ECU political science professors Jody Baumgartner, left, and Jonathan Morris have published a book that examines the effect of political humor on politicians. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

ECU professors publish book on political humor

Sept. 9, 2014

By Grace Haskin
ECU News Services

“Earlier today, George W. Bush said he has one goal for these debates. He wants to show the American people that he’s presidentiamable.” -David Letterman.

This is just one of many political jokes listed in “Politics is a Joke!: How TV Comedians are Remaking Political Life,” a new book written by two East Carolina University professors, which explains how late night talk shows have influenced the success of politicians.

Written over the course of two years by Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan Morris from ECU’s political science department, and S. Robert Lichter, professor of communication at George Mason University, the book was published July 22.

“The primary late night talk show hosts that we’re talking about are Jay Leno, David Letterman, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. We didn’t set out to restrict ourselves to them, but for the past decade, they have been the major players,” said Baumgartner.

The data for the book has been collected since 1988 from the Center for Media Public Affairs (CMPA), of which Lichter is the director.

“(The CMPA) has been collecting jokes from late night comedy programs and classifying them by who the joke was targeted at or who said the joke. We used that information, which was over 100,000 jokes,” said Morris.

Baumgartner, who read through the 100,000 jokes, was responsible for selecting which ones to put into the book. “It was tough,” he said, but he managed to narrow the jokes down to about 200.

“We weren’t looking for any kind of bias in the jokes, but we clearly found a tendency for late night comics to joke about Republicans more than Democrats,” said Morris. This was no surprise to Morris or Baumgartner, who have been studying humor and politics for the past 10 years.

“Presidents are the most frequent targets of late night comedians. Again, no surprise, but the data shows this.” said Baumgartner. Morris added that former President Bill Clinton is, by far, the most joked about politician within the past two decades.

“More than one late night talk show host has said something to this effect: If there was a hall of fame for late night comedy, Clinton would be the founding guy that they put in because he made their job easier,” said Baumgartner.

"And in a town meeting in Rhode Island, Bill Clinton said there are 'powerful forces' threatening to bring down his administration. I think they're called 'hormones.'"

- Jay Leno

Writing a book about political jokes wasn’t intentional, Baumgartner said. “We just stumbled upon a topic that happened to be really popular,” he added.

Morris and Baumgartner came up with the idea to research humor and politics while they were driving to a conference together in 2004. “We have been studying it ever since,” said Morris.

Baumgartner’s latest books include “Conventional Wisdom and American Elections” and “Laughing Matters: Humor and American Politics in the Media Age,” which he co-edited with Morris.

Whereas “Laughing Matters” was academically oriented, Baumgartner said “Politics is a Joke!” could be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in political humor.

“We’re hoping to reach a more general audience with this book, but also have it accessible to our colleagues who study political humor to use it as reference,” said Morris. “People who have read the book keep saying that they skip through our analysis and go straight to the jokes.”

Morris and Baumgartner plan to write another book together focusing on humor from a psychological perspective.