- Politics Is a Joke! How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life by S. Robert Lichter, Jody C. Baumgartner, and Jonathan S. Morris
Political humor has serious consequences. Politics Is a Joke! How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life seeks to explain how political humor influences public perception of politics and politicians in the United States. The book analyzes political humor from a range of late-night comedy sources—including Jay Leno and David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and NBC's Saturday Night Live—to uncover the most joked-about politicians, events, and political issues and explore how these jokes affect viewers' attitudes. The authors echo and extend existing humor scholarship in arguing that late-night comedy should be taken as seriously as traditional news sources, both as a vehicle for news content and a shaper of public opinion. This book undertakes [End Page 148] three main tasks: exploring the increasing importance of humor in American politics, using a unique data set to analyze who and what have been the most common targets of American political humor since 1992, and examining the relationship between political humor and viewers' perceptions.
Chapters 1 and 2 detail the growth and increasing importance of comedy to contemporary American political culture. As more Americans turn to late night comedy shows to get their news, late night comedians have become increasingly influential. Lichter, Baumgartner, and Morris seek to explore this influence by analyzing a unique data set compiled by George Mason University's Center for Media and Public Affairs. The CMPA has been tracking and gathering political jokes for nearly twenty-five years. They code these jokes based on which institutions, groups, or individual politicians were targeted. The authors focus on jokes from 1992 to 2012, a period that saw a substantial increase in late-night political humor. Chapter 2 sketches a brief history of late-night television comedy, beginning with its most prominent originator: Johnny Carson on NBC's The Tonight Show. The authors note that Carson—who retired from television in 1992—told jokes that rarely risked any sort of backlash; he aligned his comedy with the mood of the public and crafted jokes that most viewers would be able to connect to and largely agree with. The chapter then moves on to Comedy Central programs The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and NBC's Saturday Night Live, programs using political satire and parody to explicitly critique media and politics. The authors contrast Carson with Colbert to illustrate the evolution of political humor on television.
Chapters 3 through 5 analyze the most common jokes collected by the CMPA. These chapters describe who and what is joked about in late-night comedy. Chapter 3 focuses on jokes aimed at U.S. presidents or presidential candidates. Sitting U.S. presidents are the most targeted individuals for late-night comedians, partly because they are some of the most consistently visible people in the country. Because the CMPA's study and collection begins in the early 1990s, Lichter, Baumgartner, and Morris's analysis begins with Bill Clinton in 1992.
Bill Clinton is easily the most joked-about president from 1992 to 2012. The sex scandals plaguing him from his tenure as governor of Arkansas through his second presidential term were the most popular topics for late-night TV comedians throughout this timeframe. Clinton was also the target of jokes about his eating habits, his documented anger, and the [End Page 149] Whitewater scandal. Second to Clinton was his successor, George W. Bush. Jokes about Bush focused on questioning his intelligence, his personal demeanor, and his decisions to take the country to war with Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a short break in lampooning Bush in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, but as Bush's approval rating sank during his second term, late-night comedians targeted him with increasing frequency. Barack Obama was the least joked-about President since 1992. Comedians who joked about him focused...