Political humor is the term used to describe the use of humor in the domain of politics. Though occasionally used to describe the use of humor by political figures themselves, the term is most often reserved for humorous images, texts, and expressions that mock public officials, people in positions of authority, as well as government, institutions, policies, or practices. According to the taxonomy introduced by David L. Paletz in his 1990 article “Political Humor and Authority: From Support to Subversion,” political humor can vary in terms of target (at whom or what is the humor aimed?), focus (what element or characteristic of the target is under scrutiny?), acceptability (how socially or culturally accepted is the joke in question?), and presentation (how, with what style or medium, is the humor communicated to the receiver?). These four criteria then determine where a given piece of political humor falls on a spectrum ranging from supportive to subversive. Paletz defines supportive political humor as political humor that is loyal to the dominant political order, and supportive of the individuals and institutions in power, such as the innocuous and friendly barbs in the jokes of Bob Hope. At the other end of the spectrum is subversive political humor, which seeks to aggressively—and perhaps unacceptably—criticize not just public officials, but the norms and practices of those highest in authority as well as the very institutions that hold power.
Satire, Nonsatire, Parody, And Cartoons
Another method to categorize political humor involves separating it in terms of satirical and nonsatirical political humor. According to George Test, author of Satire, Spirit and Art (1991), political satire is political humor that is simultaneously aggressive, playful, seeks to induce laughter, and casts judgment. Rachel Paine Caufield suggests in her 2007 article, “The Influence of ‘Infoenterpropagainment,’” that these four necessary elements separate political satire as a distinct subcategory of political humor, as satire “is specifically created as a means to attack perceived wrongs or ills within society” (7) and “must judge some aspect of society in a way that lends itself to correction” (8). Herein lies the essence of satirical political humor: the use of humor to ridicule institutions, practices, authorities, or citizens in an attempt to remind the audience that a better alternative is both desirable and achievable. As literary scholar Dustin Griffin argues in his 1994 book Satire: A Critical Reintroduction, “The business of the satirist is to insist on the sharp differences between vice and virtue, between good and bad, between what man is, and what he ought to be.” (36). Hence, returning to Paletz’s typology, the distinction between political humor and true political satire stems from the focus of the humor—the element of the target that is under scrutiny. While a nonsatirical political joke might poke fun at a political candidate’s physicality or style of speech, political satire would go deeper, mocking that candidate’s integrity, competence, or the very political platform that they represent.
A common form of political humor is the subcategory of political parody. Parodies are exaggerated or altered depictions of some original political practice, event, or person. Parodies include impersonations of political leaders, in which the impersonator chooses known elements, traits, or characteristics of the original political figure to exaggerate or distort. Editorial cartoons employ the art of parody to generate recognizable cartoonish versions of public officials. Parodies also include exaggerated or altered reenactments of common political events such as speeches, political advertisements, interviews, debates, or news programs. Whether or not these parodic texts constitute political satire depends again on the focus of the depiction.
One form of parody, the political cartoon, has a long and varied history as a form of political rhetoric. As explained by Stephen Hess and Milton Kaplan in their 1968 book The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons, American political cartoons date back to Benjamin Franklin’s 1747 cartoon, “The Waggoner and Hercules,” depicting a farmer stuck in mud praying to Hercules in the sky, with the caption, “God helps those who help themselves.” The cartoon, aimed at generating support for the revolution, is credited with mobilizing thousands of troops. With the ability to communicate efficiently through metaphor and symbolism, political cartoons present emotionally charged arguments without saying a word. The potential influence of this form of humor is illustrated by cartoonist Thomas Nast’s 1870s caricatures of an obese and aggressive William Tweed, the “boss” of the New York Democratic Party’s corrupt Tammany Hall. Nast’s cartoons, published in Harper’s Weekly, have been credited with precipitating Tweed’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment.
While satirical cartoons critical of the governing regime or existing power structure are common, political leaders also use cartoons as a form of propaganda, and other groups may use cartoons as a means to criticize other cultural, religious, or ethnic minorities. In the German Weimar Republic (1919–1933), following World War I (1914–1918), for example, various magazines and newspapers used political cartoons and satire to criticize the government, cultural trends, or public policies. As the National Socialist Workers Party (the Nazi Party) rose to power in the early 1930s, political cartoons transformed into a central method of propaganda, caricaturing Germany’s foreign enemies and Jewish citizens, and later mobilizing German citizens for war. Satirical cartoons targeting Hitler or political elites did not appear in the government-controlled papers of the Third Reich, however—an unsurprising phenomenon under a totalitarian regime.
