Laughing Matters: Late-Night Political Comedy Television & Individual-Level Affective Polarization

April 29, 2020   /  

Student: Nicholas Shereikis
Majors: Political Science, Communication Studies
Advisors: Angela Bos, Denise Bostdorff

Nicholas Shereikis

This study considers the effects of consuming late-night political humor on audience members’ individual-level affective political polarization. Existing literature suggests that many late-night comedy television programs already influence viewers’ political engagement, including voting likelihood and political talk likelihood. Programming like The Daily Show (TDS) employs satiric critique within broader parodic framework to engage audience members’ political identities. These identities are incredibly emotional and, combined with comedic capacity to provoke anger, exert significant influence over individual behavioral tendencies. Subsequently, it makes sense to consider the affectively polarizing capacity of these shows—measured both by favorability, or ingroup confidence, and social distance, or hostility towards members of opposing political parties. This study implements experimental research design to test this theory, finding a mildly significant relationship between consumption of TDS and individual-level affective polarization that is heavily mitigated by a variety of other independent variables.

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“Laughing Matters” is my attempt at measuring the effects of watching late-night comedy television programs, like The Daily Show (TDS), on audience members’ affective political polarization. I first conducted an extensive literature review synthesizing work from myriad political communication scholars, before designing an experimental survey with two treatments to measure participants’ affective responses. I then ran several statistical analyses to conclude my study, before considering limitations and implications for both future research and the national political media landscape. I’ve condensed my roughly 60-page study into this poster presentation—I hope I’ve done it justice—but I’d like to use this additional space to reflect a little on the broader “why” of my project and the implications it has for me, personally.

I chose to assess the political consequences of late-night comedy television for several reasons. I foremost needed an independent study topic that would blend my two departments (Political Science and Communication Studies), but I also knew I couldn’t spend over a year working on anything I didn’t truly care about. I finally had a breakthrough moment watching a segment from TDS on my phone, waiting for class to start: Late-night comedy television. It’s increasingly and intensely popular, especially among younger audiences, and is a pretty broad source of political news. More importantly, though, I absolutely love comedy in every possible form—stand-up, SNL, improv. I knew immediately, as soon as I had even the beginnings of the idea, that this is what I wanted to work with.

I’ve learned a lot throughout this process. Designing an experimental survey, collecting my data, running statistical analyses and regressions in SPSS—this project pushed me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to learn quantitative research methodology, something I’d always tried to avoid. It’s given me new confidence that I am capable of more than I sometimes believe, and that’s something I will always take with me as I move through the next chapter of my life. Moreover, I’ve realized that I’m genuinely interested in political polarization. It’s an epiphany that has helped me narrow my future career goals, and given me a sense of purpose.

I’ve truly enjoyed working on this project, even through all the pitfalls and challenges. I am so thankful to have had absolutely incredible advisors, both in academia and life, and I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Nicholas will be online to field comments on May 8:
10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST 6am-8am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

72 thoughts on “Laughing Matters: Late-Night Political Comedy Television & Individual-Level Affective Polarization”

  1. What a great way to combine three things you are passionate about.

  2. Nicholas,

    Thank you for participating today and for allowing us to see your great work! As an alumna of the College and former student of Angie Bos, I’m particularly proud of your topic! Was there a particular course that helped you narrow your IS focus?

    Congratulations and welcome to the alumni community!

    1. Thank you, Meret! I really appreciate the support.

      I found my topic while taking Dr. Bos’ “Media & Politics” course, so I’ll go ahead and claim that that’s where I found my inspiration!

  3. It takes a liberal arts major to apply theory to the study of late-night comedy. Congratulations! The findings with regard to social distancing are particularly provocative. Are you saying that younger people are less comfortable interacting with those who are politically different from them? Sad but not surprising if so. And what was the effect of political orientation on this?

    1. I’m glad you think this is as fascinating as I do! I am claiming that younger individuals are less comfortable interacting with counter-partisan peers than older individuals are—but I also recognize both that I didn’t explicitly design my study to isolate/measure this effect and that there were other mitigating variables, so I’d take this finding with a cautious grain of salt!

      In regards to political orientation: It depends on how you mean that term! I found no significant difference in partisan reaction, but did find some insignificant difference in that Republicans broadly seemed to react to presented content more strongly. Prior political knowledge/background information also seemed to matter, but that’s a whole other story!

    1. Ha! Thank you, Dr. Bostdorff! I couldn’t have done it without you.

      1. It’s so great to see all the comments and questions that people have left and also to see, on all the pages, how supportive the seniors are of one another. As I’ve told you before, you did a fine job with integrating all the scholarship from the two disciplines, writing up your study in such a polished way, and learning a new methodology. Being able to share all of this with others is the icing on the cake.

