Debatable Humor: Laughing Matters on the 2008 Presidential Primary Campaign.

Author:Levasseur, David G.
Position:Book review

Debatable Humor: Laughing Matters on the 2008 Presidential Primary Campaign. By Patrick A. Stewart. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. 136 pp.

For students of political debates who are weary of making their way through research that meanders down the same, well-worn scholarly path, political scientist Patrick A. Stewart has recently published an interesting book that offers a markedly new direction. Specifically, his text Debatable Humor takes two unexpected turns from the more traditional corpus of political debate research.

In the first of these turns, readers find themselves immersed in a detailed examination of how humor operates in political debates. While scholars have long recognized that humor plays a prominent role in such debates, Stewart's text adds an entirely new layer of support for the claim that political debate humor matters--support that comes in the form of the first systematic, quantitative study of humor in political debates.

With the second unexpected turn in this text, readers encounter a rarely researched debate forum: presidential primary debates. In particular, Debatable Humor focuses on the numerous candidate debates conducted during the 2008 presidential primaries. Stewart characterizes these debates as " 'hot-beds' of humor" (p. 7). Why? Because candidates with few political differences must rely on character to distinguish themselves from their competitors. As it turns out, one important way that candidates can produce a positive character impression is by demonstrating a robust sense of humor.

Before delving too deeply into the intricacies of how humor operates in presidential primary debates, Stewart starts off by laying the theoretical foundation for his study. Over the years, scholars have relied on a broad array of theoretical perspectives to unravel the perplexities of humor. In Debatable Humor, Stewart builds his study on the theoretical foundation of "signaling theory" (p. 17). This theory, which originated in the field of evolutionary biology, suggests that humans, like all creatures, have developed certain cues to signal their desirability as mates or their suitability as leaders. According to signaling theory, humor serves as one such cue--a cue attesting to our "mental fitness" (p. 18). Thus, politicians who can successfully exploit humor have a better chance of securing a socially dominant position. As a theoretical foundation for the study of political humor, signaling theory has both its...

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