Donald Trump takes office as the most ridiculed presidential candidate in the history of late-night television talk shows. Not only did he far surpass the number of jokes directed at his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, but he even exceeded the totals aimed at Bill Clinton during his scandal-plagued presidency two decades ago.
A new analysis of late-night humor by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found that the New York developer was the subject of 1,817 jokes between Jan. 1, 2016 and Nov. 11, 2016, a few days after Election Day. That’s more than triple the 506 jokes directed at Hillary Clinton. Going back to the 1992 contest, CMPA found that comedians have never focused on a presidential candidate the way they have on Trump.
Here’s how we did our research
We analyzed four late-night comedy programs: those hosted by Jimmy Fallon (“The Tonight Show” on NBC), Stephen Colbert (“The Late Show” on CBS), Jimmy Kimmel (“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on ABC) and Trevor Noah (“The Daily Show” on Comedy Central). All four treated Trump as comedy gold. The attention to Trump did not vary with his poll numbers; in the joke counts he was always No. 1. (Our analysis did not include “Saturday Night Live” because, compared with the nightly talk shows, its political content was relatively infrequent).
Every late-night talk show laughed almost twice as much at Trump than at Clinton.
In fact, they laughed at him far more than at any previous candidate, really.
From the start of the first major-party convention on July 18 through Nov. 11, for example, the pattern for three of the four late-night comics examined was almost identical. Among the jokes directed at the two major-party nominees, 81 percent of Colbert’s jokes focused on Trump, as did 80 percent of Noah’s and 78 percent of Kimmel’s. On NBC, Fallon interviewed Trump on air in September quite congenially, and was criticized for not being more critical of the former host of NBC’s “The Apprentice.”
And yet Fallon told more jokes about his fellow TV personality than about Clinton (64 percent vs. 36 percent).
As a candidate, Trump reached historic heights as a late-night comedy target. Mitt Romney, the previous Republican nominee, was the subject of only 1,061 jokes during all of 2012, just over half the jokes aimed at Trump in less time.
Trump jokes also outnumbered those aimed at 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (1,358 jokes) or George W. Bush during his 2004 campaign for reelection (1,169), as well as the Democratic candidates running in those years. As shown in the chart below, the late-night comics consistently had more to say about Republicans than Democrats.
In addition to examining whom the comedians were joking about, we examined what they were joking about. We examined the jokes during two separate segments of the campaign.
First, we measured from the start of the primaries up to the start of the first nominating convention (Feb. 1 through July 17, 2016). Second, we measured from the start of the nomination conventions through the general election and a few days beyond (July 18 through Nov. 11, 2016).
For both major-party nominees during both time periods, personal matters dominated the humor: 87 percent of the Trump jokes and nearly 85 percent of the Clinton jokes touched on character, personality or other personal traits.
Of course, what else would we expect? Late-night comics focus on personalities. After all, human foibles are often rich veins for humor, especially given the larger-than-life personalities on the 2016 ballot. Still, with more policy content, the jokes better inform the viewers who are also voters. That’s important. According to the Pew Research Center, a quarter of the electorate relied on late-night comedy shows to learn about the campaigns.
It’s not over till it’s over. And maybe not even then.
For Trump, though, the worst may be yet to come. Bill Clinton’s top year as a joke target came in 1998, the year he was impeached for lying about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, bringing in 1,717 jokes. Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s top year was 2006, during a rough midterm election for the Republicans and increasing chaos after the invasion of Iraq, when he was hit with 1,213 late-night jokes. Barack Obama was hit with 768 jokes as a presidential candidate in 2008 and with 936 jokes during 2009, his first year in the White House.
For all three presidents, the comics were tougher toward them when they were serving in office. Trump might wish to get ready.
Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington, where he directs the University’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
S. Robert Lichter is professor of communication at George Mason University, where he also directs the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Deanne Canieso is a PhD student in communication at George Mason University.