Our Findings!

Figure 1:

This figure displays the winning presidential candidates use of various humor types from 1968 – 2016. The frequency of each type if humor is what is displayed in this graph. Each candidate was limited to one appearance on one Late Night show. Data was recorded from that singular appearance.

Figure 2:

This figure displays the opposing presidential candidates use of various humor types from 1968 – 2016. The frequency of each type if humor is what is displayed in this graph. Each candidate was limited to one appearance on one Late Night show. Data was recorded from that singular appearance.

Sources: Humphrey, Hubert. “Vice President Humphrey Interviewed.” Interview by Sammy Davis, Jr. Radio TV Reports, INC. NBC Network. March 25, 1968. The Larry King Show. “Bush Sense of Humor.” theDoveTV, December 5, 2018. YouTube video, 1:24. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHkZnvjvF18 The Late Show with David Letterman. “AL GORE has FUN with LETTERMAN.” MyTalkShowHeroes, June 28, 2016. YouTube video, 17:19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dyIQcHljl4 The Late Show with David Letterman. “GEORGE W. BUSH ON ‘LETTERMAN’ – 2000.” MyTalkShowHeroes, November 12, 2017. YouTube video, 11:56. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9Fxb9iSuB4 Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. “Sock It To Nixon | Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In | George Schlatter.” May 19, 2018. YouTube video, 0:37. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e9iWizfsm8 Saturday Night Live. “The Clinton’s Halloween Party – SNL.” October 9, 2013. YouTube video,      5:45. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Njyg0ZzfhyISaturday Night Live. “John McCain and Sarah Palin Do QVC – SNL.” September 23, 2013.    YouTube video, 6:21. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pix6pJUW5-s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “Donald Trump Interviews Himself in the Mirror.” September 11, 2015. YouTube video, 5:48. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2DgwPG7mAA The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “Donald Trump’s Phone Call with Hillary Clinton.” September 16, 2015. YouTube video, 4:44. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONRQZshyrPI The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson Show. “Bill Clinton on the Johnny Carson Show    1988.” Coming in Bruce Wayne, January 31, 2018. YouTube video, 12:18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfcKQcGg_sM The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “Ronald Reagan Interview on The Tonight Show  Starring Johnny Carson – 01/03/1975 – Part 1.” April 1, 2020. YouTube video, 7:27. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9vncWKPngE The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “Ronald Reagan Interview on The Tonight Show  Starring Johnny Carson – 01/03/1975 – Part 2.” April 2, 2020. YouTube video, 16:40. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNmnmdtcdcg What’s My Line? “What’s My Line? (Blyden): 1973 episode with former Governor and   President Jimmy Carter!” Game Show Flashback – The Original Game Show Channel, January 22, 2020. YouTube video, 30:26. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxnuHrJee7Q What’s My Line? “What’s My Line (Color) (Gerald Ford) (Bennett Cerf Appearance).” MatchGameProductions, January 7, 2013. YouTube video, 21:53.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nsplc3DVQw0

What Does this Data Mean?

It was observed that the losing candidate used less of a variety of humor than the winning candidate did. It was analyzed that the losing candidate tended to use light humor, and barely any of the other types of humor we were looking for. We conclude that as time has progressed from the 1968 election, the use of different types of humor has evolved by candidates who have won their elections; the presidential candidates who have lost their elections tended to use less of a variety of humor. One type of humor did not contribute to their overall image. It was analyzed that the winning presidential candidate did also use light humor as much as the losing candidates did, but they also used self-effacing humor and humor that contributes to a sense of superiority as much as the light humor. The more types of humor used may have allowed the audience to feel more connected to the candidate because they portrayed themselves as able to make fun of themselves, while establishing that they are qualified for the job. While the losing presidential candidate has tended to use limited amounts of types of humor over time, the winning presidential candidate has tended to broaden their horizon and use more types of humor throughout their interviews. 

Did the Humor Make a Difference?

Whether or not certain types of humor helped candidates win the presidency is not clear with these results, however, we are able to see if each candidates’ appearances on Late Night TV shows influenced their audiences in either helping or hindering their campaign. While there are not many numerical statistics that show how the candidates’ appearances helped or threatened their campaigns, there are a few analyses that explain some of the instances. Humphrey was asked to appear on Laugh-In, the show Nixon appeared on, for his campaign, but he refused to do so (Freeman 2018). It is said that Nixon’s appearance and Humphrey’s refusal to appear on the show helped to prompt the public in making a decision on who to vote for in that presidential election.

In regard to the 1976 election, the presidential candidates, Carter and Ford, had both appeared on a game show called What’s My Line? The only difference was that when Carter had appeared on the show, none of the contestants were able to identify him (Crain 2014). This was a monumental step in Carter’s campaign because it made him easily and shockingly recognizable to the public after the contestants’ lack of ability to label him. This show allowed for Carter to gain and develop a network of supporters that eventually helped him in winning the presidential election against Ford (Crain 2014).

Now getting into more specific details about types of humor, Reagan’s use of self-effacing humor is what really helped appeal to society. A New York Times article says this about Reagan’s style of humor: “Mr. Reagan can laugh at himself without assuming the stricken look that could be observed when President Carter tried to laugh at Jimmy Carter jokes…” (Raines 1981). The self-effacing humor Reagan used allowed society to see a side of the president no one had really ever saw before, a side that allowed for some humor to be made on the account of an important, monumental figure. This was a huge step in creating a different, more modern presidential image.

Once we reach more recent elections, like the one in 2008, we see that Obama and McCain both had created jokes prior to their appearances. This was displayed when McCain had cancelled an appearance on David Letterman’s show, and there was publicized anger being circulated through the media. McCain knew that he could not attend his next appearance without having well-developed jokes to alleviate some of this anger (Stelter 2008). In Obama’s case, he also had campaign associates help to develop some top tier jokes. One interesting thing they did for Obama was turn light-humored one-liners into a “coherent routine” (Stelter 2008). This was a key development because Nixon’s one-liner in Laugh-In is said to have affected the outcome of his presidency. Who’s to say that the same thing did not happen for Obama in this case?

In the most recent election, there seems to have been a development in what types of Late-Night TV shows are best suited for each candidate, and what humor each exudes. If you want to “behave like a grown-up,” you belong on Colbert’s show, and if a candidate wants to create a persona on social media, all while making themselves look a little ridiculous for the little bit of “viral gold dust,” they belong on Fallon (Crouch 2017). Both Trump and Clinton had appearances on Fallon, but both had very different, not great outcomes. People saw Clinton’s appearance as lackluster and uninteresting, and Trump’s appearance on the show “did not make waves” (Crouch 2017). Both did not fulfill the humor requirements the public had put upon them before their appearances.

It is safe to say that humor can be very effective in persuading audiences for presidential campaigns, along with how they portray their humor, as well.