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Bring in the Clowns: Humor in Political Communication

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Late one night in the capitol city a mugger wearing a ski mask jumped into the path of a well-dressed man and stuck a gun in his ribs. "Give me your money!" he demanded. Indignant, the affluent man replied, "You can't do this - I'm a Member of Parliament!" "In that case," replied the robber, "give me MY money!"

Sometimes all you can do when you hear the latest news from the political stages all over the world is – laugh. Actually, laughing is a good thing in politics. Humor has become a major vehicle for political information. Political commentary in late night shows and political comedy have become an important part of political communication. Humor helps to transmit information and messages in a way that dry news formats probably can’t do.

In an article from 2000, John Meyer analyses the functions of humor in political communication. One is relief: jokes can defuse a tense situation. If the news from around the world is bad, again, or getting worse, approaching it with humor can create the impression that the situation is manageable after all. In political campaigns, humor is used to point out that something is incongruent, or doesn’t work. U.S. President Ronald Reagan once used humor to point out the difficulty of fighting crime: “We have the technological genius to send astronauts to the moon and bring them safely home. But we’re having trouble making it safe for a citizen to take a walk in the evening through a park.” This kind of juxtaposition helps to introduce new perspectives and viewpoints. Also, funny comments about a political situation can make us feel superior. This politician really said that?! He must be stupider than I am. Laughter also produces a feeling of fellowship – we feel close to those who laugh at the same jokes we think are funny.

According to Meyer, the effects of humor are identification, clarification, enforcement, and differentiation. Humor helps to make us identify with the person who is being humorous – that’s particularly important for humor in political advertising. It also helps to “encapsulate their [politicians’] views into memorable phrases or short anecdotes, resulting in the clarification of issues or positions” (p. 319). Humor allows enforcing existing norms by subtly criticizing deviations – if you make fun of something you don’t like, you make your point without sounding negative or bitter. Lastly, differentiation works if politicians or commentators contrast themselves and their views with those of others. In the 1992 Presidential elections in the U.S., incumbent George Bush called opposing vice-presidential candidate Al Gore “Mr. Ozone” – drawing a clear distinction between himself and the environmentally engaged Democrat.

In the U.S., the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” has been a political phenomenon for years now. While Jon Stewart insists that he’s no journalist, his satirical approach to public affairs has become a regular source of information for young people in particular. A 2006 study by researchers of Indiana University found that there is little difference in the actual news substance between the Daily Show and traditional network television news. By now, politicians appealing to young well-educated voters have little choice but to appear on the Daily Show – not all of them manage to actually be funny. Xiaoxia Cao found that politically inattentive viewers actually started following the issues that were frequently covered in the show. 

A new initiative, FlackCheck.org uses humor to point out the absurdities and falsities in this year’s Presidential primaries in the U.S. Here, humor is again educational and serves as a critical check on political reality. See here why criticizing politics through humor is more likely to make you pay attention than, say, this. If you look at both – which information stuck in your mind?

Most of the time politics is no laughing matter, and sometimes it’s a rather cruel joke. Maybe that’s why we like to laugh about it. Fact is, however, that we learn a lot from humor in political communication. The humor gets past our defenses and possibly even past our pre-conceived notions. If information is accurate, but packaged into a humorous frame, it may have a better chance of being processed by us than your regular, dry news show.
 

Picture credit: flickr user punchandsizzle

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