Developing a systematic assessment of humor in the context of the 2012 U.S. general election debates.

Author:Peifer, Jason T.

The study of political humor is on the rise with the growing attention by scholars to programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report (e.g., Amarasingam, 2011). Yet researchers have moved beyond the study of just these types of programs to look at the differential effects of distinct types of satire (e.g., Holbert, Hmielowski, Jain, Lather, & Morey, 2011), as well as the influence of specific types of humor (e.g., irony, sarcasm, parody) that could be nested within a single satirical presentation (e.g., Becker, 2012; Peifer, 2013; Polk, Young, & Holbert, 2009). To date, the focus of these efforts has centered on the potential to generate persuasive effects and the role of understanding (i.e., political knowledge) in relation to the consumption of political humor (Holbert, 2013). The dual focus on persuasion and understanding match well with the intended effects of political debates-debates have long been defined as persuasive acts and normatively positive for democracy given their ability to educate voters on the stances of various candidates on the major issues of the day (e.g., Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003). There are several natural linkages between the study of political humor and political debates, and this essay will utilize the 2012 U.S. general election debates to explore what a systematic assessment of this area would entail.

More specifically, this study seeks to bring organizational power to this line of research by presenting a 3 (debate phase) x 6 (debate participant) typology (see Figure 1). The three debate phases are as follows: predebate, debate, and postdebate. The six participants include candidates, moderator, live audience, media audience, pundits, and humorists/satirists. There is extant work on political humor and debates (e.g., Crawford, 1999; Levasseur & Dean, 1983; Rhea, 2012; Stewart, 2012) that has proven insightful and represents advancements for the field, but all of this work can be placed in just 1 of the 18 quadrants detailed in our typology (i.e., the study of political candidates' use of humor at the debate phase). There is a need to expand the study of political humor and debates to include both additional phases (i.e., predebate and postdebate) and a multitude of additional participants if scholars are going to better understand the content and effects of this type of discourse in some of the most significant political events of any campaign season. Fortunately, existing work on the study of political humor can aid those who wish to study humor and debates, as will be detailed in this essay. Before discussing each aspect of this article's typology, it is worth noting that we principally focus on general election debate humor, as opposed to primary debate humor (e.g., Stewart, 2012). Given that general election presidential debates can function differently than primary debates (e.g., Benoit, McKinney, & Stephenson, 2002) it is important to draw a distinction between the patterns of humor within different types of debates. Although this essay does not center on primary debates, we do expect this typology to nonetheless bear strong relevance to primary debate humor.



Presidential hopefuls spend considerable time preparing for presidential debates-poring over briefings; memorizing facts, figures, and anecdotes; and trying to anticipate what questions will be posed. Preparations can also include planning debate punch lines and shaping the public's expectations for the debate. In the days leading up to the first 2012 presidential debate in Denver, Colorado, The New York Times reported that "Mr. Romney's team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August" (Baker & Parker, 2012, para. 5). Notably, the Romney campaign's admission of practicing zingers became a popular topic of discussion in the media's predebate analysis and was even noted by Barack Obama on the campaign trail. The president told a Las Vegas crowd, while smirking:

You may have heard that in a few days my opponent ... and I are going to have a debate. I'm looking forward to it. I know folks in the media are speculating already who's going to have the best zingers. [Audience member: "You are!" I don't know about that ... Governor Romney, he's a good debater. I'm just OK. (White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2012)

These circumstances highlight a potential focus for debate humor research: how political candidates can use humor to inoculate voters to resist unwanted attacks within the debate performances. The basic tenets of inoculation theory (McGuire, 1961) stipulate that resistance to persuasive messages can be induced by forewarning individuals of an impending attitudinal attack and by presenting a weakened form of an argument against an attitude, without overcoming the receiver's defenses. In this way, a person can be immunized/ inoculated to better combat future attitudinal attacks. Since the theory's inception, inoculation theory has been applied to various research topics, including how political campaigns might preemptively inoculate supporters against the influence of the combative exchanges in debate environments (An & Pfau, 2004). Given the usefulness of inoculation theory in debate research, the theory can be fruitfully extended to political humor research (Compton, 2005), for instance exploring how Obama sought to prepare his supporters in Las Vegas for a tough and combative debate exchange through humor. As Compton (2011) suggests, jokes may function "as weakened versions of persuasive attacks" in the political realm (p. 20).


Analysis of the predebate phase can also be directed to the prepared remarks of a moderator. Just as candidates often prepare zingers, moderators can prepare jokes of their own. Indeed, moderators are known to devote much consideration to their important task for a debate, a job that former PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer--who holds the record for the most presidential debates moderated, with 12 debates--describes as "walking down the blade of a knife" (Lehrer, 2011, p. 4). In this domain, debate humor research might investigate how a moderator's planned use of humor is designed to manage the debate environment. For example, in the second presidential debate at Hofstra University (a town hall-style debate), CNN's Candy Crowley stated in her scripted opening remarks: "I hope to get to as many questions as possible. And because I am the optimistic sort, I'm sure the candidates will oblige by keeping their answers concise and on point" (Debate transcripts, 2012).

Crowley's subtle humor, as indicated by her shift in tone and tempo, largely hinged on the use of irony--i.e., expressing an idea through language that literally means the opposite of the intended message (Attardo, 2000). We can assume Crowley did not expect the candidates to keep their answers "concise and on point." Instead, Crowley likely anticipated before the debate that the candidates would often not be concise and on point and was preparing viewers for this reality. But more generally, the use of irony here can be viewed as a planned attempt to help relieve nervous energy, given the high stakes of the nationally televised event. Indeed, humor has long been understood to provide relief (e.g., Freud, 1960; Meyer, 2000), serving as a "pressure valve" in tense situations (Morreall, 2009). Particularly as related to the moderators' task of overseeing and steering the debate proceedings, examining the tension-releasing design of humor could be another intriguing angle for debate humor research.

Live Audience

As reported by Time, a "Memorandum of Understanding" agreed to by the Obama and Romney campaigns stated--in reference to the first and third presidential debates--that "members of the debate audience will be instructed by the moderator before the debate goes on the air [italics added].... not to applaud, speak, or otherwise participate in the debate by any means other than by silent observation" (Bauer & Ginsberg, 2012, p. 6). Although never discussed explicitly, this rule was clearly created in reference to the various arguments or positions taken in these debates by either of the candidates. However, let's consider this rule from the standpoint of when someone in the physical audience finds a particular point offered in a debate humorous. Is it possible for a live audience to maintain "silent observation" when a humorous message (prepared or spontaneous) is offered by one of the candidates or the moderator?

There is long-standing scholarship that would lead to the conclusion that it is impossible for a live audience to maintain "silent observation" when humorous content is offered. As noted by Martin (2007), there is a clear psychobiological component to a human being finding something humorous. A summary of EEG studies conducted on how human beings react to humorous material concludes that there is an "impressively extensive radiation of humor stimulation" (Fry, 2002, p. 330). In short, our humorous reactions are hard-wired, spontaneous, and affect a wide swath of our psychophysiological activities. In addition, there is considerable research speaking to humorous reactions of this kind being enhanced when someone is nested within a larger social group (i.e., humorous reactions are infectious; e.g., Malpass & Fitzpatrick, 1959). Indeed, there is a clear social component to humorous message generation and appreciation (Fine & Soucey, 2005; Lynch, 2002). All of this research brings into question whether an audience can maintain "silent observation" when confronted with something they find humorous, even if they are asked to do so prior to watching a debate live.

Media Audience

There is a host of different activities a citizenry engages in when preparing to consume a debate. Holbert and Benoit (2009) argue...

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