While humorists have always been quick to turn their ire at the world of politics, the current popularity of political humor in America seems to be unprecedented. Moreover, it seems as if the political comics and satirists of today are (perhaps ironically) being taken more seriously than those of yesteryear. For example Jon Stewart, comedian and host of The Daily Show, has graced the covers of several national publications and was cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential entertainers in the world in 2005 (Govani, 2005). In 2006, humorist Stephen Colbert was the featured speaker at the high-profile White House Correspondents Dinner. Politicians seem to be taking political humorists more seriously as well. In 2004, Senator John Edwards formally announced his candidacy for president of the United States on The Daffy Show (Storm, 2004), and John McCain announced his intention to run in 2008 on The Late Show with David Letterman (Nagourney, 2007).
As political humor becomes more prevalent, researchers have started to investigate how it may influence various aspects of the political process in America. While individual research efforts have produced varying results, there seems to be a consensus that political humor does have an effect on attitudes and opinions. For example, Matthew Baum (2005) found that presidential candidates can increase their likeability by appearing on humor-based talk shows, and other researchers have noted that exposure to the humor of late-night comedy can prime viewers to base their candidate evaluations on specific character traits (Brewer & Cao, 2006; Moy, Xenos, & Hess, 2006; Young 2004b, 2006). There is also some evidence that suggests exposure to political humor can prime negative evaluations of presidential candidates and other political institutions (Baumgartner, 2007; Baumgartner & Morris, 2006; Morris & Baumgartner, 2008).
One of the more influential sources of political comedy in the last decade has been Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Started in 1996, The Daily Show was hosted until 1999 by Craig Kilborn, when he was replaced by comedian/actor Jon Stewart. At this point the program was renamed The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (hereafter TDS), and ratings consistently rose thereafter. By 2006, almost 1 in 5 (19%) of Americans reported watching TDS at least sometimes, a noticeable increase from just 11% in 2002 (Pew Research Center, 2006). The popularity of TDS in recent years has allowed some of Stewart's supporting ensemble, satirically referred to as "correspondents," to pursue successful entertainment endeavors outside of the show. One of these is former TDS contributor Stephen Colbert, now host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central (hereafter TCR). TCR is a spin-off of TDS that parodies conservative-hosted political talk shows. Colbert acts as host and focuses primarily on political issues and events. Unlike Stewart, who plays the role of a common-sense observer who humorously points out the absurd in politics, Colbert parodies the new breed of self-indulgent, conservative news personalities. The program and his persona are modeled after Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and its host Bill O'Reilly, whom Colbert affectionately refers to as "Papa Bear."
A central part of Colbert's character, and thus the show's comedic appeal, is his explicit rejection of the need for facts in engaging in political debate and assessing political arguments. This approach parodies the hyper-partisan tone of many political talk programs. Consider, for example, how Colbert began his inaugural broadcast of TCR, introducing the segment of the program titled, "The Word" (Karlin, 2005), a parody of O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo":
I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight's word: "truthiness." Now I'm sure some of the "word police," the "wordinistas" over at Webster's are gonna say, "hey, that's not a word." Well, anyone who knows me knows I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today. 'Cause face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart. Consider (Supreme Court Nominee) Harriet Miers. If you "think" about Harriet Miers, of course her nomination's absurd. But the president didn't say he "thought" about his selection. He said this: (video clip of President Bush) "I know her heart." Notice how he said nothing about her brain? He didn't have to. He feels the truth about Harriet Miers. And what about Iraq? If you think about it, maybe there are a few missing pieces to the rationale for war. But doesn't taking Saddam out feel like the right thing? Since TCR started in October 2005, it has been nominated for an Emmy Award, and the Colbert-coined word, "truthiness," was voted the Word of the Year by The American Dialect Society. Also, at the behest of Colbert himself, thousands of loyal viewers have formed "Colbert Nation," a fan club of sorts similar to Rush Limbaugh's "ditto heads."
Given Colbert's popularity and the increased reach of political humor in general, there is a need to consider how exposure to his brand of humor may influence viewers. As mentioned above, evidence suggests political humor on television can influence political attitudes. But political humor--even late-night televised political humor--is not monolithic (see Young & Tisinger, 2006). Jon Stewart's approach differs significantly from that of David Letterman and Jay Leno--and Colbert differs from all three of them. The focus of this analysis is on Colbert's increasingly popular brand of political humor. The following section constructs a theory that explains why exposure to TCR may be somewhat unique. Then, findings are presented from a controlled experiment in which young adults were randomly assigned to watch TCR while others watched news and commentary from the very person Colbert parodies--Bill O'Reilly. The findings from the experiment are then discussed.
The Effects of Political Humor and The Colbert Report
Expectations about the effects of viewing TCR are guided by a body of knowledge on the effects of humor on political attitudes. Early research, most of which was based on experiments in marketing and psychology, seemed to suggest that humor has some ability to change attitudes and persuade audiences (Berg & Lippman, 2001; Gruner, 1996; Lyttle, 2001 ; Schmidt, 1994; Scott, Klein, & Bryant, 1990). One early study found, for example, that a political cartoon accompanied by an editorial has some power to affect opinion change in the reader (Brinkman, 1968). The process or mechanisms by which it might do so is, however, a different question. Based on early research, Sternthall and Craig (1973) suggested that humorous messages may lead to a reduction in counterargument and increase in persuasion. In addition, they speculated that humor may increase the likeability of the source (humorist), creating a positive mood which may in turn increase the likelihood of persuasion. In this sense, a humorous message may be more persuasive than messages that are blatantly intended to persuade--such as marketing or political advertisements--because the viewer is less likely to put up cognitive "guards" that sometimes go up when he/she recognizes that they are the target of attempted persuasion.
Some later studies on the effects of humor on attitude change have followed this speculative research and been explicitly grounded in a model of persuasion known as the Elaboration Likelihood Model (hereafter ELM; Lyttle, 2001 ; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). ELM theory posits that persuasive communications (e.g., a speech, an advertisement) are processed, or elaborated, on two different levels: a central and a peripheral route. (1) Processes in the central route involve high elaboration, or thought. In everyday language, central route processing is critical reasoning. If a message is processed in the central route, its ability to persuade is limited by the power of the argument, the individual's predisposition, and other factors. If, on the other hand, a message is processed in the peripheral route, the potential for persuasion is greater. In the peripheral route there is less cognitive work, and message processing is more dependent on various contextual and affective considerations, including the mood of the receiver. In other words, there is less focus on the substance of the message in low elaboration message processing, which makes it more likely that other variables can influence the receiver.
Research suggests that messages accompanied by humor may be processed along the peripheral rather than the central route (Young, 2004a; Zhang, 1996). This being the case, a reading of ELM theory suggests that humor may affect attitudes in one of several ways, which make it more likely the receiver will agree with the message. First, humor can create a positive mood in the receiver, which might preclude high elaboration. This in turn would make it less likely that the individual would disagree with the message or argument being presented. Second, the receiver might be less likely to engage in counterargument out of an appreciation of the humorous message. Here, it is not the receiver's mood that makes it more likely the message will be positively evaluated, but rather an appreciation of the humor itself. Finally, according to ELM theory, humor might make it more likely that the receiver will agree with the message out of an increased liking or trust of the source of the humorous message (Lyttle, 2001).
In short, ELM theory suggests that humor makes it less likely that the receiver will critically question the message accompanying it, making it more likely that the individual will agree with the...