One "Nation," under Stephen? the Effects of the Colbert Report on American Youth

By Baumgartner, Jody C.; Morris, Jonathan S. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, December 2008 | Go to article overview

One "Nation," under Stephen? the Effects of the Colbert Report on American Youth


Baumgartner, Jody C., Morris, Jonathan S., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


While humorists have always been quick to turn their ire at the world of politics, the current popularity of political humor in America seems to be unprecedented. Moreover, it seems as if the political comics and satirists of today are (perhaps ironically) being taken more seriously than those of yesteryear. For example Jon Stewart, comedian and host of The Daily Show, has graced the covers of several national publications and was cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential entertainers in the world in 2005 (Govani, 2005). In 2006, humorist Stephen Colbert was the featured speaker at the high-profile White House Correspondents Dinner. Politicians seem to be taking political humorists more seriously as well. In 2004, Senator John Edwards formally announced his candidacy for president of the United States on The Daffy Show (Storm, 2004), and John McCain announced his intention to run in 2008 on The Late Show with David Letterman (Nagourney, 2007).

As political humor becomes more prevalent, researchers have started to investigate how it may influence various aspects of the political process in America. While individual research efforts have produced varying results, there seems to be a consensus that political humor does have an effect on attitudes and opinions. For example, Matthew Baum (2005) found that presidential candidates can increase their likeability by appearing on humor-based talk shows, and other researchers have noted that exposure to the humor of late-night comedy can prime viewers to base their candidate evaluations on specific character traits (Brewer & Cao, 2006; Moy, Xenos, & Hess, 2006; Young 2004b, 2006). There is also some evidence that suggests exposure to political humor can prime negative evaluations of presidential candidates and other political institutions (Baumgartner, 2007; Baumgartner & Morris, 2006; Morris & Baumgartner, 2008).

One of the more influential sources of political comedy in the last decade has been Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Started in 1996, The Daily Show was hosted until 1999 by Craig Kilborn, when he was replaced by comedian/actor Jon Stewart. At this point the program was renamed The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (hereafter TDS), and ratings consistently rose thereafter. By 2006, almost 1 in 5 (19%) of Americans reported watching TDS at least sometimes, a noticeable increase from just 11% in 2002 (Pew Research Center, 2006). The popularity of TDS in recent years has allowed some of Stewart's supporting ensemble, satirically referred to as "correspondents," to pursue successful entertainment endeavors outside of the show. One of these is former TDS contributor Stephen Colbert, now host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central (hereafter TCR). TCR is a spin-off of TDS that parodies conservative-hosted political talk shows. Colbert acts as host and focuses primarily on political issues and events. Unlike Stewart, who plays the role of a common-sense observer who humorously points out the absurd in politics, Colbert parodies the new breed of self-indulgent, conservative news personalities. The program and his persona are modeled after Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and its host Bill O'Reilly, whom Colbert affectionately refers to as "Papa Bear."

A central part of Colbert's character, and thus the show's comedic appeal, is his explicit rejection of the need for facts in engaging in political debate and assessing political arguments. This approach parodies the hyper-partisan tone of many political talk programs. Consider, for example, how Colbert began his inaugural broadcast of TCR, introducing the segment of the program titled, "The Word" (Karlin, 2005), a parody of O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo":

   I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to
   tonight's word: "truthiness." Now I'm sure some of the "word
   police," the "wordinistas" over at Webster's are gonna say, "hey,
   that's not a word. … 

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