Political Humor’s Role In Democratic Societies And Persuasion Contexts
Scholar s have long observed that the pairing of political humor and democratic governments is both logical and functional. In societies where citizens have a say in choosing their leaders and shaping the direction of legislation, political humor provides a cathartic form of criticism aimed at those in positions of authority. The fact that the right to free speech explicitly protects political humor suggests that democratic founders recognize these Freudian roots of humor as a safe form of authority-challenging expression.
Political humorists—and satirists in particular, from Aristophanes to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart—all capitalize on the privileged role that humor plays as a form of communication. The political humorist knows that criticisms of institutions, leaders, and policies will be less offensive if delivered through humor rather than serious discourse. The most contemporary scholarly examinations of political humor in political science, cognitive psychology, and communication have sought to understand how and why political humor seems to suspend the audience’s resistance in this way. It seems that humor’s ability to suspend the audience’s resistance results from the mode in which the listener processes humor. While the audience actively processes the political humor in the hopes of understanding and appreciating the joke, that same audience generally does not process with the goal of judging the humor’s merit, truth value, or fairness. This discounting cue that is activated in the brain when encountering political humor signifies that it is inappropriate and unnecessary to critique the message in a serious way, because after all, it’s “just a joke.”
Obviously, an audience’s willingness to activate a discounting cue in the face of political humor is not guaranteed; political humor can certainly offend. In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten sparked fury among Muslims around the globe because of its publication of political cartoons that depicted various exaggerated versions of the prophet Muhammad. Muslims objected both to the depictions of the prophet Muhammad, which are prohibited by Islam, as well as to the nature of the portrayals.
If an audience does agree to “play along” in keeping with the humorous mode, then ideas that otherwise might be dismissed out-of-hand are given attention, laughed at, and maybe even contemplated in other contexts. Indeed, research in the mid-2000s suggests that political jokes can bring issues and ideas to the top of audiences’ minds, influence audiences’ perceptions of political figures and institutions, and foster attention to political news and other traditional political information.
- Baumgartner, Jody, and Jonathan S. Morris. “The Daily Show Effect: Candidate Evaluations, Efficacy, and American Youth.” American Politics Research, 34 (2006): 341–367.
- Caufield, Rachel Paine. “The Influence of “Infoenterpropagainment”: Exploring the Power of Political Satire as a Distinct Form of Political Humor,” In Laughing Matters: Humor and American Politics in the Media Age, edited by Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris, 3–20. New York: Routledge, 2008.
- Coupe,W. A. “Cartoons of the Third Reich,” History Today, 48 (1998): 26–33.
- Feldman, Lauren, and Dannagal Goldthwaite Young. “Late-Night Comedy as a Gateway to Traditional News: An Analysis of Time Trends in News Attention among Late-Night Comedy Viewers during the 2004
- Presidential Primaries.” Political Communication 25 (2008): 401–422. Griffin, Dustin. Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. Leton: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
- Hess, Stephen, and Milton Kaplan. The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons. New York: MacMillan, 1968.
- Nabi, Robin L., Emily Moyer-Guse, and Sahara Byrne. “All Joking Aside: A Serious Investigation into the Persuasive Effect of Funny Social Issue Messages.” Communication Monographs 74 (2007): 29–54.
- Paletz, David L. “Political Humor and Authority: From Support to Subversion.” International Political Science Review 11 (1990): 483–493.
- Schutz, Charles E. Political Humor: From Aristophanes to Sam Ervin. Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1976.
- Test, George A. Satire: Spirit and Art. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1991.
- Young, Dannagal Goldthwaite. “Late-Night Comedy in Election 2000: Its Influence on Candidate Trait Ratings and the Moderating Effects of Political Knowledge and Partisanship.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 48 (2004): 1–22.
- “Late-Night Comedy and the Salience of the Candidates’ Caricatured Traits in the 2000 Election. Mass Communication and Society 9 (2006): 339–366.
- “The Privileged Role of the Late-Night Joke: Exploring Humor’s Role in Disrupting Argument Scrutiny.” Media Psychology 11 (2008): 119–142.
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