Is There a Liberal Bias to Political Comedy?

There is a liberal bias in America’s political comedy scene, says Alison Dagnes. What gives?

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What data did you collect and mine through to determine if there really is a liberal bias in political humor?

I interviewed Jimmy Tingle, a comedian out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it was his idea to look at the guest lists of late night shows to gauge whether or not there was some sort of bias afoot. I took one year, and I looked at the guest lists of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! on NPR.

Overwhelmingly, the people who these bookers want on the shows are celebrities—singers, sports figures and entertainers. The bigger the celebrity, the better. When I looked at the actual political figures, there were more Democratic guests, but it wasn’t by a huge number.

Who do late night hosts target in their jokes? Conservatives or liberals?

The president is going to be the number one target, because he is the person that everybody knows. What comes next are people who are in the news for something that everybody can understand. For example, if a politician is caught in a sex scandal, you can make a very easy joke about that. But the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found [in 2010] that there was a split. There were several shows that did lean left with their joke targets a little bit more and then certain shows that did lean right.

What are conservatives to do, with a liberal bias in comedy?

I think conservatives don’t have to worry too terribly much. There really is no barrier to having more conservative political satire out there. While I do understand conservatives’ frustration that the Hollywood establishment is, in their view, perhaps blocking their success, there is nothing that stops you from doing it virally. So, there is one option for conservatives, to get their stuff up on YouTube and get a following.

Also, liberal satirists are not just poking at the conservatives. If you look at the way a lot of these liberal satirists have really just ripped Obama apart, they are not pulling the punches on the left even though they are [positioned] on the left. 

In the book, you trace American satire back to the Revolutionary period.

What I loved in taking the big macro view of American political satire, going back before the founding, was how political humor really mirrored the larger political climate of the time. There were points in American history when satire was rich. The Revolutionary War was actually one of them. There was obviously a lot of consternation, but folks like Benjamin Franklin were really able to use wit as a weapon in their writings. You get to the Jacksonian era, which really was a very flat time for political humor, because the context was not amenable for it. You fast-forward to the Progressive Era, where there was this anti-establishment feeling out there, and so, accordingly, this is when political cartoons really rose as a major form of criticism. Obviously, World Wars I and II were terribly frightening times and not ones that were rich in humor, but after World War II when people were starting to feel good again, political humor began to rise. It really does ebb and flow with the larger political context.


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