"During the presidential campaigns over the past two decades, mainstream late-night comedians like Leno and Letterman have relied largely on the least-common denominator jokes that everyone will get: Gore is boring and robotic. Clinton's a sex maniac. Kerry's a flip-flopper. Bush is just dumb," says Dannagal G. Young, University of Delaware assistant professor of communication.
But in a climate like 2008, when audiences are paying attention more than in the past, Young explains that shows like "The Daily Show," "Colbert Report," and "Saturday Night Live" are serving as a respite for the campaign-weary public.
"This campaign environment is ripe for the work of political satirists: An attentive public, a dramatic campaign full of allegations and negative ads, a real-world backdrop of economic uncertainty? It's comedic gold," she says.
For the past six years, Young has been studying the effects of late-night comedy shows, such as those hosted by Jay Leno, Dave Letterman, and Jon Stewart. Her research documents some interesting – and important – effects of such programs.
"Probably the most important effect I have found over the past few years concerns humor's ability to issue harsh critiques of candidates or policies without the same kind of audience backlash that would accompany a serious critique," Young says. "When Jon Stewart or Jay Leno mock someone who you support, you are less likely to dismiss it out of hand than if that critique came from a journalist."
So who are these late-night comedy viewers? Are viewers of "The Daily Show," as argued by Bill O'Reilley back in 2004 just a bunch of "stoned slackers?"
"When O'Reilly made that statement I had just finished a study (with co-author Russ Tisinger of Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism) showing that viewers of late-night comedy – especially of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" – were politically savvy. "Daily Show" viewers know more about politics, participate more in politics, and tune into news and public affairs more than the average American."
Additional work by Young has found that late-night comedy jokes make the audience think about candidates in terms of their one-dimensional caricatures. "This means that if you watch late-night jokes about how old John McCain's is, when you think McCain, your brain will quickly think 'old.'" Late-night jokes aren't convincing the audience he is old, but rather bringing that factor to the top of people's minds in association with McCain, a concept that psychologists refer to as "priming."
The one campaign event Young is asked most about this election season? "Tina Fey's Palin impersonation."
"In terms of cognitive psychology, Tina Fey's impersonations of Palin were important because the public hadn't yet developed a detailed impression of who Governor Palin was." When individuals are familiar with the biography and policies of a candidate, an impersonation simply highlights well-known flaws in an exaggerated way. "But because Palin was widely unknown," Young argues, "Fey seemed to co-opt the Governor's identity altogether, reconstructing her as a down-home, cute, but ignorant small-town mayor, not quite ready for prime time."
Therefore, Palin's appearance on Saturday Night Live? "Not just a good idea for the campaign, a necessary one," says Young. "Seeing the real Sarah Palin juxtaposed on one stage with Fey's over-the-top Palin reduced Fey's spot on impersonation to a mere caricature. It was Palin's way of reclaiming her own identity."
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