The Role of Humor in Political Argument: How "Strategery" and "Lockboxes" Changed a Political Campaign.
by Chris Smith , Ben Voth
Shortly before the 2000 Presidential election, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press reported that 47% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 obtain most of their political information from late-night entertainment outlets (Kloer & Jubera, 2000). Findings like this suggest that the relationship between politics and entertainment has substantially changed. In an effort to reach undecided voters, politicians have shifted substantial effort to a media genre typically reserved for political criticism. Rather than the traditional one-sided relationship of late-night comedians using political officials as a comedic tool, the relationship between comedians and entertainers is increasingly more reciprocal where politics now strategically uses humor for maneuvering as much as humor uses politics for comic antics. Willing or not, late-night television comedians are an important disseminator and arbiter of information for political officials, marking an era where humor could potentially act as a valid form o f political argument.
Since its inception, the United States political arena has served as an important target and scapegoat for comedians, editorialists and naysayers. From Thomas Nasts' political cartoons in Harper's Weekly during the 1880's, to Will Roger's follies in the 1950's, to the Quayle comedy quandary in the early 1990's, and in innumerable other examples, political humor has operated in a self-serving, redeeming manner of social understanding by those outside of the political sphere. Paletz (1990) notes that it is often easier for society to laugh at authoritative power than attempt to analyze or rationalize their decisions. Consequently, political humor has matured in the American culture to the point that its contribution to the democratic process verges on a significance equal to politics itself (Boskin, 1990).
Traditional studies of political argument recognize it as a rigid and structured activity reserved only for solemn, unwavering agendas and excluding of lighthearted and comical issues. In fact, the primary goal of most speeches and symbolic acts by political officials is to sustain legitimacy of their leadership within the political process and to advance specific policy goals and objectives (Clayman, 1992). In this course of action, little room exists for jovial or comical behavior as a form of argument.
Despite this implicit barring of humor in the political process, numerous studies and analysis have recognized the utility and necessity of humor in the political arena (Alisky, 1990; Bostdorff, 1991; Pfau, Cho & Chong, 2001). Moreover, a number of researchers have concluded that humor can serve as a powerful rhetorical tool when employed by political officials (Levasseur, 1996; Meyer, 1990; Speier, 1998). This research poses an important question concerning the rhetorical functions of humor in the political realm. Previous studies have concluded that humor acts as a mechanism for social understanding of the democratic process to the voting public; however, a great deal of ambiguity surrounds its specific political niche. Therefore, the primary purpose of this study is to examine the extent to which humor serves as a legitimate rhetorical instrument in the political arena. The specific focus of this analysis is the 2000 Presidential election and the manner in which humor evolved simultaneously as a means of s ocial confrontation and political strategy. This issue is elucidated by examining the impact of the late-night comedy show, "Saturday Night Live" (SNL) on the Presidential debates. Specifically, this study will compare, contrast, and analyze the first Presidential Debate with "SNL's" skits of the first debate. This instance of humor's influence on a dramatic Presidential election contributes to our larger understanding of humor in politics.
In Attitudes Toward History, literary critic and scholar of rhetoric Kenneth Burke (1959) argues comedy is dialectic and allows a sort of transcendence, enabling people to become "observers of themselves, while acting" (p. 171). The manner in which "SNL's" skits were used as a new paradigm of political information suggests that Burke's "Comic Frame of acceptance" could usefully analyze the situation. Comedy allows society to confront problems not suited to tragic or dramatic resolutions. By using canons of gross exaggeration, or incongruous perspectives, the comic frame allows for a new form of understanding that is otherwise not possible through traditional or tragic modes of criticism.
The comic frame serves as a fitting rhetorical perspective to examine "SNL's" role in the 2000 election because of the extent to which "SNL's" rhetoric served as a mechanism of social confrontation for the public and candidates alike. Action in the comic frame provides a platform ...
Regulating Funny: Humor and the Law
Laura E. Little
How Courts Regulate Humor: A Taxonomy
Humor occurs in most aspects of human life and, accordingly, appears in a wide variety of legal contexts. A look at three diverse legal subjects—contracts, trademark, and employment discrimination—yields a rough taxonomy. As a starting point, the case law divides into two groups: (1) instances when the court’s decision to regulate turns on whether the disputed communication is humorous and (2) those when the court regulates the communication irrespective of whether it is funny.
Take the joke between Chuck and Gladys. In the first category of cases, courts actually engage the question whether Chuck’s communication was indeed a joke. When the answer is “yes, Chuck made a joke,” these cases explicitly remove the communication from legal restriction—thereby protecting it from civil liability. Chuck might avoid liability, for example, if a court decides that Chuck’s statement to Gladys was no more than a drunken jest about selling her his car, simply a joke rather than a legally enforceable contract. The court’s decision allows the joke (and others like it) to thrive, unfettered by legal obligations. This analysis also occurs in trademark litigation, where courts in essence conclude that the level of jest is so high that no harm to an intellectual property interest occurs.
It may sound fishy or wrong for courts to make an editorial judgment about whether something is humorous. Remarkably, though, the cases are often straightforward, tracking formalistic legal analysis. The humor-regulating enterprise becomes more problematic, however, in the second category of humor regulation, when courts impose liability regardless of whether the communication is funny. In this category, courts instead focus on whether the communication is sufficiently hurtful as to justify stifling it. Examples of this category are common in employment cases involving sexual harassment and occasionally occur in trademark cases. Functionalism and indeterminancy abound in these opinions; they are riddled with inconsistencies and irrationalities, qualities common when courts struggle to make difficult choices between competing alternatives.
