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The Impact of Political Humor in Society

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“Man makes a mockery of man. In his efforts at changing and improving mankind, man turns matters he thinks grave into absurdities” (Ziv). One of humor’s many effects on human behavior is its ability to change how someone behaves. More specifically is the idea that a human phenomenon that is opposed to society’s expectations will meet with punishment, which in this case is laughter (Ziv). Bergson writes, “Laughter is a social reaction which punishes and puts down deviant elements in man’s behavior and in various events” (Ziv). Political humor is a vehicle that comedians can channel viewpoints and critiques through, expressing either disdain or admiration for the targeted political figure.

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According to the book, The Best-Selling Guide to Writing Funny and Getting Paid For It, “celebrity service is a cheap shot, but our appetite for a dash of vinegary gossip about our heroes, icons, and villains is insatiable” (Shatz and Helitzer 44-45). Political figures, especially disliked ones, can make for some great jokes and perhaps have the power to change to the way the general public views said political figure. A study conducted by Amy Bree Becker, Assistant Professor at Towson University, suggests that comedians who publicly ridicule a presidential candidate cause audiences to have negative attitudes toward that individual (Taylor and Francis). The study found that, irrespective of political affiliation, viewing critical comedy content changed people’s attitudes about a candidate. This specific study focused on the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain. The participants in the study either watched a video from The Colbert Report mocking the McCain campaign, or a video of McCain mocking himself on an episode of Saturday Night Live. The results concluded that both Democratic and Republican participants appreciated John McCain’s self-deprecating humor, viewing the SNL clip did not result in a significant change in attitude towards the candidate (Taylor and Francis). Steven Colbert’s hostile humor appeared to result in more negative evaluations of McCain.

The results of this study by Dr. Becker conclude “there are both negative consequences of being the constant target of political satire programming and the potential benefit of appearing on political comedy programs to engage in self-ridicule” (Taylor and Francis). Shows such as the Daily Show and other similar programs tend to promote negative attitudes toward the comic target. However, candidates that are looking to appeal to voters may find it helpful and strategic to use self-directed humor. Self-deprecating humor is one of the least offensive, but most effective types of humor, making it ideal for warming the audience to a candidate’s cause. As writer and director Carl Reiner observed, “Inviting people to laugh with you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be be the fool, but you’re the fool in charge” (Shatz and Helitzer 42). To conclude Becker’s 2012 study, she states, “Moving forward, politicians will need to become more skilled at deflecting humor directed at them and also be able to tell a good joke” (Taylor and Francis).

The question is, can humor change an entire group of people’s opinions or even change society as a whole? Throughout history, there have always been groups that strive for a certain ideology, an ideology that would better the world. Sometimes these ideologies are relatively harmless, while others can be devastating, i.e. the Holocaust. However, less serious and self-involved people have held that things might be changed by a less tedious approach, such as by means of humor. Humor exposes ugly human phenomena (those that render the world almost unbearable) to mockery, in hopes of thereby eliminating them. As quoted earlier, “Man makes a mockery of man. In his efforts at changing and improving mankind, man turns matters he thinks grave into absurdities” (Ziv). The laughter that derives from the perception of absurdity reforms the world, the purpose of humor which Bergson’s theory principally focuses. The theory lays special emphasis on the “educational” function of humor (Ziv). The idea being that a human phenomenon, such as laughing at the poor, that is opposed to society’s expectations, will be met with punishment, in this case laughter. Bergson purports that “a person or institution that serves as an object of laughter will take care in [the] future not to repeat the behavior that has evoked punishment” (Ziv). In addition, the fear of becoming a target for mockery should be sufficient to prevent a person from committing the act that led to a negative reaction. Bergson concludes that as a result of this, laughter should, and in turn humor in general, have the power to change not merely the personal behavior of one person, but also the behavior of institutions and even whole societies (Ziv).

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In conclusion, political humor, whether positive or negative, can greatly affect one’s view on a specific candidate. This is not only reinforced by psychological studies, scholars, and comedians themselves, but by real world events. Take, for example, Howard Dean’s infamous “Dean Scream”, broadcasted the night of the Iowa Caucus on January 19, 2004. Dean’s scream was the target of critical political satire for weeks and put the final nail in his already failing campaign (Masket). Political humor can also be used to articulate and challenge some of the most pressing issues of the day, fostering a sense of shared ideals (O’Hara). Currently, Donald Trump serves as the target for political comedians to channel their collective distaste for his character and viewpoints. The best comedians may be the most effective anthropologists and cultural critics. As John Fugelsang – a New York-based political comedian, writer and actor – says, “Political comedy, when done right, is a delivery system for truth.”

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