004 has since become legendary in the annals of critical humor.



Using satirical argument and art, critical humorists deconstruct the “fair and balanced” myths of the news systems, in the process chastising the party spokespeople they predictably trot out and pander to for access. By observing and documenting this media-politico conspiracy of convenience from behind the scenes, Stewart et al perform the age-old functions of satire: to expose, ridicule, and—implicitly—call for action and change. Ironically, this demystification of the news and its processes actually makes the comedians more reliable than journalists as truth-tellers, for, as outsider operatives, the news-humorists are neither beholden to their subjects nor to the machinery that has reduced our political dialogue to Republican versus Democrat talking points.

When we think of political humor our minds naturally gravitate to the kind of hybrid news-comedy shows being discussed here; or perhaps to variety shows like Saturday Night Live; or to the late night talk shows of Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien, each of which doles out such humor in large and regular doses. However, from within the political realm, too, humor output flourishes today as never before. During election season it has become almost compulsory for presidential candidates to do the rounds of the late night talk shows, and they are not just expected to show up and answer questions, but to be funny, too. 

Further, humor ripples expand outwards beyond the candidates, as well, as their families and associates also get in on the act, as do their speechwriters, media representatives, and base supporters. Nowadays, presidents are as reliant upon their teams of comedy writers and strategists as is any talk show host. As long as “likeability” continues to be cited as a significant criteria of importance for voters, candidates can ill afford to appear dull, out-of-touch, or elitist; thus, displays of (particularly self-deprecating) humor can contribute much to (re)defining impressions and perceptions. Gerald Ford, Al Gore, and John Kerry can all testify lamentably to what happens when the media and the opposition—rather than the candidate and campaign staff—carve out, craft, and control the image of a presidential contender.

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The Dance of the Comedians: The People, The President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America

Peter M. Robinson

(University of Massachusetts Press; US: Jan 2012)

Peter M. Robinson perceives the three primary purveyors of humor—media, politicians, and public—as being in a perpetual “three-way dance” featuring multiple moves and interchangeable partners. What kind of dance he envisages is not made clear, though it sometimes appears more like slamming than waltzing.  For Robinson, the comedy crossfire we witness between these three forces is a positive political phenomenon for it “empowers its participants to reexamine, renegotiate, and often redefine the roles of all concerned” (The Dance of the Comedians: The People, The President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. p.4).  Sometimes politicians will attempt to counter incoming humor attacks, as Gore did in the 2000 election when he attempted to inject some levity into his public appearances in a concerted effort to redress the perception—particularly perpetuated by Saturday Night Live—that he was stiff and humorless.  As is so often the case when a caricature rings true, though, Gore’s comedy bits invariably fell embarrassingly flat.

A more effective dance move is for the politician to use self-parody, playing directly to his/her stereotype trait. While this means conceding to the general character attack, strategically it enables the earning of new, additional images of the candidate as being down-to-earth, one of the people, and able to laugh at him/her self.  Both George W. Bush and Sarah Palin distracted observers from their various negatives by taking this comedic route. Palin’s self-effacing performance on Saturday Night Live in the wake of a week of various media debacles has become a notable precedent regarding the power of comedic damage control and image rehabilitation, such that today most politicians see more upside in chatting with comedians like Jay Leno than with harder-hitting journalists like Soledad O’Brien (or, in Palin’s case, Katie Couric). 


On the talk shows, candidates can be guaranteed a welcoming environment where they will be encouraged to parade their wit and charm, where they will be fielding soft-ball questions, and where they will be accredited with communicating in plain-speak directly to the average Joe and Joanne.  For today’s politicians, this wide world of soft wit (half wit?) provides an appealing win-win situation; conversely, press conferences and hard news interviews have become increasingly rare public events on the campaign trail. 

The communication network of political comedy is a complex one of constant transactional missives, each contributing to an emerging consensus narrative about a candidate. Nevertheless, as Bush’s two-term presidency showed us, a constant barrage of critical and/or insulting comedy from media and public does not guarantee political capital for any side. Much obviously depends upon the reception and appreciation (or lack thereof) of America’s splintered publics, as well as the spontaneous dexterity of the moves and maneuvers made by the politician (and his camp) within the overall dance. In the end, to emerge from the dance marathon as a politician that can laugh, provide laughs, and be accepting of being laughed at plays positively to that perennial election-time question: which candidate would you rather have a beer with? 

While presidents and politicians have sharpened their wits as a necessary requisite of our modern media age, the separation between (the roles of) comedians and politicians has grown increasingly blurry. Yet, while America’s history is littered with comedians running as funny-but-fake candidates (Will Rogers, Gracie Allen, Pat Paulsen, and others), could anyone have predicted 20 years ago that a cast member of SNL would one day seriously stand for, run in, and win a US Senatorial race?  Such is the case with current Minnesota Senator Al Franken.

Comedians in Office

Today, a comedian running for public office is not necessarily an act of ironic humor. Furthermore, within the hard news divisions of media outlets like CNN, it has become just as common to have a comedian like Maher as a guest commentator on political developments as it is to have a politician or conventional “expert”.  With comedians steering public debate and/or running for public office, as politicians showcase their well-crafted quips on the talk show circuit, one could be forgiven for asking of today’s participants in political comedy: Who’s dancing with whom? 