Case Law Tracks Humor Theory
One remarkable quality of humor-regulating opinions is their faithful (yet tacit) tracking of humor theory espoused by non-legal thinkers. Humor theory provides a scholarly grounding for the dichotomy between humorous communications that avoid liability and those that do not. Humor theory traditionally distinguishes three broad categories of humor: (1) incongruity humor, (2) superiority humor, and (3) release humor. The “funny” in incongruity humor comes from the juxtaposition of two incongruous or inconsistent phenomena.2 Superiority humor, by contrast, seeks amusement through a communication that makes one person feel successful at the expense of others. Release humor taps into repressed sources of pleasure, pressure, or anxiety, focusing on taboo or difficult topics such as sex, excretion, or death. As it turns out, cases evaluating whether a particular communication is a liability-avoiding joke test whether the joke reflects “incongruity” humor. On the other hand, cases regulating a jest act in those instances where the jest reflects what scholars would call “superiority” and “release” humor.
Thus—in all three doctrinal areas (contracts, trademark infringement, and employment discrimination)—courts are more likely to protect the same type of humor: incongruity humor. In other words, incongruous humor tends to avoid law’s grip, while superiority humor or release humor triggers legal control. In addition, courts in all three areas tend to integrate scholarly definitions of parody and satire uniformly to afford puns favored status.
What’s the explanation for this overlap between humor scholarship and case law? Could it be erudition of the judiciary? Or is it dumb luck? Common sense?
I vote for common sense. But common sense has many faces in the context of humor. I count at least three: common sense grounded in logic, humor’s intrinsic qualities, and social norms. The logical foundation of common sense derives from the societal context in which courts create legal definitions of claims and defenses. Intrinsic meaning refers to the proposition that truly funny utterances may tap into humor receptors found within all human psyches. Social norms in this context are shared cultural preferences about humor.
The logical explanation for consistency in humor regulation derives from the analytical connections between legal requirements (such as the definition of a cause of action) and humor scholarship. Take for example sexual harassment law’s focus on regulating superiority humor. Sexual harassment law is—at least in part—a species of the law of wrongs, designed to impose liability in order to remedy a personal injury. The decision to regulate depictions of an individual as inferior (whether funny or not) is hardly surprising, given civil law’s function of imposing liability to remedy an injury. Since advanced human society seeks to reduce conflict, law has a mechanism for discouraging hurtful behavior that might promote conflict. As citizens sharing the same human society as lawmakers, non-legal academics also focus on humor with conflict-creating potential, expending considerable effort to explain it. Accordingly, they have refined a theory of superiority humor with analytical kinship with another human context—legal regulation. Sexual harassment regulation is but one example where the overlap of law and humor scholarship derives from the simple fact that both endeavors concern humanity.
The second possible face of common sense—the intrinsic quality of humor—is more contestable. Many suggest that no consensus definition of humor exists because a person’s perception of humor is largely intuitive, defying precise description. To the extent that this intuition results from an inherent human quality (something one might call a “funny bone”), one could argue that legal regulators and humor theorists are simply operating with the same hard-wired, intrinsic understanding of how humor operates. Under this view, incongruity humor arguably stimulates this shared funny bone more effectively than any other type of humor. Proof of such a funny bone, however, has so far eluded cognitive scientists and other humor theorists.
Common sense’s third face—social norms—is likely the most important, since its explanatory potential survives regardless of whether one proposes that humor is constructed entirely from contingent social perceptions or believes that every human psyche harbors an inherent funny bone waiting for stimulation. Understanding of social norms suggests that both legal thinkers and humor theorists prefer the same types of humor because humor appreciation is imbued with cultural preferences that the two groups happen to share.
The law’s integration of social norms about appropriate humor is cause for both celebration and concern. First, the good news.
By “taste,” I mean a sense of decorum for what is appropriate in a given context—informed by personal preference as well as community standards. While the line between taste and social norms is blurred, my discussion here confines taste to evaluating whether an expression is proper or fitting to an occasion. To inform her judgment about taste, a judge need not confine herself to broadly held norms. Thus, many problems arise from taste regulation. First, a court may apply a standard of taste that deviates from mainstream or consensus views. Mainstream views may be difficult to identify and subject to varying interpretation; indeed, the striking indeterminacy in the trademark cases suggests difficulties in identifying a uniform standard of propriety. A second, related problem is the strong likelihood in a pluralist society that tastes differ across social strata and that courts systematically prefer one social class’s tastes over another. Courts’ preference for incongruity humor might be symptomatic of this—with courts identifying incongruity with “wit,” a form of humor long associated with privileged upper classes. Even where courts might identify a high degree of social consensus to condemn particular humor, prudence counsels them to hesitate before transforming condemnation into law. Even a universally detested utterance should not necessarily be held illegal.
Creating legal rules through litigation may also unintentionally suppress humor that promises individual and social benefits. When courts enter judgments adjudicating specific parties’ rights, they also send a warning to others considering similar activities. Responding to this message of deterrence, citizens may overreact, allowing for an unnecessarily large buffer between their own activity and activity specifically proscribed by legal rule. The law’s regulatory effect is thus broader than the letter of the law. Whether evaluating the wisdom of an advertising campaign, creating a parody of a protected trademark, or drafting corporate sexual harassment policies, decision-makers labor under the weight of risk aversion and difficulties in distinguishing lawful and lawless humor.