There they go again: the use of humor in presidential debates 1960-2008.

Author:Rhea, David M.

One of the most memorable moments in presidential debate history occurred in the second 1984 presidential debate. Henry Trewhitt, a diplomatic correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, asked President Ronald Reagan about his age. Noting that President Reagan, then age 73, who was already the oldest president in U.S. history was running for reelection, Trewhitt asked: "Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances [the Cuban missile crisis] ?" (League of Women Voters [LWV], 1984b, Section 10, para. 1). In response, Reagan said: "Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience" (LWV, 1984b, Section 10, para. 2). The auditorium filled with laughter. Even Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, 56 years old at the time, and journalist Henry Trewhitt laughed. The comment was quoted in the analysis of the debate in The New York Times (Weinraub, 1984), in many major newspapers, and on news shows across the country (Clendinen, 1984). The humorous comment ended two weeks of concern about Reagan's age spurred by media criticism of his performance in the first 1984 presidential debate (Condon, 2011, para. 6).

This is one example of the influence humor can have in a debate. Given the essentially serious nature of presidential debates, an exploration of how often moments of humor like this have occurred becomes worthwhile. Moreover, scholars have argued that humor is a tool that, when used effectively, enhances self-perception (Meyer, 2000) and helps candidates connect with U.S. voters (Yarwood, 2001, 2004). Thus, it would be valuable to see for what purposes presidential candidates use humor in debates to make their points. Finally, analyzing almost 50 years of televised presidential debate history provides an opportunity to trace the trends of the use of humor by candidates in general election presidential debates.

The purpose of this study is to explore the use of humor in presidential debates and how its use in the debates has evolved. The results illustrate the type, function, and location of humor in presidential debates. The discussion explores how candidates use humor in persuasive ways to accomplish their debate goals. I also analyze why humor use increased in the 1980s and 1990s, and began to decrease in the 2000s.


Debate Research

Televised general election presidential debates first occurred in 1960 and have become an important and regular part of presidential campaigns since 1976. The presidential debate is one form of campaign communication that reaches many U.S. voters, including those marginally attentive to politics, and marginally attentive voters play a critical role in determining the outcome of elections (Pfau, 2003).

Every presidential debate since 1960 has attracted a television audience of at least 35 million viewers with many presidential debates attracting more than 50 million viewers (CPD 2008 Debates, 2008). Watching presidential debates can have effects on viewers. Benoit, Hansen, and Verser's (2003) meta-analysis of 33 empirical studies of presidential debates found several effects of debates on viewers including issue knowledge, issue salience, preferences toward candidates' issue positions, perceptions of agenda setting, perceptions of candidate character, and vote preference. This recta-analysis details effects on the viewer of the presidential debates, but does not consider humor content as a factor in these effects; neither do the 33 studies they analyzed.

Debates can also have an impact on viewers through secondary modes of presentation. Although debates are often just a 90-minute event, it is common for them to be discussed in newspapers, network and cable news, and internet blogs, along with becoming the focus of jokes on late-night talk shows for several days around the time of the debates. Mentions of the presidential debates in all of these outlets speak to the significance of debates in campaign communication. Pfau (2003) described this phenomenon as "pass-along effects" (p. 19). The pass-along effect describes the initiation of messages in one communication mode (e.g., the presidential debates) and its diffusion into other modes (e.g., network news, late-night talk shows, and blogs) to influence voters (Pfau, 2002, 2003). While past research has looked at outlets like Saturday Night Live and the parodies they create of presidential debates (Smith & Voth, 2002), the use of humor in debates themselves has not been examined as a possible catalyst for these pass-along effects.

For all the interest scholars and U.S. voters give debates, an analysis of humor in the presidential debates from an historical perspective has not been conducted. Crawford (1999) has explored instances of humor in a single presidential debate cycle. However, Crawford's study does not provide insight into how the candidates use humor to make arguments when the use of humor occurred in the debates. It also provides no historical context for the use of humor in presidential debates. Given that USA Today/Gallup polls underscore that candidate humor is important to U.S. citizens (Lawrence, 2007), a more comprehensive exploration of the use of humor use in presidential debates is needed.

