Thursday, July 12, 2012

The value of studying and teaching about political comedy

Last week, I spoke with Washington Post journalist Paul Farhi about my research on the effects of political comedy programs and the freshman seminar on popular culture and politics that I'll be teaching at Towson University this fall.

Farhi's article published in The Washington Post and reprinted on the web sites of a variety of regional papers (Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Chicago Tribune, New Orleans Times Picayune to name just a few) quickly attracted attention. John Hudson offered his take on studying Colbert at the college and university level for The Atlantic Wire and Sophia McClennen offered a rebuttal over at the Huffington Post with student Remy M. Maisel. I too agree that John Hudson could use some help picking the right statistics to compare. He's welcome to enroll in my MCOM490 class: Mass Communication Research where we devote a few weeks to statistical principles. I'd also be happy to have Hudson visit my upcoming seminar.

The full title of the class is "Popular Culture and Politics: Comedy, Entertainment, Celebrity, and Democracy," and we'll be talking about a lot more than Stephen Colbert. The course is a new TU Seminar for freshmen -- a writing intensive course that examines how a whole range of cultural phenomena -- political comedy, celebrity politics, entertainment television, popular music, and satirical print media -- influence our political life and civic culture. We'll evaluate programs like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, cartoons like South Park and The Simpsons, publications like The Onion, and study the impact of celebrity candidates, issue advocates, and the power of celebrity endorsements. Dinner with George Clooney and Obama anyone?

We'll consider issues of gender and whether female politicians have as easy a time being funny as their male counterparts and we'll also talk about what happens when politicians turn the table and act as comics. Sure, we'll consider a lot of contemporary examples from the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, but we'll also take a historical look back at comedy, celebrity politics, and political entertainment. Nixon's 1968 appearance on Laugh In anyone? Remember Hanoi Jane?

It is true that I'll be teaching a class that complements part of my current research agenda. As academics, we're encouraged to bring our research into the classroom. It's no secret that my dissertation broadened the scope of political entertainment research by linking political comedy with celebrity politics. It should be no surprise that I've published a variety of peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject area, offered media commentary, and even blogged about my favorite portions of the program. I'm proud to note that I'm one of many scholars currently taking interest in political comedy. It's been an honor to work with both tenured and pre-tenure scholars in the field and I'm happy to call so many others respected and treasured mentors and colleagues. 

Why do so many of us study shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report? As I told Paul Farhi, even academics like to laugh and that's certainly true. I enjoy watching and discussing the show with my friends and family for sure, but I also recognize the cultural importance of the programs, their growing audience, and the increasing view that folks like Jon Stewart provide trustworthy news content.

Here are a few key statistics that help prove my point:

In a March 2011 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press, 8% of Americans indicated that they regularly watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 19% watch the program sometimes. In June 2010, 7% of Americans said they watched regularly while 20% said they sometimes watch TDS.

In the same 2010 Pew study, 6% reported regularly watching The Colbert Report, while 18% said they sometimes watch the program. This is up from 5% viewing regularly and 14% viewing sometimes in 2008.

This past winter (January 2012), 9% of those surveyed said they regularly learn about the 2012 presidential candidates or campaigns from late night comedy shows, such as Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show. A full 20% said they sometimes learn about the 2012 election from these comedy programs.

Importantly, the 2010 Pew Biennial Media Consumption Survey found that 80% of regular Colbert Report viewers are between the ages of 18-49 compared to 20% who are 50 and older; 74% of regular viewers of The Daily Show are between 18-49 compared to 26% who are 50 and older. And according to the Pew Biennial News Consumption Survey from 2008, "fully 43% of Colbert's regular views are younger than 30, as are 42% of Stewart's regular viewers. That is roughly double the proportion of people younger than 30 in the general public.”

So is there value in teaching and researching the impact of political comedy and political entertainment? Seems to me that the answer is pretty clear.

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