  4. Hi Nick–congratulations on this fun and important area of study. I’m wondering if you can share background information on late night political comedy audiences–do you know if your sample was representative of TDS viewers generally? Thanks!

    1. Hello, Prof. Eager—thank you!

      TDS viewers are usually younger, relatively educated, and left-leaning. I chose to find respondents via Amazon’s MTurk platform specifically in an effort to match these demographic characteristics, and I think I succeeded: My 707 participants definitely trended younger and liberal. I didn’t include any check in my survey for education level, but that could absolutely be a fascinating way to extend this research!

  5. Great job Nick! Very interesting topic and happy that you were able to find a new passion and focus.

  6. Hi Nick, this is a really interesting project! Maybe I missed it, but did you find a difference between the effect TDS had on Republicans vs. Democrats?

    1. Hey Waverly! Thank you! I actually didn’t find any significant relationship between partisan audience members. It does seem like Republican partisanship broadly bolsters affective polarization, at least in relation to social distance and favorability, but I didn’t find any p-value that lets me officially conclude that.

      1. That’s really interesting considering how different the social atmosphere has become between Democrats and Republicans respectively. Great insight on how Republican partisanship plays out in the ‘real world.’

  7. Really interesting study Nick. I’m curious to know how you picked the specific clips. Were they already widely circulated online or were you hoping to give viewers a newer video? Congratulations!

    1. Good question! It actually turned out to be trickier than expected to find an appropriate clip or segment for my survey. I eventually chose a fairly popular clip (of Trevor Noah critiquing Trump’s border wall)⁠—it might be interesting to repeat this study with a newer, ‘uncovered’ clip, but TDS segments go viral/are shared so quickly that it’s kind of hard to get away with that.

  8. A great use of the double major intersection between Political Science and Communication Studies.

    With the recent shift of late night shows, including the Daily Show, to “broadcast from home” format, do you think that this format shift will have any impact on the consumption of this material?

    1. Thank you, Prof. Kille! I absolutely do think the “broadcast from home” adaptation of these shows will change their impact. I would cautiously suggest that less general social interaction (as we all quarantine or isolate), combined with potentially higher audience numbers for these shows (as we look for ways to occupy ourselves) may exacerbate the situation. I also recognize that these segments aren’t always consumed as part of a longer episode⁠—many watch isolated clips on Youtube or social media⁠—which also potentially changes the effects of consumption.

  9. Brilliantly presented Nick, and really interesting. So proud of you! Cheers!

  10. Hi Nick,

    What a great idea for a study. As someone who has studied humor, I appreciate how tricky it can be to ask the right questions and to figure out the many different methods of inquiry that have to inform how you answer those questions. Humor tends to be divisive (unless self-deprecating, and then there are all sorts of power issues at play). I have long wondered whether humor can be harnessed to cross rather than create divides. An interesting next component of your study could be to look at different media markets elsewhere in the world and see how the variables you look at change in their effect.
    Lisa Perfetti,

    1. Hello, Provost Perfetti! I really appreciate your engagement with the subject. I chose to assess the divisive qualities of comedic rhetoric just because I found that more initially interesting⁠—and politically relevant⁠—but you’re absolutely right that there is potentially a more positive flip-side to be uncovered here. I genuinely hope I get the chance to broaden this study in future research.

      1. Thanks, Nick. I am actually not sure if “unifying” humor really exists in a commercialized form. There are of course lots of anthropological rituals that do provide unification, and there are theorists who argue for the power of humor to release tensions. But in terms of what is seen as a commodity that will reach a public, I think laughing at sells more than laughing with, alas. So your methodology and approach make perfect sense to me!

  11. Nick,

    What a great study! It reminds me a bit of the work of Michael Parkin, whose work I’m sure you built off of. I’m curious as to why you decided to exclude self-identified independents. I know that you were most interested in effects on Ds & Rs in terms of polarization, etc., but wonder whether Late Night comedy might also have effects on those without strong partisan ties.

    1. Hello, Dr. Krain! I absolutely checked out Michael Parkin’s work when constructing my literature review. I chose to exclude self-reported Independents essentially just because it seemed mildly easier to do so⁠—affective polarization, as I defined it, is concerned with in-group/out-group social identity theory. It’s a difficult theory to apply to a three-party system, especially when members of the first two parties rarely give much emotional or ideological consideration to members of the third. Eliminating those responses just seemed eminently practical, but I do admit that it would be interesting to run more analyses including them!

  12. Super relevant topic! It’s always fun to see people base their projects on prior interests. Congratulations(:

  13. Nicholas,

    Congratulations on completing this interesting and important research–and for challenging yourself to take on quantitative methods, despite your initial discomfort with them. Since political polarization seems to obstruct so much in this country, it makes me hopeful to know that this topic has become a personal passion of yours, and that you’ll continue to use your analytical and communicative skills to shed light on it.