Humor's Value in Political Campaigns

Yarwood (2001, 2004) argued humor is important to candidates and government officials in connecting with the U.S. public, both personally and as a method for conveying their policy positions. Alisky (1990) and Speier (1998) note the power of humor in developing arguments. Alisky's study (1990), looking at the use of humor from Lincoln to Reagan, notes several examples of humor's ability to garner support for positions a president favors while diminishing the policies his opposition supports. In one such example, President Truman notes his dislike for the Office of Price Administration agency, founded during World War II. Disagreeing with Republicans and believing such an agency should not continue after the war, he jokingly referred to it as the "Office for Cessation of Rationing and Priorities" or "OCRAP" (Alisky, 1990, p. 379).

Chapel (1978) explored the use of humor in messages of President Gerald Ford through interviews with Robert Orben, a speechwriter for Ford. Orben talked about the value of self-deprecating humor in messages as it established a sense of understanding and camaraderie between the audience and the President which created a more effective environment for the rest of the message (Chapel, 1978, p. 45-46). Orben also contended that relevant humor is successful for two reasons. First, the speaker demonstrates a connection to and understanding of who the audience is (Chapel, 1978, p. 46). Second, the laughter is an audience response; hence the audience is involved in the message (Chapel, 1978, p. 46). He contends that the audience laughing appropriately on an issue important to the speaker is one of the strongest influences a speaker can have because, through the response, the audience members are affirming the speaker's position on the topic (Chapel, 1978, p. 46). This logic can help to explain why Reagan's humorous comment in the 1984 presidential debate was so influential in squelching a national debate over his age.

While humor has long been an important part of political campaigns, where humor is used in campaigns has changed. Humor in presidential campaigns has often appeared in political cartoons, candidate speeches, and press conferences. Political satire also has been a part of presidential campaigns. Long before shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report featured political satire, it was featured in political cartoons found in newspapers. Cartoonists like Walt Kelly used his famous comic strip character Pogo to make political statements about the Eisenhower campaigns of 1952 and 1956 and the Kennedy campaign of 1960 (Charney, 2005).

Presidential candidates also have known the value of humor in their campaigns. Presidential candidates such as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and others had joke writers as a part of their speechwriting teams (Leopold, 2012; Nesteroff, 2010). This humor is often expressed in speeches and press conferences, such as the Alfred Smith Foundation Dinner. Held annually since 1945, with exceptions in 1996 and 2004, presidential candidates are the headline speakers in election years, and candidates give humorous speeches, roast their opponent, and use self-effacing humor (Wheaton & Bosman, 2008, paras. 2, 4-5, 8).

There was also a period in the 1960s when presidential candidates appeared on entertainment talk shows. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon both made appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar in 1959 and 1960 (Nesteroff, 2010; Rich, 2004). Nixon's joke writer Paul Keyes convinced him to do the "Sock it to me?" bit on Laugh In during the 1968 presidential campaign by telling Nixon it would enhance his image to be seen by the youth (Nesteroff, 2010, para. 19). However, in those days, entertainment shows treaded lightly with the candidates, focusing mainly on personal qualities and humanizing stories (Nesteroff, 2010, para. 18).

Since Clinton's appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 (Baum, 2005), candidates' use of entertainment talk shows has expanded and now become commonplace. What was once just about free air time and answering non-threatening questions (Farnsworth & Lichter, 2010; Pfau, 2003; Young, 2004), now includes targeting swing voters, reaching U.S. citizens marginally attentive to politics, and using the forum to announce their run for the presidency, as John Edwards did on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2003, John McCain did on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2007, and Fred Thompson did on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2007. Eriksson (2010) found that interviews with...

To continue reading