Political Comedy

Since the earliest political cartoons, comedy has been an important medium to express political views. With the wide variety of media available to the public today, comedy continues to have an increased influence on the political field and has made tough issues more accessible to the public than ever. Each night, viewers can flip across a variety of TV channels and learn more about current issues — placing much of public opinion in the hands of anchors like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah, and the cast of SNL. How does comedy in the media today influence politics, and how will comedy affect voter opinions in the future?

Politicians on Comedy Shows

Sitting down on a weekend night, kicking your feet back, and watching Jimmy Fallon crack a few jokes could be more than just a way to relax. After all, a lot of his jokes seem to encompass some sort of political theme, which definitely has some sort of influence on politics, or at least on the way people view politics. Comedy shows such as “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) and “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” approach political topics in a nonchalant and light-hearted manner, and lend politicians a celebrity-like aspect making them, and the topics they discuss more accessible.

In November 2015, Donald Trump hosted SNL, giving the late-night comedy show the biggest overnight rating it has had in three years. Having Trump host was fairly controversial because SNL tends to be a more liberal voice, but the show was nevertheless beyond successful. What was most captivating was Trump’s wide range of performances that night. On top of some questionable propaganda-like sketches, Trump also seemed to be okay with poking fun at himself, and some skits were filled with completely random and nonpolitical comedy which included a parody of Drake’s music video “Hotline Bling.”

This isn’t the first time SNL has invited politicians onto the show in order to make fun of them or just to mess around either. In the same season, SNL also produced a skit in which Hillary Clinton played the role of a bartender while having a conversation with “herself,” as portrayed by Kate McKinnon, an SNL cast member. The skit pokes fun at and exaggerates some of the political candidate’s mannerisms, but Clinton seems to go along with it and laugh just as hard as the audience.

So why would political candidates appear on a comedy show to make fun of themselves alongside cast members? The answer is that it makes them more likeable, and it makes them more relatable to the general public. When Clinton turned around and revealed herself for the first time in the sketch, the audience cheered for her just like they would for Justin Timberlake or any other celebrity host. Comedy shows allow politicians to act outside the role people would normally expect them to be in, making them seem more real and more personable, almost like celebrities. It lets the audience see them as something more than just a face or a political idea.

“The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and the “Weekend Update” segment of SNL do something similar, only this time, the shows question issues and debates instead of poking fun at the candidates.

These shows are usually regarded as liberal in their views, but on any given program, they make just as many jokes about Democrats as they do about Republicans. The jokes seem evenly spread for the most part, which suggests that they could be doing more than just reaching for a laugh. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like snarky remarks about certain political candidates and their policies could have a productive influence, but the fact that comedy shows bring them up in the first place is enough to have an influence on politics, or more specifically how the public sees it.

Additionally, popular shows such as “The Tonight Show” have a huge number of viewers and a wide range of audiences, all of whom are being exposed to political issues in a lighthearted ― albeit sometimes a little rude ― tone. The effect is that viewers are used to hearing about political topics in a multitude of settings, whether it is in the serious form of hard news or the lighthearted tone of comedy TV shows.

Late-night comedy TV shows are doing more than just poking fun at political candidates. They give candidates a new face, one that is more believable and more human than what we are used to seeing. At the same time, they bring our attention to important political topics in a non-stressful and humorous environment.

Net Impact

In the days of Johnny Carson, widely considered the first big late-night comedy host, late-night shows were comfort food, an hour of lighthearted fun and relaxation with America’s favorite funnyman before it was time to turn in. As with any successful product, Carson was followed by a host of competitors, with David Letterman and Arsenio cultivating shows to rival his authority. The very nature of these shows — most of which occupied the 11:30 or 12:00 time slots — placed them in very direct competition, with each host fighting for the attention of an audience that was limited to watching their shows live. And just when it seemed like late-night shows were beginning to perfect the formula, to become established enough and refined enough to comfortably occupy their various niches, a new development arrived to stir the pot: the internet.

The most dominant forces in this new sphere have been Jimmy Kimmel, host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and Jimmy Fallon, host of “The Tonight Show.” Kimmel and Fallon have been subtly changing the format of their shows to adapt to a format — and consumption habits — that call for short, easily packaged, meme-able segments. Their popularity has been largely assisted by their subject matter; their most popular videos tend to be the least substantial. (Kimmel’s most-viewed video on YouTube is titled “Jimmy Surprises Bieber Fan,” while Fallon’s is “Lip Sync Battle with Emma Stone.”) But a new cohort of late-night hosts is emerging into the social media game, and they are charting a path towards a social media culture in which short-form videos are a space for serious ideas.

Today, the arguments of comedians like Trevor Noah, John Oliver and Samantha Bee can extend across the social media-osphere as short, packaged ideas — and they are evolving their monologues to ease this experience. Nowadays, a host must design his/her monologues with four-minute start and end-points in mind if they want their video to go viral the next day. In an interview with “The New Republic,” television historian Robert Thompson noted, “You can almost pick the edit points [for these videos.] You can almost say, ‘ok, starting here, this is where the viral video will be tomorrow.’”

In spite of — or, more likely, because of — this effect, new shows have been experimenting with formats that appear to go against this trend. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” which premiered in 2014, has been premiering 20-minute videos every Sunday and uploading them to YouTube in a promising effort to compete with Fallon and Kimmel. Thus far, Oliver has seen the most success; his top videos attain nearly half the viewership of those two and far outpaces his more politically-oriented rivals. How?

When Oliver premiered an episode focused entirely on the failings of Donald Trump, news headlines were flooded with one line: John Oliver “slams” Donald “Drumpf.” At the conclusion of Oliver’s show, he notes that the Trump name, widely considered to connote wealth and success, is something of a sham; in reality, one of Trump’s ancestors changed the name from “Drumpf.” And even though Oliver spent the majority of the episode discussing Donald Trump’s inconsistencies and questionable success, he understood that creating a meme as powerful as “Drumpf” — and supporting it with a hat that reads “Make Donald Drumpf Again” and a web extension that converts “Trump” to “Drumpf” — could generate the sort of headlines that convince viewers to sit themselves down, spend their time on a 20-minute video, and, without even realizing it, educate themselves on why a major political candidate is deeply unqualified for the role.

Millennials have been repeatedly accused of wasting significant amounts of time on unsubstantial Internet content. Even when they think otherwise, it tends to ring true; viewers who watch “The Tonight Show” are unlikely to return to their lives with any greater understanding of current politics. But as the art progresses and comedy hosts invent smarter and subtler ways to educate their audience, it is possible that the exact opposite may happen: that viewers who grab their phones to waste their time may be more informed on a variety of issues than any generation of Americans before them.