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Academic Argues Political Satire is More Than Funny

Robert Hariman argues that political humor signals the existence of an engaged, healthy and democratic public culture.

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November 4, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Think the dead-on Tina Fey imitations of Sarah Palin, the fake news of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the political jokes flying around the nation via e-mail are simply funny? Well, they're more than that, according to a Northwestern communications researcher.

Robert Hariman, author of an article on political humor in the latest issue of Quarterly Journal of Speech, argues that political humor and political parody, in particular, signal the existence of an engaged, healthy and democratic public culture.

And if indeed that is the case, then democracy in America appears to be thriving. "I was struck by the creativity and influence of The Onion, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report during a period that was otherwise a study in degraded public speech," says Hariman.

"Parody was clearly where the action was in the public culture (and) it was one of the few examples of the press really standing up to demagoguery," he adds. The Northwestern professor of communication studies even credits comedy as a factor in raising the level of public discourse and grassroots response in the 2008 election.

In his article "Political Parody and Public Culture," Hariman includes all forms of political parody. Among them are editorial cartoons, late-night television monologues, altered photographs, animated sitcoms, bumper stickers and mockumentaries. All, he says, are part of a democratic tradition with a history dating back to the ancient Greeks.

And, he writes, these genres proliferate not only in the United States, but are found in other societies as well. "The titles of fake news shows are illustrative: in Canada, people tune in to 'This Hour Has 22 Minutes;' in Iraq, people tune in to "Hurry Up, He's Dead,'" Hariman writes.

Parody, which means "beside the song," puts an object, person or language beside itself for examination and potential ridicule. In his analysis, The Capitol Steps, a troupe of Congressional-aides-turned-satiric singers, are part of an early Greek tradition of "imitating singers."

"When language is placed beside itself, limits are exposed," writes Hariman. "What had seemed to be serious is in fact foolish, and the powerful is shown to be vulnerable… Modern laughter is the shock of dislocation and delight that occurs when seeing that something is mediated rather than a thing in itself."

The Northwestern professor believes that one cannot claim to fully understand a political activity until one also understands how it is parodied. He now includes a weekly "sight gag" on nocaptionneeded.com, a blog he publishes with Indiana University Professor John Lucaites. The blog takes its name from their book of iconic photojournalism published last year by University of Chicago Press.
Topics: Research, Opinion, People