Campaign Comedy: Different Types of Humor Displayed on Late Night TV by Presidential Candidates

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Quick Breakdown

The goal of this research is to identify different types of humor used among past presidential candidates, and see how humor has evolved into the modern presidency. In order to do this research, we analyze several presidential appearances on informal TV shows, looking for different types of humor each presidential candidate displays. Our research starts with former President Nixon and his losing opponent, Hubert Humphrey, and works all the way up to President Donald Trump and his losing opponent, Hillary Clinton. The TV appearances used in this research all premiered before each candidates’ presidency, and each appearance was analyzed to find what types of humor each candidate used, and the frequency of different types of humor used. We concluded that overall, the losing candidate was less likely to use multiple types of humor compared to the winning presidential candidate, who generally used multiple types of humor throughout their interviews. This research is significant in understanding the evolution of the American presidency because it displays the evolving humanization of the presidency, in the sense that presidential candidates use informal TV shows to connect with their voters, in a way that was not always so common. In just a small 50 years, there has been a drastic change in how humor is used by presidential candidates, and that was the intention behind this research.

Prior Knowledge of Presidential Humor

Late-night TV is surrounded by humor. Live comedy shows act as a place for presidential candidates to display a less formal side of their personalities (Phillips 2011). With that being said though, humor is not a qualification for ultimately winning the presidency, but it certainly does help modern candidates in other ways.  

Political humor has not always been like it is today. A few decades ago, it was actually frowned upon for presidential candidates to be humorous while speaking to crowds. They had to appear formal and exude an authoritative personality among citizens. Not only was frowned upon to use humor, it was also considered to be unpresidential for any candidate to appear on informal television shows, like late night TV, and if they had done so, they would receive backlash and criticism (Brownell 2014). Former President Nixon was one of the first candidates to use late night TV as a way to gage younger voters. By switching roles and becoming an informal, “unfiltered performer,” Brownell explains that Nixon did not receive political points when he first appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, rather, he earned points for his ability to “perform in front of a camera” (2014). His performance displayed a new side of the presidency that allowed him to be humanized to society. This was one of the first steps taken that affected later late-night TV appearances from other candidates. Even though there was hesitancy for appearing on late-night TV shows, which are inherently funny by nature, presidential candidates appear on them frequently, when compared to just fifty years ago. One of the first talk shows was NBC’s Tonight Show, and the roots of all modern talk shows stem from the Tonight Show (Jackson 2010). As time has progressed, there has been a surge in how many late-night TV stations there are. Compared to the Nixon era, candidates in today’s society appear on countless late-night TV shows and display their sense of humor throughout.

Like Nixon, it is a way for candidates to connect and humanize themselves for their audience. Now, any type of late-night TV shows that have presidential candidates as guests are created to have an impact on people during the specific time it is aired (Takacs 2011). This makes sense because if a presidential candidate appears on a show while campaigning for office, they can pick and choose what to say, in that certain time period, to help persuade and convince audience members that they are fit for the position. Candidates can strategically plan all of these things, like Brownell explains through the “unfiltered performer,” to cleverly find their way into the presidency. After all, late-night TV is useful in improving the likeability of someone, in this case a presidential candidate, and these candidates can give voters vague information on their campaign, all while trying to become more likeable (Jackson 2010). The prior hesitancy felt about appearing on late-night TV by presidential candidates has grown into a useful marketing strategy that most candidates take advantage of to gain the institutional presidency, by framing their image through TV.

      Humor is a useful tool in campaigning on late-night TV shows. While it allows candidates to be humanized, it also reduces the chances of voters scrutinizing or criticizing what the candidates speak about during the shows (Innocenti and Miller 2016). Humor can isolate the full implication behind what a candidate is saying, meaning that someone who may not agree with a policy may vote for the candidate who used humor while describing it because the receiver of the joke did not fully interpret what they said. Along with not fully interpreting, they may have produced such a “likable image” that policies may not be as important. To produce these outcomes, different types of humor can be used in order to fully fabricate a “perfect” image. When looking at political affinity, or what types of political humor affect certain people, humor contributing to a sense of superiority and humor that points out false information are two dimensions in which humor is portrayed (Hmielowski 2011). The study in which these factors were pulled from suggest that these were the two main types in which people regard late-night TV material with. To gather more information, five more types of humor often used in the political realm are inappropriate, sarcastic, self-effacing, ribbing opponent, and witty or light humor (Phillips 2011). All of these are used in strategic ways in order for a presidential candidate to become more likable among his/her voters.

How Data was Collected

The primary presidential candidates, from 1968 to 2020, all used humor, and we analyzed their humor through their appearances on Late Night TV, or any show that was not a formal presidential interview. There are two factors in which they were analyzed:

  1. Types of Humor Looked For 
  2. Show the Candidate Appeared on

Types of Humor

In this research, there are seven different types of humor that were looked for throughout the multiple appearances chosen. The seven types of humor are:

  • Self-Effacing Humor
    • Any jokes marked as self-effacing humor were centered around the candidate making negatively-connotated jokes about oneself. This was a way for presidential candidates to simply make fun of themselves in front of an audience. 
  • Humor that Takes a Jab at Opponent
    • A joke marked under this category means that the presidential candidate took a jab at his/her opponent in a humorous way. It could be labeled as a “mean” joke because the jokes are said in a way that undermines their opponent. 
  • Light Humor
    • Light humor defines any joke that is simply said to make an audience laugh. There is no further intention behind it.
  • Inappropriate Humor
    • Any jokes that are marked with inappropriate humor have to do with violence among foreign affairs with the United States, or any joke that has to do with war in simpler terms. 
  • Sarcasm
    • Sarcastic jokes are presented in a responsive way. The jokes are often said in a way that makes the first speaker foolish, and the responsive jokes typically said in a mock-like and ironic rhetoric. 
  • Humor that Contributes to a Sense of Superiority
    • A joke made to relay the idea that a candidate is better than their opponent would be put in this category. 
  • Humor that Relays False Information
    • Any joke that would mislead the audience about their opponent’s policies, persona, etc would classify humor that relays false information. 
  • Other
    • If a joke did not fall under any of the listed categories, it was put under this category so no humor was left unrecorded.

Chosen Television Shows

Like said in a prior section, it was rare that earlier presidents made appearances on Late Night TV or any informal TV show in general because it was not the norm in that time period for presidents to do so. With that being said, there was a very limited amount of sources able to be used for candidates from the Nixon presidency to the Clinton presidency. This allowed us to use the only sources available to us for those presidents and the opponent that lost. When we started reaching a point in history where there was more than one television show a president appeared on, since it was becoming more popular for them to do so, we chose one particular show that the president and his/her opponent both appeared on. Choosing the same TV show allows for a more even playing field, in the sense that they would have similar types of content being compared.

It is important to note that former President George H. W. Bush and his opponent Michael Dukakis did not engage in any informal television shows. The only television engagement they participated in were their campaign commercials, which is a completely different form of media use than late-night TV. Therefore, we chose to not analyze those commercials because their content did not match the data being collected from the late-night TV shows.