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Politics is no joke: how satire influences our political reality

By Amber Scott, For The Miami Student

In 2004, Jon Stewart was a guest on the now-canceled CNN show "Crossfire," a debate-style program that discussed recent events in politics. While the hosts brought Stewart on the show to promote his new book and "be funny," Stewart instead accused the hosts of "partisan hackery" and "hurting America."

"If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you're more than welcome to," said Stewart. "The news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity …You're on CNN! The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls."

When one host quipped that Stewart didn't ask "real question[s]," Stewart's reply contained a sentiment that he has reiterated time and time again.

"I don't think I have to," said Stewart. "You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably."

This back and forth raises an important question. Doesn't Stewart have the same responsibility? Why is it that political news shows, like "Crossfire," have a responsibility to the public discourse and political satires, like "The Daily Show," don't?

People who watch political satires are more informed than those who don't; they are also overwhelmingly more cynical. Although there has been little research done on how political satires affect political engagement, what we know so far is that laughing at politics eases anxieties and makes viewers less likely to take action. This is especially problematic because young people watch these shows.

In their 2014 book "Politics is a Joke!," Robert Lichter, Jody Baumgarter and Jonathan Morris begin their discussion of political satire by referencing Stewart's deflection of responsibility.

"Most contemporary political humorists publicly claim that their humor has no importance beyond its comedic value," they write. "Stewart, for example, regularly downplays his iconoclastic status by reminding viewers and journalists that he is 'just a comedian.'"

For someone who is "just a comedian," Stewart and political satirists like him have long been seen as vehicles of political change.

Stephen Colbert testified in 2010 before a House subcommittee on the topic of migrant workers, and Stewart later used his show to lobby for legislation that would have supplied billions of dollars of aid to areas hit by Hurricane Sandy.

When you're named the fourth most trusted journalist in America behind Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Anderson Cooper, how can you call yourself "just a comedian?"

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, one-third of the public learned about the campaign or candidates in the last presidential campaign from late night comedy shows.

Pew also found young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are the largest viewers of these shows.

In the 2008 presidential primaries, 46 percent of this demographic learned something about the candidates or the campaign from comedy programs, compared to 20 percent of those over 40.

According to Stewart, his goal when he became the host of "The Daily Show" was to mobilize the youth vote.

Christopher Kelley, professor of political science at Miami, says cable channels like Comedy Central saw a potential market in young people. The creation of late night comedy show, he says, has resulted in the uptick of young people showing up to the polls.

The draw of political satires isn't the politics - it's the comedic presentation. According to Kelley, if these shows made politics their focus and presentation secondary, they wouldn't be successful.

"Laughter is a way to engage anyone," says Kelley. "Anyone that can figure out how to make someone laugh knows how to reach them in a way that you can't do with any other style."

In the words of Morris, political comedians serve the modern-day function of the court jester. Pointing out flaws in politicians and our political system and making fun of those flaws leads to a more informed citizen.

While watching political comedy has the potential to spark an interest in politics for uniformed viewers, researchers like Morris and Baumgartner don't believe this is usually the case.

"Viewership does not cause engagement, engagement causes viewership," says Baumgartner.

Alyssa Knight, president of Miami University's club College Democrats, agrees that political comedy isn't the most effective way to get people involved in politics who are currently disinterested.

"They may get a laugh out of it, but they also don't know the reality of whatever is being made into satire so they probably won't connect with the material well," says Knight.

Jokes become caricatures, repetition causes momentum, and a politician is reduced to a simplistic adjective - such as fat Chris Christie, stupid George W. Bush or womanizer Bill Clinton.

Sarah Palin has also been a popular target of late night jokes. Leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Jay Leno said, "Tomorrow night, Sarah Palin will be on 'Saturday Night Live.' When they told her, she said, 'What night is that on?'"

While these jokes influence the opinions of all viewers, they are especially influential for uneducated viewers.

"What if somebody just stumbled across political humor, and they don't really follow the news, but then they see all these jokes about what a mess politics is," says Morris. "They might just decide, 'I'm not interested in that. Why would I vote? It's clear it doesn't matter.'"

If people who watch political satires are more informed than their counterparts, as well as more cynical, what is the result? It's clear nearly everyone exposed to late night comedy shows walks away with distrust for politicians and our political system, but are they also left with a desire to do anything to change it?

The research so far is saying no.

While the flaws of our political system pose serious issues that need to be resolved, there is something extremely satisfying about laughing at politics, perhaps because our government can be so ridiculous that it's hard to believe our political reality.

We trust political satirists as sources because they show us the "absurdities" of our system - and "how absurd we have become for accepting them."

We get increasingly fed up with our political system because we see petty partisan bashing everywhere we turn. Yet bashing other people make jokes about people because the jokes are funny, but also because it takes people down a notch, especially those we see as higher than ourselves.

Late night television shows are the political equivalent of US Magazine's notorious segment "Stars - They're Just Like Us!" A group of people and the system they govern may at first seem elusive and complex, but after watching political satire, it suddenly appears relatable.

When we see Speaker Boehner playing with a wind-up monkey in his office or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz reading "Green Eggs and Ham" during his filibuster leading up to the government shut down, it's hard to think that these politicians are any different than our zany next-door neighbor. But they are - the next-door neighbor we avoid doesn't pass bills or control the House of Representatives.

While laughing at politics is a great way to see the flaws of our system, there's a point when we need to stop laughing and take these issues seriously.

Yet many people don't want to do that. Despite Stewart's denial that he is not a journalist and is simply here to entertain, he becomes quite journalistic when asked to appear on news programs like "Crossfire," much to the dismay of the actual journalists hosting the show.

When Stewart appeared on "Crossfire," Carlson told Stewart, "You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think."

Stewart replied, "You need to go to one."

"Wait. I thought you were going to be funny," said Carlson. "Come on. Be funny."

"No. No," said Stewart. "I'm not going to be your monkey."