Speech 33: Political Humor Rhetoric: Contemporary Television

It is tempting to dismiss late night television comedy as inconsequential. And yet, empirical research reveals that political humor affects knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. In this class, we will survey extant research findings to evaluate late night political humor's content and effects, using social scientific and rhetorical theories to better understand how, and in what ways, late night television political comedy matters. Speaking and writing projects will be used to achieve course objectives.

Course Details

No prerequisites. Limited enrollment.

Instructor: Compton

Distributive: SOC.

Not offered in the period from 21X through 23S.

View the ORC description.

Course Summary

A couple of decades ago, we had little empirical support for effects of political humor. But now—and particularly, in the past five years—scholars have conducted many investigations of late night political humor content and effects, with results that, more often than not, challenge our conventional wisdom and expectations about politics, humor, and entertainment.

Some findings are inconsistent. Political humor helps candidates; political humor hurts candidates. Political humor increases cynicism toward politics; political humor decreases cynicism toward politics. But even among the inconsistencies, one consistent theme resonates: It is a mistake to dismiss late night political humor as "just comedy." Late night political humor is doing something to viewers, and the nature of this something warrants closer scrutiny. Studying political humor leads to a better understanding of political rhetoric, satire, information processing, civic engagement, persuasion, and attitude formation and change.

This course begins with the assumption that late night television comedy matters and turns, immediately, to evidence for this conclusion. We begin with narrative reviews of empirical late night political humor scholarship (Compton, 2008, 2011) before exploring specific effects, including impacts of late night television political humor on candidate image, attitudes toward politics, and participation in politics. Along the way, we turn to social scientific and rhetorical theory to help us make sense of the effects, including classic models of information processing (e.g., Elaboration Likelihood Model) and persuasion theory (e.g., inoculation theory). We also consider rhetorical theories, including work with Burkean constructs of the comic frame and more contemporary theorizing about image (e.g., Benoit's image repair typology).

Although the focus of this course is on effects of political humor, using evidence from empirical investigations, we will also explore the content of late night political humor. Students will complete a term project analyzing a specific political artifact through the lens of theory, using writing and speaking to meet project and course objectives. Smaller writing and speaking assignments during the course will allow us to discover and share our thinking throughout the term.

We will also expand our scope beyond late night political humor, considering how our discoveries of this unique artifact can inform our own rhetorical choices and analyses. For example, we will compare late night political humor with other venues of political humor, including public address and word-of-mouth jokes.

As the title of a collection of political humor essays puts it: Laughing matters. We will discover together, through careful reading and interpretation of scholarship, how and why laughing matters, and what these findings mean for politics, civic engagement, and our own rhetorical choices.

Course Goals

The overriding goal of the course is for you to develop a more nuanced understanding of political rhetoric by exploring contemporary late night television political humor. We'll use writing and speaking to make these discoveries, so along the way, we'll refine our communication approaches, too.

To achieve this goal, we will aim for the following primary learning objectives:

  • to better understand the content of late night television political humor; and
  • to write and speak about political rhetoric with an informed understanding.

To meet these primary objectives, I will help you to:

  • Analyze arguments for and against the academic study of political humor in general and late night television comedy in particular;
  • Survey and assess extant late night television comedy scholarship;
  • Compare contemporary late night television comedy with other forms of political humor/satire;
  • Discover dimensions of attitude formation and change through the study of priming, attitude accessibility, and information processing models;
  • Analyze political humor rhetoric with rhetorical models;
  • Apply ancient canons of rhetoric to contemporary forms of political rhetoric;
  • Explicate discrete effects of late night political humor, including candidate evaluations, cynicism, and civic engagement;
  • In collaboration with classmates, develop a typology of late night political jokes;
  • Use theory (e.g., ELM) to reconcile conflicting findings about late night comedy and potential learning effects;
  • Discover and overcome challenges of inherent subjectivity in interpreting and conducting humor studies;
  • Weigh the relative merits of political humor (and television humor in particular) on civic engagement and political deliberation;
  • Evaluate strengths and weaknesses of rhetorical and quantitative analyses of political humor;
  • Transfer findings about the content and effects of late night comedy to other forums of political humor;
  • Develop a more nuanced understanding of political image through the lens of late night comedy scholarship; and
  • Write and speak about humor with approaches consistent with academic studies of humor (e.g., communication, political science)