Besides bringing levity to our everyday discourse, political humor also serves concrete purposes in the hands of our three dancers. For politicians, the primary purpose is to spin, and we can be assured that the material has been craftily scripted by a well-paid team of professional humor writers. Sometimes, as noted, the goal is to correct a perceived negative trait in the politician’s past or personality. George W. Bush, long tainted by tales of his wild “party” past, sent out his wife, Laura, at the 2005 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where she wowed the audience by performing a political pirouette, mocking her husband for being quite the opposite of his once assumed caricature. Her portrayal of W as a stay-at-home, TV-watching, domestic husband and father—or “Mr. Excitement” as she put it—not only thrust her into the higher ranks of witty first ladies but, more importantly, helped sever her husband from the still irritating “hangover” image from his tawdry past.  By playing the media in order to manipulate the public’s perceptions, all agreed that Mrs. Bush’s performance constituted “mission accomplished”.



Obfuscation is another reason why politicians employ political humor, and the master of this means to an end was undoubtedly Ronald Reagan. His diversionary quips allowed him to elude innumerable attempted inquiries into both his personal vulnerabilities and extreme policy positions. When debating Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential elections, Reagan famously let his opponent stir himself up into an angry froth of oppositional fury, only to then retort with the succinct put-down, “there you go again” (a line he reprised four years later when debating Walter Mondale). The effect was to spotlight Carter as a flustered, bitter blowhard, and Reagan as a calm, cool, and collected customer—but with a sting in his tail.  Strategically, it also allowed Reagan to avoid responding to Carter’s hailstorm of criticisms, as the audience and hosts were otherwise too occupied enjoying Reagan’s quick wit. 


Both public and media clearly appreciate wit in their politicians for it suggests an every(wo)man quality, and, as Bob Dole once said, it “keeps the presidential candidate from developing messianic delusions” (qtd. in Gerald Gardner. The Mocking of the President: A History of Campaign Humor From Ike to Ronnie. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p.13).  Although a balance must obviously be established between the humor of the candidate and the dignity of the office, it’s equally clear that the days of gruff, overly serious candidates like Eisenhower and Nixon are probably over, for our personality-driven modern media demands our presidents to oblige in at least making an effort to present themselves as having a sense of humor. For the humor-challenged, like Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Mitt Romney, such efforts are inevitably excruciating to witness.

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The Mocking of the President: A History of Campaign Humor From Ike to Ronnie

Gerald Gardner

(Wayne State University Press; US: Jan 1988)

Whereas politicians wield humor in efforts to manipulate and spin, critical comedians, contrarily, seek to unmask, parade, and ridicule those efforts. Here, the dance can look more like a wrestling bout, as politicians pull towards their talking points and comedians counter with their own moves. Robinson sees such responses as “often… where the serious work of democracy is done”, for they show a refusal to be spun around without rebuttal (p.7).  In representing the interests of the common man, in speaking truth to power, these comic vigilantes provide us with an important—and otherwise absent and/or neglected—political service. 

Political humor, in the hands of our finest satirists, involves delving and questioning, thereby unveiling truths and alternative perspectives the political establishment would prefer kept hidden and unspoken. Without such contributions, we all become trapped within a rigged system that provides few options for real debate and even fewer for change. Thanks to the work of Maher, Stewart, and Colbert, we are made keenly aware of the Wizard of Oz-like forces that maintain the political hegemony, including a media system that, unwittingly or not, delimits the scope of political voices, masks the potential of democratic participation, and perpetuates the prevailing status quo.

It’s hard to imagine that there have been times in our history when humor and politics were regarded as unsuitable bed-fellows, when citizens and comedians were so fearful of offending their leaders (and the public) that any political humor they uttered had always to be polite, sensitive, and innocuous. Even Vaughn Meader’s harmless impersonations of John F. Kennedy during his presidency were seen by many as inappropriate, and then later as unacceptable with JFK’s assassination in 1963.  Politicians, too, have sometimes been concerned that their use of humor might diminish their eminence and stature, that it might make them appear as buffoons undeserving of public respect. During the 1952 presidential elections, Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower openly criticized his Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson for, he argued, denigrating the dignity of the office by resorting to humor in his stump speeches. Such censorious rebukes are unthinkable today, and, in the midst of our current humor-saturated environment, would no doubt be met with their own outbursts of mocking laughter. 

As I write (one month prior to election day), the 2012 presidential polls show a virtual dead heat; however, with regards to “likeability”, challenger Romney trails by unprecedented double digit numbers. Here is where one’s sense of humor registers, and where Romney’s perceived humor-deficiency is correlated.  Indeed, the candidate’s campaign team appears to be conceding on this front, as shown by Romney’s conspicuous absence on the comedy talk show circuit at the same time as President Obama bares wit-ness day (on The View) and night (on Late Night With David Letterman). Staffers appear to have concluded that Romney is vulnerable to being more laughed “at” than “with”m because he is so often perceived as Henri Bergson’s “mechanical” man, a laughable robotic type incapable of the kind of human flexibility that a sense of humor can foster.  Of course, whether the calculations of the Romney camp will serve them well or ill has yet to be determined, though if the final results are as close as predicted but in the end favor Obama, we may well look back on the 2012 race as the one that was ultimately decided by the role that humor played in it.

Born in Manchester and raised east of London, Iain Ellis spent his formative years playing, performing, and consuming a heavy diet of punk rock music and football. In 1986, the young man went west to find his dreams in Bowling Green, Ohio. Instead, he picked up a PhD in American Culture Studies, writing his dissertation on 1980s American Punk Culture. In 2000, he traveled further west, settling in Lawrence, Kansas, where he currently teaches English at the University of Kansas and performs in his band The Leotards. You may also enjoy his books, Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists and Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/163983-political-humor-and-its-diss-contents/