No Laughing Matter

As you listen to journalists discuss the importance of late-night comedy programs, you would almost think Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather were in danger of being replaced by Leno, Letterman and Stewart.

"Scoff if you must, but the musings of Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien may have as much to do with shaping the candidates' public personas as a ton of newspaper stories, magazine features and cable arguments," writes the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. In 2000, Wolf Blitzer argued that there was "no doubt that all this comedy has an impact ... Elections are won and lost on public perceptions in that kind of popular culture." Entertainment Weekly described Jon Stewart as "a real world political agenda-setter" who would "help shape the young-adult ethos in a key election year."

But the people who actually produce the late-night shows aren't buying it. "The idea that somehow kids get their news from late-night television comedy is absurd," Jon Stewart told an audience of student journalists on a trip to the College of William and Mary in late 2002. Leno has argued that his jokes don't influence public opinion, but "reinforce what people already believe." Letterman told Al Gore's class at Columbia that he guessed that "very few votes were cast based on a joke that either [he] or Jay Leno made."

I recently made a trip to New York to interview The Daily Show's executive producer, Ben Karlin, and co-executive producer, Stewart Bailey. I asked Karlin about that old "party line," the one where they claim they can't influence public opinion because viewers need to have certain beliefs and knowledge to get the jokes in the first place.

After some nudging, Karlin conceded that the Daily Show might be a part of the larger information environment. "The whole thing about people getting their news and information from shows like ours is probably a smaller part of a larger trend of the fracturing of information," he explained, "In a small way, yeah, people do pick up a nugget of information -- in the same way that I'll read four or five newspapers a day and have CNN on and I won't necessarily know where I got a certain piece of information from. I understand that we're part of that information flow, but it's really hard to isolate that thing and say, 'OK, well here's the impact of that one thing.'"

Yet, Karlin maintained that shows like his do not influence public opinion. "The ability that we have to actually change people's minds on an issue or challenge conventional wisdom or public perception," he said, "I believe is virtually nonexistent."

So who's right here? Are late-night jokes merely a thermometer of public opinion or are they teaching people about the campaign and influencing public opinion in the process?

Don't You Know Anything?

Young people do report learning campaign information from these shows. The Pew Center for the People and the Press' latest report on the subject indicates that 21 percent of 18-29 year-olds report learning regularly about the campaign from comedy programs like Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show, compared to 6 percent of 30-49 year-olds and only 3 percent of people over 49. Meanwhile, 13 percent of 18-29 year-olds report learning regularly about the campaign from late-night shows like Leno and Letterman, compared to 7 percent of 30-49 year olds and 8 percent of people over 49. Granted, these results tell us only that young people thinkthey're learning something -- whether they really are is another question.

It is plausible that for people who don't know a lot about politics and don't watch the news, these shows could serve as an information surrogate. While monologue jokes do require people to know something, they don't require people to know all that much. Consider, for example, the following joke told by Jay Leno on Apr. 2:


President Bush and Dick Cheney will make a joint appearance before the 9/11 Commission. They will answer questions together. And to make sure President Bush is really speaking for himself, Dick Cheney will drink a glass of water while Bush talks.
If you didn't know that Bush and Cheney were planning to make a joint appearance before the 9/11 Commission, or if you didn't know that there was a 9/11 Commission, you could certainly pick that up from this one joke.

And if you didn't know that Bush is thought of as an intellectual lightweight, you wouldn't know why the joke is supposed to be funny. Humor is the art of implication. In the process of getting a joke, you have to make an inference. When it comes to late-night political jokes, these inferences generally focus on the shortcomings of candidates, and from time to time, the issues.

Every time you make one of these inferences, you're forced to remember -- or figure out -- what these flawed traits or policies are. The result is the psychological effect known as priming, when recently or frequently used pieces of information become more likely to be reused in the near future.

As you listen to Leno's joke, not only might you learn that Bush and Cheney are going to sit before the 9/11 Commission, but you would likely make the inference that Cheney is a ventriloquist and Bush is his puppet -- hence Cheney's drinking water while Bush speaks. Obviously, if you're not familiar with ventriloquism, who knows what kind of inference you'll make. Since jokes are incomplete until the listener fills in the gaps, there is always room for misinterpretation.

Changing Minds

The priming of candidate traits or policies as you solve these riddles has another subtle implication. Maybe these jokes will not persuade you that Bush is a puppet with a low IQ, or that Kerry is an elitist or too wishy-washy, but perhaps these traits will become more prominent in your mind with each joke you hear. Rather than thinking Bush is less intelligent with every "Bush is dumb" joke, maybe you will simply become more likely to think "stupid" when you think "Bush." This is a subtle difference, but an important one.

