Satire important in politics, profs say

Olivia Wainhouse

From Tina Fey and “The Colbert Report” to Jon Stewart and The Onion, satire about politics is everywhere and is a sign of a healthy democracy, according to Robert Hariman, chairman of the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern.

A response to political humor is a sign of an engaged public, said Hariman, who recently published an article titled “Political Parody and Public Culture” in the Quarterly Journal of Speech. In the article, Hariman examines the role of parody in politics. He argues that humor enables citizens to more closely examine and understand politicians.

“Democracy thrives on vigorous debate,” Hariman, who is currently in England, said in an e-mail. “Comedy is both a part of the ongoing contestation of ideas and a critique of how they are being discussed – how the debate is being shaped by the characters, attitudes, emotions, social identities, discourses and media involved in public speech.”

Professor Hariman and John Lucaites, a professor of rhetoric and public culture at Indiana University, co-authored the book “No Caption Needed” and started a companion blog: The book and Web site discuss the impact of photojournalism on public life, with a focus on politics.

Hariman said that one can’t fully understand a political figure unless one also understands its parody.

“When language is placed beside itself, limits are exposed,” Hariman said in a press release. “What had seemed to be serious is in fact foolish, and the powerful is shown to be vulnerable.”

Parody and humor shine light on political figures, allowing for critical analysis and deeper understanding – a Tina Fey impression on “Saturday Night Live” is more than picking on Palin, and “Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger” on “The Colbert Report” is more than a joke.

Parody was an integral part of the 2008 election, where editorial cartoons, late-night skits, bumper stickers and other media that mocked candidates impacted the political scene, according to a press release.

Naomi Harris, a Weinberg sophomore who sometimes watches “The Daily Show,” said she thinks satirical shows have the ability to exaggerate what the mainstream media publishes, creating important commentary.

“They’re not claiming to be unbiased or politically correct,” she said.

Sam Rollins, a Medill sophomore, said that these shows are made for a niche audience that watches these shows because of their spin. People watch satirical shows because of their different interpretations of public figures, she said.

“(These shows) definitely impacted the election,” Rollins said.

Hariman said that the impact of satire on the 2008 presidential election was huge.

“It was not the only factor by far, but definitely one element in the sea of change that occurred,” he said.

Communication sophomore Kim Castle said she thinks humor impacts how people look at prominent political figures.

“Satire can be pretty telling. Through humor, we can find truth,” she said.

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