Tuesday’s election returns are already fodder for late-night comedy laugh lines, with everyone from Jimmy Kimmel to Stephen Colbert sending up the winners and tweaking the losers (“Republicans won in a mudslide,” quipped Jay Leno).
But in the run-up to the election, comedy itself was no laughing matter. More than a few pundits have pointed out that the world of political satire and punchlines has become a contact player on the field of electoral politics. This is particularly potent with the under-30 crowd which, more than any other demographic, turns to jokesters for news and political information. (One placard at the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally read, “My comedy channel: Fox. My news channel: Comedy Central.”) It was, after all, only last year, that "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart was dubbed the most trusted man in America in an online poll.
So, the question arises – what kind of impact did the funny folk have on this election cycle – one in which the numbers of young people voting dropped from 22 million in 2008 to 9 million? The institutions that this generation relies on for information have shifted significantly says Peter Levine, director of Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, who tracks these numbers. Since comedy is a tool for amplifying the weaknesses or strengths of a political candidate, “it is having an impact,” he says.
Look no further than the senatorial campaign of Delaware hopeful Christine O’Donnell to see comedy's reach, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Her own colorful history of flirtations with witchcraft gave her opponents plenty of material for their ads. But, he says, the comedians took it from there, with skits on "Saturday Night Live" and clips on everything from "Real Time with Bill Maher" to "The Daily Show." “People running for positions of power sign up for this kind of treatment,” he says. “Comedy carries along the hypocrisies, inconsistencies, blunders, and assumed deficiencies.”
In Ms. O'Donnell’s case, Thompson says, the satiric troops took it to a point “where a thinking person could not rationalize voting for someone so ridiculed.”
Sharp satire can induce cynicism, which helped to suppress the youth vote this time around, says Atlanta-based Republican strategist David Johnson. The power to inflict political damage cuts across party lines, he adds, pointing to President Obama’s appearance on "The Daily Show" just a week before the election, not to mention a spate of other pop culture appearances such as on Ryan Seacrest’s morning radio show. “The President just lost respect,” he says, adding that on the comedy show, “he was so somber and unresponsive to being funny that it just reinforced all the criticisms the Republicans had been heaping on him." He seemed out of touch and elitist, “not even able to make a joke on a comedy show.”
Even when there is no direct message, comedy has the power to do what political ads can’t do, which is cause people to think beyond the storyline, says Austin-based political consultant Matt Glazer. “If you don’t understand a joke on one of these shows, it will force you to think about the larger political context of the punch line,” he says. “So it can be an incredibly powerful tool for getting people to think about things that might not ordinarily engage with political issues or candidates.”
The sharing that today’s social media enables only amplifies the impact of satiric takes on public figures, writes Sean Theriault, of the department of government at the University of Texas at Austin. Pointing in particular to the O'Donnell campaign, he says “there's no doubt that the satire, the medium of Comedy Central, and the presence of YouTube helped the left advertise the ridiculousness of those gaffe-prone candidates," he says via email.