    P.S. I love the title!

    1. I’m so glad you got a chance to see my work, and really appreciate the support! Thank you!

  14. Thanks for volunteering to be on the bleeding edge of this new method for IS presentations?

    Are there any pro-Trump political humorists? If not, why?

    1. Of course! I appreciate you taking the time to engage with it! I couldn’t find any popular pro-Trump comedians, or even conservative comedy shows similar to TDS (the closest I could find being “The 1/2 Hour News Hour,” which failed spectacularly after receiving the worst Metacritic rating of any show at the time). I think we could speculate extensively on why this is, but my instinctive reaction is that much right-wing humor ‘punches down’⁠—poking fun at already-underrepresented groups or communities⁠—while shows like TDS target establishment figures; It’s difficult to provoke empathy when you target those who can’t fight back.

  15. Thank you for your important research and well done! I’d be interested in your views on political polarization and the show ‘Community.”

    1. I think it’d be more interesting to look at the political consequences of watching “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” actually, but love the idea! Cheers!

  16. Hi Nick,
    It’s so great to see your project so well communicated in this format – great job! It has been a true blessing to have worked with you on your IS – and to have been lucky enough to have you in my Media & Politics course where the beginnings of your interests here generated. The passion you’ve shown toward your project was matched by your hard work and persistence in completing complex work that pushed you in new directions. Thank you for sharing part of your Wooster journey with me, and I look forward to following all the impacts you will go on to have on our world. Best, Prof. Bos

    1. Hello, Prof. Bos! I appreciate your kind words and patience throughout this project⁠—as I said earlier to Dr. Bostdorff, I couldn’t have finished this without your help and guidance. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with you, and I look forward to keeping in touch post-graduation! Cheers!

  17. Nicholas,
    A fascinating study. As an old English major I love your title–and look forward to reading your project in its entirety. I especially liked Susan’s comment that “it takes a liberal arts major to apply theory to the study of late-night comedy.” Would you define, for a lay-person, the phrase “individual-level affective political polarization? Thank you.

    1. Of course! I think ‘affective polarization’ is best explained as happening at an emotional or social level. It’s less that we intellectually or ideologically disagree with others, and more that we have an emotional reaction to members of other parties that causes us to avoid interacting with them. In this case, I broke that down even further to ‘favorability’ (how we feel about any content presented in these shows) and ‘social distance’ (how comfortable we feel interacting with counter-partisan peers). “Individual-level” just means I analyzed individual reactions from each audience member, instead of averaging them out or treating the audience as one single group. I hope that helps!

  18. Nick-this is really great. Not sure if you have seen Jonathan Haidt’s moral roots on liberals and conservatives ( and Sapolsky’s Behave-ways in which in group and out group impacts hwo we amplify our views as defined by others. This is also interesting to see play out in real time as what people are seeing in their Facebook feeds from TDS! Very interesting and important stuff Nick! Congratulations!

    1. I have seen Haidt’s TED Talk, but I haven’t really engaged with Saposlky! I’ll absolutely check that out. Thank you, Dean Brown!

  19. I remember talking to you in the fall when you were entrenched in your research. It’s great to see the outcome of your hard work. You’ve done a great job of combining your interests to produce this piece of original scholarship. Best of luck to you!

  20. Nick,

    Congratulations on your research. I too wonder about the impact of political comedy on the most moderate of those who identify as Republican or Democrat. I know you didn’t include Independents in your study, but did you find moderate Rs & Ds moving more to the left or right as the result of these shows?

    1. I actually accounted for gradations of partisan identity when I scaled the questions! I allowed participants to report how strongly they identified with their chosen party in the survey, and then scaled that numerically to conduct my analysis. So saying that Republicans affectively polarize more intensely essentially means that the more Republican you are, the more you’ll polarize⁠—although I do think it would be interesting to go back and isolate that partisanship scale to see if moderate party members do react that differently!

  21. Hey Nick. Well done. I’ve often wondered about the impact of comedy on political views. Glad you came over to the “dark side” and did quantitative research. Can I use your IS as an example in the quant class next year?

    1. I’m glad I did try my hand at quantitative analysis, even if it’s not something I think I’ll do again anytime soon! But yes, I’d be honored if you used my I.S. as a quant example!

  22. It was really wonderful to see your progress on this project throughout the year. You always do such good work.

    1. Aw, thanks! I could⁠—and do⁠—say the same about you. I really appreciate your support, Henry, both on this project and just in general.

  23. Great work, Nick. I enjoyed learning more about your project. I’m really struck by the potential power of popular culture to influence politics…but I wonder if we see things heading a different way in the pandemic era? Would you agree that the homebound late night shows we are seeing lately seem kind of ‘small’ and that perhaps their influence is shrinking relative to other political and societal pressures right now?

