Comedy is an integral part of the political process and has been for some time. Research shows it can have an impact on public perception of issues and candidates. Just think of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on NBC's “Saturday Night Live.” Her performance helped define the GOP's vice presidential nominee during the 2008 cycle.
Now, there are even examples of a blurred line between comedy and politics. Stephen Colbert attempted to get on the ballot in South Carolina and formed his own Super PAC this year. Long before him, comedian Pat Paulsen was on the 1968 presidential ballot in New Hampshire running on the slogan, “I’ve upped my standards. Now up yours.”
While comedy’s impact on politics is not a new phenomenon, today’s satire has come a long way from the days of Chevy Chase poking fun at Gerald Ford by falling off a ladder. Today’s satire is sharper, tougher and is distributed to more people, faster. As a result, it can inflict more damage on a candidate than ever before.
Could SNL’s parody of Romney and his family influence the 2012 presidential election? All political comedy has the potential to influence elections and, if not alter, at least reinforce established impressions.
Comedy resonates. Just like caricature, political comedy does not necessarily have to be true, per se. It only has to resonate with something that feels true. A caricature takes the most prominent aspect of a person’s physical features and exaggerates it. Comedians do the same thing when impersonating a politician. They take the most prominent aspect of the politician’s personality and exaggerate it, focusing the viewer’s attention on that quirk.
In the 80s, the late Phil Hartman played Reagan as an amiable dunce who, once he was behind closed doors, turned into a raving madman, yelling and ordering his staff around. Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush was a goofy grandfather. Darrell Hammond described finding Bill Clinton’s character as simply biting his bottom lip and holding out his thumb.
These impersonations echo into the staff meetings of the campaigns. in 2000, for instance, then-Vice President Al Gore’s staff made him watch SNL’s impersonation of his eye rolling debate performance to show him how the comedy show was impacting public perception. All of these portrayals were exaggerated caricatures, but they also resonated with something true about their subjects. More recently, a great example is SNL’s “Obama cool” video.
Comedy Informs. Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Colbert have become the chief source of news for millions of young Americans. The best example in the current campaign was when Colbert and Stewart teamed up to skewer Super PACs.
While satirizing the absurdity of the process Stewart and Colbert also managed to teach their viewers something about these new entities. It’s no wonder multiple polls have found Stewart to be one of the most trusted newsmen in America -- even though he's a comedian, not a journalist.
Comedy has pass along value. Comedy today is not relegated to late-night TV. In other words, viewers don’t have to stay up in order to catch the jokes. They only have to click on the links sent to their inbox by friends and family. On top of that ease of distribution, digital media allows for new and creative production techniques.
A great example of this is Bad Lip Reading. The video series may not change anyone’s perceptions of any candidate (at least I hope it won’t). Still, it resonates. Joe Biden is doddering. Ron Paul is goofy. Michele Bachmann is crazy. Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
It’s tough to say whether any one impersonation tilts the electoral process. No single joke can alter public perceptions. But when comedy becomes part of the larger political environment it can compound what the public already believes about a certain candidate or issue.
Robert Spicer is a doctoral candidate in media studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. He is also an assistant professor of communication at DeSales University in Allentown, PA.