Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Developing a Systematic Assessment of Humor in the Context of the 2012 U.S. General Election Debates

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Developing a Systematic Assessment of Humor in the Context of the 2012 U.S. General Election Debates

Article excerpt

The study of political humor is on the rise with the growing attention by scholars to programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report (e.g., Amarasingam, 2011). Yet researchers have moved beyond the study of just these types of programs to look at the differential effects of distinct types of satire (e.g., Holbert, Hmielowski, Jain, Lather, & Morey, 2011), as well as the influence of specific types of humor (e.g., irony, sarcasm, parody) that could be nested within a single satirical presentation (e.g., Becker, 2012; Peifer, 2013; Polk, Young, & Holbert, 2009). To date, the focus of these efforts has centered on the potential to generate persuasive effects and the role of understanding (i.e., political knowledge) in relation to the consumption of political humor (Holbert, 2013). The dual focus on persuasion and understanding match well with the intended effects of political debates-debates have long been defined as persuasive acts and normatively positive for democracy given their ability to educate voters on the stances of various candidates on the major issues of the day (e.g., Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003). There are several natural linkages between the study of political humor and political debates, and this essay will utilize the 2012 U.S. general election debates to explore what a systematic assessment of this area would entail.

More specifically, this study seeks to bring organizational power to this line of research by presenting a 3 (debate phase) x 6 (debate participant) typology (see Figure 1). The three debate phases are as follows: predebate, debate, and postdebate. The six participants include candidates, moderator, live audience, media audience, pundits, and humorists/satirists. There is extant work on political humor and debates (e.g., Crawford, 1999; Levasseur & Dean, 1983; Rhea, 2012; Stewart, 2012) that has proven insightful and represents advancements for the field, but all of this work can be placed in just 1 of the 18 quadrants detailed in our typology (i.e., the study of political candidates' use of humor at the debate phase). There is a need to expand the study of political humor and debates to include both additional phases (i.e., predebate and postdebate) and a multitude of additional participants if scholars are going to better understand the content and effects of this type of discourse in some of the most significant political events of any campaign season. Fortunately, existing work on the study of political humor can aid those who wish to study humor and debates, as will be detailed in this essay. Before discussing each aspect of this article's typology, it is worth noting that we principally focus on general election debate humor, as opposed to primary debate humor (e.g., Stewart, 2012). Given that general election presidential debates can function differently than primary debates (e.g., Benoit, McKinney, & Stephenson, 2002) it is important to draw a distinction between the patterns of humor within different types of debates. Although this essay does not center on primary debates, we do expect this typology to nonetheless bear strong relevance to primary debate humor.

PREDEBATE PHASE

Candidates

Presidential hopefuls spend considerable time preparing for presidential debates-poring over briefings; memorizing facts, figures, and anecdotes; and trying to anticipate what questions will be posed. Preparations can also include planning debate punch lines and shaping the public's expectations for the debate. In the days leading up to the first 2012 presidential debate in Denver, Colorado, The New York Times reported that "Mr. Romney's team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August" (Baker & Parker, 2012, para. 5). Notably, the Romney campaign's admission of practicing zingers became a popular topic of discussion in the media's predebate analysis and was even noted by Barack Obama on the campaign trail. …

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