Some might regard the 2016 presidential campaign as the greatest comedy routine of all time, but for many years researchers have been interested in the influence of televised political comedy. As the popularity of programs such as Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” and TBS’s “Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal” have grown, scholars have investigated how these shows might shape the political attitudes and behavior of ordinary Americans.
Because the audiences for these programs are relatively young, there has been particular interest in how they might affect the political views of the youngest voters. For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, comedy programs attract a younger audience on average than cable news programs. As of August 2015, the median age of “Daily Show” viewers was 36, while the median age for “Anderson Cooper 360” on CNN is 47 and 53 for the “Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC.
Here are four things that the research tells us about the consequences of exposure to political comedy.
1. Viewers come for the jokes but stay for the news.
Although comedy shows often have political content, most people watch them for the jokes, not the news. Nonetheless, research by Danna Young has shown that viewers often feel more informed after watching political comedy, suggesting that people might learn about politics as a byproduct of getting entertained.
Other work finds that exposure to political comedy can serve as a sort of “gateway drug,” encouraging young voters to seek out more information from more traditional news sources and websites. Of course, the people who choose to watch political comedy shows are likely to be more interested in politics than people who instead choose “Tiny House Hunters” or “American Ninja Warrior.” But there does appear to be a correlation between exposure and feeling informed.
As my research has shown, exposure to political humor online is emerging as yet another pathway to public affairs information. In March 2014, President Obama’s interview about the Affordable Care Act with movie star Zack Galifianakis on Funny or Die’s Web series “Between Two Ferns” was viewed millions of times and widely shared on social media. Although the research on the effect of “viral” political videos is in its infancy, this emerging media form is an additional source delivering political information to young people.
2. Political comedy can encourage people to get engaged – or become more cynical
Watching political comedy can make people feel better about politics. In one experimental study, I found that after being exposed to political comedy, young people had higher levels of what scholars call “internal political efficacy.” This means they felt they could better understand and participate in politics.
That may be one reason why, after watching politicians appear as interview guests on political comedy shows, individuals are more likely to engage in comparatively easy forms of political expression – such as signing a petition or showing up at a protest.
At the same time, other research finds that exposure to political satire – in which candidates or parties are mocked – can make people more cynical about politicians and governmental institutions.
How can we reconcile these different findings? It seems that while political comedy can make young people feel better about their own political abilities, it may also make young people more skeptical of politicians’ ability to represent their interests and actually get things done in Washington. This may be particularly true for watching more scathing political satire rather than jovial network late-night comedy.
3. Political comedy may blur the line between humor and reality
Remember when Sarah Palin told us she could see Russia from her house?
Actually you don’t. That’s because it was Tina Fey, portraying Palin on SNL. Palin never said this.
But my research with Mike Cacciatore and colleagues has shown that voters erroneously attributed statements made by Fey in her performances on SNL to Palin. Other colleagues such as Jody Baumgartner and Danna Young documented a Fey Effect, particularly among young people, in the aftermath of the 2008 election. Viewing political comedy targeting Palin made viewers evaluate her more negatively and think less of her abilities as a leader.
While the Palin example may be unusual – most elections don’t feature a vice presidential candidate who’s a dead ringer for a nationally famous comedian – comedy can blur the lines between satire and reality for some viewers.
As my own research with Don Waisanen has shown, it’s hard to separate out the real Joe Biden from the vice presidential persona created by The Onion and other comedy sources. With a surplus of comedy content available these days, it may become harder for young voters to decipher what’s real.
4. Political comedy’s effects on elections are unclear
Could political comedy shape voting behavior? On one hand, when viewers see a politician made fun of by a comedian, it can influence their attitudes. In a 2012 study, I found that college students were significantly less favorable toward John McCain after they watched Stephen Colbert make fun of him for being an “old maverick.”
But not everyone reacts the same way. In a 2014 study, for example, I found that young viewers’ appreciation of political parody content was dependent upon the politician being targeted in the viral video and how much they either liked Obama or disliked the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
In that sense, political comedy is like any other form of political communication. The way that it affects someone is very much dependent on their existing attitudes. For Hillary Clinton supporters, watching John Oliver skewer “Donald Drumpf” is likely to reinforce their opposition toward the GOP nominee. But for the most part, Trump supporters seem unlikely to be moved by the mocking criticism of a comedian attacking their favored candidate.
In general, there are significant challenges to measuring the effects of political comedy. Most of the existing research involves exposing respondents to experimental manipulations and shortly thereafter asking them to report their attitudes or (anticipated) behavior. It can be difficult to tell how long-lasting any effects would be in the real world.
Survey research can provide better real-world data, but in surveys it is more difficult to separate cause from effect. Does political comedy cause political engagement? Or are people who watch political comedy already politically engaged, which is why they tune in in the first place?
Amy Bree Becker is an assistant professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.
This post is part of a series on youth political engagement organized by the Monkey Cage and CIRCLE, a national research center on youth civic education and engagement that is part of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.