    1. I think I do agree with that assessment! I’d hazard a guess that that smaller presence is partially explained by the fragmented nature of these shows now⁠—it’s harder to hold an audience captive when you’re forced to share shorter video clips across several platforms, and your entire production team is fragmented across the globe. It’s also possible that the target of these shows (the political sphere) might just seem less immediately important, given the global pandemic. Good point, though!

  24. Nick,
    This is super interesting, cross-disciplinary work at a really relevant time. I can see so many ways that this research can be extended. Interestingly, TDS and most late-night, network talkshows are liberal-leaning. I wonder if there are late-night shows that are conservative-leaning humor? Do you have any idea what that landscape looks like. Additionally, do you have a guess what might have happened if you assigned the transcript to a FOX News personality rather than a CNN personality?

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! It doesn’t seem like there are any broadly popular conservative comedians, and the only right-leaning late-night show I could find even remotely similar to TDS failed spectacularly after receiving the worst Metacritic rating of any show at the time (“The 1/2 Hour News Hour,” modelled on SNL). I think ascribing the TDS transcript to a FOX News personality could be an interesting extension of this study (I’d suggest we might see more significant affectively polarizing responses from Democrats), but I chose a CNN personality specifically to maintain that certain level of neutrality for my study⁠—otherwise, you lose your control variable and ability to accurately measure the effects of TDS.

  25. Great job!

    I sometimes watch those shows and have wondered how much of an effect they have on the viewer’s political leanings. A very interesting I.S. subject and I congratulate you on your success!

  26. What a creative project! I’m so glad you got to spend the year researching something that was of value to you, and that you learned so much in the process (especially the stats 😮 ). You mentioned that developing an appreciation for political polarization may have helped you narrow down your career goals… what are those? And you mentioned a sense of purpose… how has that morphed with this project? Congrats on all you’ve done– I am excited to hear of all that is to come!

    1. Hey Gracie! I’m glad you enjoyed! I think my newfound career aspirations and ‘sense of purpose’ can essentially be explained as the same thing⁠—it’s no revelation that our current political system is broken (polarization is just one aspect of that divide), but I’m starting to realize that there are ways to bridge that gap. I’m looking into democracy reform organizations like RepresentUs, Issue One, or No Labels, and hope to eventually work with a similar group!

  27. Congratulations on your I. S. project and presentation. I remember being in a class with you and discussing your project. I found it quite intriguing and am glad to have the opportunity to see the final project. I will certainly think about this I. S. as I settle in to watch TDS next Monday. Again, congratulations.

  28. Awesome job, Nick! I hope you have the chance to continue researching this topic. It’s so interesting to take a step outside of the humor to consider its effects on us as individuals and as a society.

  29. Great work, Nick! I first became interested in politics by watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, so your topic is really interesting to me. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how watching political late night can influence young people’s interest in and knowledge of politics. While it certainly cannot and should not substitute for journalism, I think these shows can serve as a good way to get younger generations politically active.

  30. Nick! This is really interesting. I definitely agree with you that a study with repeated exposures might be a great next step. It does seem that while there are effects even after one exposure, there might be even some sort of compounding effect in the long-run.

    I wonder what are your thoughts about what this effect implies about what we ought to do in order to improve the political situation.

    All the best!

  31. Nick, as a former political science major, I was intrigued by your topic and I loved your title – great marketing! I find myself watching clips from TDS rather than the entire show. That seems to be the most common way to consume the show. I was wondering whether there was some equivalent show for conservatives, and I see in your responses to similar queries above that there really aren’t – that seems really a sad commentary on its own. I applaud your interdisciplinary work, and I do hope you will continue to study the impact of humor on our political affiliations – important work! I would have thought that the influence of shows like TDS would expand during the pandemic as we all consume more screen time. It would be great to see some research on humor that unites us – if we could identify the types that do so, maybe we could push for more of that! Congratulations!

  32. This is a really interesting, innovative project! It reminds me acutely of when, in the wake of the 2000 and 2004 elections, late-night comedians (and particularly Jon Stewart’s original incarnation of TDS) seemed like the one thing on TV that gave one perspective. I wonder if you’ll look in future at the cumulative effect of consumption, as well as whether a tendency to watch one late-night comic leads to reception for others. Particularly now that everything is available to stream, one no longer has to make choices about which comic to watch.

    Your point about the left-lean of humor is well taken, too. I remember reading extensively early in 2017 how it was the late-night and cable comics–particularly Colbert, Meyers, and Noah–who had the key to punching through the false narratives of the current administration. Whereas news media are often hamstrung by the “rules” of journalistic balance, comedians are not bound to any such compact.

    Anyway, nice job on this timely and intriguing project! Good luck to you.

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