09/11/2012 12:37 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

What of Comedy in Politics?

With the presidential campaigns now fully underway, Americans will continue to face a barrage of words and images about Obama, Romney, and the many other characters involved in the coming elections. Now, more than ever, many of these words and images will be conjured up by comedy writers and performers. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report will continue to provide commentary to millions, just as Saturday Night Live will likely receive its highest ratings -- a trend during election seasons -- for skewering the presidential debates. But will comedy have any effect upon the election? Or is comedy in politics simply a side show that will have no influence upon perceptions of coming events?

Related to these questions, over the summer a debate developed from Paul Farhi's article in The Washington Post covering recent academic attention to Stephen Colbert, focusing on the number of books, articles, and now even university courses about the comedian. Another piece implied that, because both more- and less-educated audiences watch these shows, there's nothing more to understand about political comedy than what meets the eye. Another objection appears to be that studying or teaching about political comedy is misguided, with time better spent putting tuition dollars to work on subjects like ancient history.

Sophia McClennan and Remy Maisel responded that these charges are overstated compared to the (ironic) amount of prime-time news coverage given to figures like Colbert. They also found Colbert is important in critiquing the "rise of corporate influence over politics... and a new era in news media where spectacle and sensationalism often overshadow accurate and appropriate information." Amy Becker, who runs a course on political comedy at Towson University, responded with statistics about the trustworthiness of comedy news content, noting a lot more is at issue than Colbert -- documented increases in political interest and participation as a result of such programming invite academic reflection, as do understandings of how entertainment and celebrity are influencing civic culture. I'd add that many historical scholars themselves advised studying this subject, from Cicero on wit in politics to Aristotle's ruminations about the topic. Aristotle even wrote a book on comedy that has been lost (he refers to it in some of his other writings), giving us all the more reason to continue exploring these subjects in the present. In this spirit, professors like Michael Rodriguez are teaching students the not-so-obvious "sophisticated literary devices" in comedy shows like The Colbert Report.

Some recent studies provide empirical support for the idea that comedy can have an effect upon citizens' political beliefs, attitudes, and actions. The Pew Research Center has shown that programs like The Daily Show focus on the press at a rate double the mainstream media and question authority more than traditional news coverage. A new book by Bruce Williams and Michael Delli Carpini finds that entertainment media are now often far quicker than much of the traditional press to apply a critical perspective to political candidates. Jody Baumgartner, Jonathan Morris, and Natasha Walth detail how "exposure to Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin's performance in the 2008 vice-presidential debate on Saturday Night Live is associated with changes in attitudes toward her selection as VP candidate and presidential vote intentions," with effects "most pronounced among self-identified Independents and Republicans." Another similar project by Sarah Esralew and Dannagal Goldthwaite revealed that the salience of certain character traits remained more prominent in voters' minds after exposure to comic impersonations.

These projects highlight the importance of understanding comedy as it has become a pervasive aspect of and way of thinking about modern politics. Evaluating these developments should remain a topic for ongoing debate, however. My own and others' writings on the subject have found a great deal to praise in the critical perspectives comedians have brought to the political process. Yet it would also be inaccurate to characterize academic attention to this subject as only congratulatory. Much past research has shed a critical light on comedy itself, and recent volumes have focused these questions even further. In an upcoming Praeger book, Venomous Speech and Other Problems in American Political Discourse (edited by Clarke Rountree), I have a chapter exploring several potential limitations of communicating about politics through comedy -- whether from the left or right. We also need to know more about how the possible biases of current media institutions and economics (e.g., the role of advertising and need for profitable programming) have shaped The Daily Show, SNL, and similar shows. With the election just around the corner, comedy will rightly continue to provide entertaining and insightful analyses of political failings, but we should keep in mind that once the laughs are in, there's still more to know and question.