But will this one ventriloquist joke cause you to believe Bush is Cheney's puppet? If you are a news junkie, a political sophisticate, or a Bush supporter, probably not. You have so much other information about Bush that this one joke (or even a whole lot of them) probably won't carry much weight in the end. But imagine for a moment that you are a young, apolitical person who doesn't know a lot about politics. You won't have that other background information to rely on to judge Bush. To you, this one political message may constitute a healthy portion of your campaign information, and hence might matter more to you than it would to a political junkie.

Research I conducted using survey data from the 2000 election suggests that late-night viewers who don't know much about politics may be most influenced by the programs' content. For instance, people who did not know a lot about politics saw Al Gore as less inspiring over time with increased late-night exposure. Meanwhile, viewers who knew a lot about politics remained fairly constant in their judgments of Gore, regardless of how much Leno and Letterman they watched. So, for uninformed viewers, late-night programs might just help shape impressions of candidates.

Another special audience that may be affected by late-night (though they would be unlikely to admit it) is the news media themselves. Journalists are constantly testifying to the power of late-night. Why? Perhaps because the late-night hosts construct their caricatures of the candidates based on what is in mainstream news content. Leno and Letterman didn't discover on their own that Theresa Heinz is especially wealthy and Jon Stewart didn't just decide that the lack of WMD found in Iraq posed a problem for Bush. These are issues that journalists had already brought to our attention. So when late-night hosts package these caricatures into funny little nuggets, journalists hear their own reporting repackaged as entertainment.

Each time journalists include a Leno or Letterman joke to illustrate popular public opinion of a candidate, they're embracing a reality that they helped construct in the first place. Remember "Al Gore: serial exaggerator" and "George Bush: dummy?" Late-night's constant hammering on these two caricatures helped construct and reinforce journalists' impressions of how the public saw Gore and Bush.

Laughing All the Way to the Ballot Box

So far, 2004 looks like a much better year for the Democrats than 2000. In 2000, Gore was the guy who wanted credit for everything and could put a room to sleep while Bush would be lucky if he could pronounce his own name. The only real issues we saw were Bush's death penalty record and a few jokes about Gore the tree-hugger. 2004 looks quite different. According to the late-night hosts, Bush is still a moron, but we're seeing more jokes about failing Bush policies. The war in Iraq, missing weapons of mass destruction, and an anemic job market are looking to be favorites.

And so far, Kerry's got it easy. His dominant caricatures? Botox, a giant head, and a rich wife. Not really the stuff of biting satire.

If there's one Kerry caricature with teeth, it's Kerry the "Waffler." This is especially problematic for Kerry since it is the core of Bush's message about him. This was how comedy worked to Bush's advantage in 2000: the Gore trait the comedians focused on was precisely the one the Bush camp wanted voters to focus on. In contrast, the Kerry campaign isn't arguing that Bush is dumb, because they know that won't win them any votes.

In what appeared to be an attempt to mock the Bush attack machine's ads against Kerry, The Daily Show aired a faux "Bush/Cheney attack ad" on March 22. The ad, featuring a snow-boarding John Kerry, was accompanied by a voice over "John Kerry: Sometimes he snowboards to the left. Other times, to the right. Don't we deserve a president who picks one side of the mountain and sticks to it?"

On March 31, Karen Hughes, who was appearing as Stewart's guest, complimented him on the Bush/Cheney attack ad. "I have to give you credit. I think you've had the best sound byte of the presidential campaign so far." Jon raised his eyebrows as she continued, "It was that picture of Senator Kerry on that snowboard going first one way, then the other way. For the war and against the war. He voted for the $87 billion before he voted against the $87 billion. You captured it! In comedy, you captured what our campaign has been trying to say."

"Karen? Karen?" Jon interrupted in a low voice, "I've got some bad news, though. We were being ironic."

That's the thing about jokes -- their meaning is determined by the listener. So when it comes to the subtle irony or parody we see on The Daily Show, some people just won't get it. Or worse: they'll think they get it, but they'll get it wrong.

In the end, Jennings, Brokaw and Rather are safe. The late-night hosts have no interest in doing "real" news. Listen to Jon Stewart on any given night and he'll remind you he's a "fake news anchor." The people who work on these shows don't want to be held responsible for informing, persuading or challenging the audience's beliefs. On my way out the door on my visit to The Daily Show, I asked Ben Karlin if he would like to see what I find as I complete my research on the effects of programs like The Daily Show on public opinion. He sort of laughed and gave me a quizzical look.

Karlin explained that he (and presumably the other creatives at the show) would rather go about his business in a sort of bubble. If the late-night writers and hosts don't acknowledge their influence, their role as outsiders looking in stays intact and their craft stays honest. If they do have an influence on their audience -- and thus on the outcome of the election -- they certainly don't want to know about it.

Dannagal Goldthwaite Young is a Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania where she is writing her dissertation on late-night comedy in the 2004 campaign. She is also a performer with the improvisational comedy troupe ComedySportz Philadelphia.

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