Elesa Zehndorfer Ph.D.

Political Animals and Animal Spirits

Politics: When Laughter Is The Best Medicine

Research explains the power and importance of political satire.

Posted May 20, 2019

Political satire is heady, entertaining, and powerful. According to a recent Harvard Medical School report, it stimulates endorphins and serotonin, down-regulates stress hormones, and powerfully bonds us to those who share similar political views via the up-regulation of the bonding neurotransmitter oxytocin. The effects are amplified significantly by our positive feelings toward the comedian who is delivering the one-liners, with the heady production of the comedians' show further stimulating our brains.

The immensely popular Saturday Night Live continues to draw in impressive viewing figures and is now widely regarded as a de facto voice of ideologically liberal political resistance. It is a show that effectively encapsulates the power of humor in politics.  

Wikimedia Commons/no licence required (public domain)
Lincoln Spins The News, 1862
Source: Wikimedia Commons/no licence required (public domain)

Whilst SNL and other comedy vehicles are largely viewed as sympathetic to left-wing ideologues, data does not support such an idea. A 2010 study, for example, performed over an eight-month period, recorded every political joke told about a political figure on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Researchers reported that Presidents Bush and Obama received a nearly equal 10 percent and 9 percent of satirical ribbing during their respective presidential tenures. The value of political satire lies in its powerful voice of resistance and in holding the politicians of the day to account.

Comedy as Political Resistance

Political satire can be so powerful, in fact, that it carries inherent dangers to the comedians who use it. A recent one-month study conducted by Jonathan Guyer of the Institute of World Affairs in Istanbul, for example, looked at the use of satire under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Guyer concluded in an article published by PRI that "Political satire is maybe the most radical outlet for criticism of the government... Every cartoonist I interviewed in Turkey told me that 2016, irrespective of the recent coup and crackdown, has been the most difficult year for cartoonists on record." 

Similar examples exist in many other nations; during his presidential rule, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered the death of many Iraqi political satirists, including Goran Faili, director of the popular satirical Long Live Saddam TV show, alongside its entire cast. Kukly, a Russian satirical puppet show, ceased to operate after its focus shifted notably to a satirical commentary of Vladimir Putin, whilst Alec Baldwin recently voiced serious concerns for himself and his family’s safety following a February 17, 2019, tweet by President Trump that raised the spectre of retribution against SNL, largely motivated by Baldwins' satirical take on Trump.

Wikimedia Commons/The White House [Public domain]
Obama Appearing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Source: Wikimedia Commons/The White House [Public domain]

Political satire also requires a level of lateral thought to process why, exactly, the remark is funny. Take Barack Obama’s response to personal criticisms made of him by Donald Trump on a Jay Leno show—a classic satirical play: "The trouble between Donald and me began," said Obama "...when we were kids growing up together in Kenya and my team always beat his team at soccer. He never got over that."  By engaging the rational side of the brain, viewers become open to genuine political engagement. Obama has long been able to corral the powerful effects of humor in charismatically engaging voters.

From Parody to Reality

It is exactly this ability of political satire to engage both rational and emotional neural centers of the brains that has allowed satire to carve out its own place in the world of politics. A recent Pew Research Report reflected this concept, explaining how The Colbert Report, hosted by American award-winning political satirist Stephen Colbert, and another politically themed satirical show, Jon Stewart's Daily Show, informed viewers better about political affairs than mainstream news sources. In Colbert's case, he plays a parody of a political news host, who famously commented that "The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you." In doing so, his character communicates in an entertaining way the worrying shift in politics from facts to charismatic, seductive, emotion-fueled rhetoric: from truths to "truthiness."

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Stephen Colbert at The Rally to Restore Hope &/or Fear, 2010
Source: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart both received prestigious George Foster Peabody Awards for their powerful contributions to news and journalism, a powerful outcome of their ability to engage in expertly crafted political satire.

Colbert’s SuperPAC parody, Americans for a Better Tomorrow’, went so far as to cross the border from parody to reality to raising $1 million. The Annenberg Public Policy Center subsequently reported that the Americans for a Better Tomorrow, themed segments of Colbert’s show increased viewers' knowledge of PAC and 501(c)(4) campaign finance regulation issues more successfully than any other type of news media.

More recently, Colbert provided a strongly critical voice of the Charlottesville violence, with The Atlantic magazine running an article on August 15th, 2017, stating that "Colbert was doing what late-night comedians, more and more commonly, are doing: serving as arbiters, not just of humor but of morality’." It seems that when the need for political resistance increases, comedians are some of the first to stand up and make their voices heard.

Humor: A Gateway into Politics?

Professor Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, who has studied the use of political satire, commented thatsatirical news could be a gateway into more serious news use for people who aren't currently engaged in politics," reflecting the successful outcomes of comedians like Stewart and Colbert in engaging voters.  

Ultimately, humor offers an impressive tool of resistance and political commentary, perhaps even acting as a powerful arbiter of morality. Laughter allows fear and anger to dissipate, which ultimately encourages more communication and less hostility, enabling us to cross partisan lines and resist in a positive way. And that can only, ultimately, be a good thing.