The role of humor in political argument: how "strategery" and "lockboxes" changed a political campaign.

AuthorSmith, Chris

Shortly before the 2000 Presidential election, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press reported that 47% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 obtain most of their political information from late-night entertainment outlets (Kloer & Jubera, 2000). Findings like this suggest that the relationship between politics and entertainment has substantially changed. In an effort to reach undecided voters, politicians have shifted substantial effort to a media genre typically reserved for political criticism. Rather than the traditional one-sided relationship of late-night comedians using political officials as a comedic tool, the relationship between comedians and entertainers is increasingly more reciprocal where politics now strategically uses humor for maneuvering as much as humor uses politics for comic antics. Willing or not, late-night television comedians are an important disseminator and arbiter of information for political officials, marking an era where humor could potentially act as a valid form o f political argument.

Since its inception, the United States political arena has served as an important target and scapegoat for comedians, editorialists and naysayers. From Thomas Nasts' political cartoons in Harper's Weekly during the 1880's, to Will Roger's follies in the 1950's, to the Quayle comedy quandary in the early 1990's, and in innumerable other examples, political humor has operated in a self-serving, redeeming manner of social understanding by those outside of the political sphere. Paletz (1990) notes that it is often easier for society to laugh at authoritative power than attempt to analyze or rationalize their decisions. Consequently, political humor has matured in the American culture to the point that its contribution to the democratic process verges on a significance equal to politics itself (Boskin, 1990).

Traditional studies of political argument recognize it as a rigid and structured activity reserved only for solemn, unwavering agendas and excluding of lighthearted and comical issues. In fact, the primary goal of most speeches and symbolic acts by political officials is to sustain legitimacy of their leadership within the political process and to advance specific policy goals and objectives (Clayman, 1992). In this course of action, little room exists for jovial or comical behavior as a form of argument.

Despite this implicit barring of humor in the political process, numerous studies and analysis have recognized the utility and necessity of humor in the political arena (Alisky, 1990; Bostdorff, 1991; Pfau, Cho & Chong, 2001). Moreover, a number of researchers have concluded that humor can serve as a powerful rhetorical tool when employed by political officials (Levasseur, 1996; Meyer, 1990; Speier, 1998). This research poses an important question concerning the rhetorical functions of humor in the political realm. Previous studies have concluded that humor acts as a mechanism for social understanding of the democratic process to the voting public; however, a great deal of ambiguity surrounds its specific political niche. Therefore, the primary purpose of this study is to examine the extent to which humor serves as a legitimate rhetorical instrument in the political arena. The specific focus of this analysis is the 2000 Presidential election and the manner in which humor evolved simultaneously as a means of s ocial confrontation and political strategy. This issue is elucidated by examining the impact of the late-night comedy show, "Saturday Night Live" (SNL) on the Presidential debates. Specifically, this study will compare, contrast, and analyze the first Presidential Debate with "SNL's" skits of the first debate. This instance of humor's influence on a dramatic Presidential election contributes to our larger understanding of humor in politics.

In Attitudes Toward History, literary critic and scholar of rhetoric Kenneth Burke (1959) argues comedy is dialectic and allows a sort of transcendence, enabling people to become "observers of themselves, while acting" (p. 171). The manner in which "SNL's" skits were used as a new paradigm of political information suggests that Burke's "Comic Frame of acceptance" could usefully analyze the situation. Comedy allows society to confront problems not suited to tragic or dramatic resolutions. By using canons of gross exaggeration, or incongruous perspectives, the comic frame allows for a new form of understanding that is otherwise not possible through traditional or tragic modes of criticism.

The comic frame serves as a fitting rhetorical perspective to examine "SNL's" role in the 2000 election because of the extent to which "SNL's" rhetoric served as a mechanism of social confrontation for the public and candidates alike. Action in the comic frame provides a platform to confront and correct problems while simultaneously laughing at faults instead of persecuting individuals for wrongs committed. To better understand the intricate relationship of humor and politics, a review of the literature will, first, establish the parameters and theoretical underpinnings for the study. Second, the impact of "SNL" on the 2000 Presidential debates is explicated and analyzed. Finally, rhetorical and social implications are offered.


The symbolic structures humans use to impose order upon their lives are called frames. A. Cheree Carlson (1986) notes that frames are the constructs humans use to view, group, and interpret experiences with reality. These frames, in turn, determine the symbolic actions and choices humans make from these experiences. Kenneth Burke (1959) argues that humans categorize their actions and choices through the major poetic frames of epic, tragedy, comedy, elegy, satire, burlesque, and the grotesque. Burke (1959) further explains these frames in terms of acceptance and rejection. Frames of acceptance, such as comedy and epic, single out relationships as friendly and, therefore, capable of mutual dialogue and understanding. However, rejection frames, such as burlesque and tragedy, define the human situation as unfriendly and incapable of understanding. These frames emphasize their relation to authority and attempt to resist action that could potentially threaten that authority. Regardless if the emphasis is placed on acceptance or rejection, the symbolic action through these poetic frames allows people a means of dealing with life's inequities through a dramaturgical perspective. Among Burke's frames, Kerr (1967) maintains that only tragedy and comedy have existed historically. Therefore, tragedy and comedy are the only frames that deserve further explication in this review of literature.

Christiansen and Hansen (1996) suggest that the frame of impulse in Western society is tragedy. The tragic frame holds that any violation of social principles must inevitably lead to punishment and the acknowledgment of guilt. Tragic action condemns and ridicules rather than attempting to expose and correct transgressions. The tragic frame operates as a dialectic force where authority singles out and persecutes those in error as sinners. Burke (1959) identifies these sinners as victims because regardless of the egregiousness of their sins, their fate cannot be avoided. The victim is left to suffer the impulses of those in the tragic perspective either through mystification, scapegoating, or banishment. Authority and its hierarchy are upheld through this victimage by symbolically ridding society of wrongdoing and preserving social order (Moore, 1992). This victimization ultimately leads tragedy to a form of what Burke (1989) identifies as relativism, whereby only one point of view is seen. Isolating one vantag e point leaves other points of view incapable of observation, thus creating a skewed and biased portrayal of reality. This flawed perspective, in turn, leads to tragic points of view and distorted judgments since other equally important and valuable perspectives are not taken into consideration.

Despite the tragic frame's popularity in Western culture, such imperfections lead Burke (1989) to argue that it is not the ideal frame for handling human experience. Instead, the comic frame is the most refined and complete frame for understanding social imbalance. By allowing the comic actor to recognize his or her shortcomings, Burke (1959) argues that comic action creates a "rationale for locating the irrational and non irrational" (p. 171). Understood as a frame of acceptance, the comic frame recognizes that humans are fallible and likely to commit mistakes. A comic frame does not conceive of evil or wrong-doing as guilt, but as error. Rather than banishing the victim from society, comic action encourages the comic actor to return to society once he or she has realized the errors committed and attempted to correct those errors. Duncan (1968) notes that, "Comedy teaches us that only so long as reason can function openly in society can men confront and correct their evil as men, not as cowering slaves"(p. 6 0). Rather than seeking death or banishment of the scapegoat, it attempts to shame or humiliate the protagonist into changing his or her actions. Moore (1992) comments that "the comic frame interprets social order as imperfect and therefore subject to criticism" (p. 111). Through this criticism, people recognize and attempt to reconcile the errors committed by turning these negative actions into positive experiences.

One misperception concerning these frames is that tragedy and comedy differ greatly in subject matter as tragedy deals with serious subjects and comedy humorous ones. Duncan (1968) argues, "Both tragic and comic actors speak for the group and attempt to keep individual actors and the general public loyal to virtues which the guardians believe will insure community survival" (p. 98). Through this action, both frames deal with serious subject matter, but the way in which the content is treated distinguishes...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT