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Gans, R. (2015). Can’t take a joke? The asymmetrical nature of the politicized sense of humor." Proceedings of the New York State Communication Association, Vol. 2014, Article 2. Available at: http://docs.rwu.edu/nyscaproceedings/vol2014/iss1/2

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In an effort to tease out possible expressions of dispositional differences in people of different political ideologies, this study uses media preference and consumption data from the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES08-Online) to examine characteristics of audiences for a range of television shows and genres. The individual shows include two political satires, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report; a late-night comedy/variety show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; a hospital-based ensemble situation comedy, Scrubs; two animated comedies, The Simpsons, and The Family Guy; and two action-oriented dramas, 24, and CSI: Miami. The genres include comedies, dramas, sports and documentaries. The results of a series of one-way ANOVAs and regression analyses supported the hypotheses that conservatives do not enjoy humor as much as liberals, and that they enjoy political humor even less than non-political humor.
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Proceedings of the New York State Communication Association
Volume 2014 Article 2
2015
Can’t Take a Joke? !e Asymmetrical Nature of the
Politicized Sense of Humor
Roger Gans
University at Albany, rgans@albany.edu
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Recommended Citation
Gans, Roger (2015) "Can’t Take a Joke? ;e Asymmetrical Nature of the Politicized Sense of Humor," Proceedings of the New York State
Communication Association: Vol. 2014, Article 2.
Available at: h=p://docs.rwu.edu/nyscaproceedings/vol2014/iss1/2
Can’t Take a Joke?: The Asymmetrical Nature of the
Politicized Sense of Humor
Roger Gans
University at Albany-SUNY
__________________________________________________________________
In an effort to tease out possible expressions of dispositional differences in people of
different political ideologies, this study uses media preference and consumption data
from the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES08-Online) to examine
characteristics of audiences for a range of television shows and genres. The individual
shows include two political satires, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert
Report; a late-night comedy/variety show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; a
hospital-based ensemble situation comedy, Scrubs; two animated comedies, The
Simpsons, and The Family Guy; and two action-oriented dramas, 24, and CSI: Miami.
The genres include comedies, dramas, sports and documentaries. The results of a
series of one-way ANOVAs and regression analyses supported the hypotheses that
conservatives do not enjoy humor as much as liberals, and that they enjoy political
humor even less than non-political humor.
__________________________________________________________________
Introduction
Is it true that Republicans have no sense of humor, or does it just seem that way to
Democrats? Is your enjoyment of humor simply a function of whether you are on the
sending or receiving end of the joke, or does it reflect the basic nature of your
personality? This study examines the politics of humor consumption through an analysis
of the political ideologies and other demographic characteristics of audiences for a range
oftelevisionshowsandgenres.
In a media environment in which humor in general and political humor in particular seem
almost exclusively to “lean left” (Cowherd, 2014), impressions of Republican attempts at
humor range from awkward, as exemplified by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “I
like to be able to fire people” (Rucker, 2012), to offensive, as exemplified by Senatorial
incumbent George Allen’s “Macaca” statement during his 2006 campaign for reelection    
(Millican, 2006), to simply not funny, as suggested by About.com’s online list of the Top    
Ten Political Comedians (Bromley, n.d.). A quick scan of that list reveals just one     
practicing comedian who could be considered politically conservative, Dennis Miller, of
whomthelist’scompilerandauthornotes:
…as the only real conservative comic on the list … [he’s] become the goto
comic for the conservative right and FOX News, but lost most of his edge in the
process. It's not just that I disagree with most of his politics; it's that he simply
isn'tasfunnyanymore.(Bromley,n.d.)
But as suggested by researcher Joanne Cantor (1976) and others (e.g., Lynch, 2002; Nabi,
MoyerGusé, & Byrne, 2007; Zillmann & Cantor, 1972), disagreement with Miller’s
politics may in fact be a major reason why Bromley (n.d.) no longer laughs at his
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jokes—it’s harder to laugh when the joke is on you. If most political jokes are, in fact,
told at the expense of Republicans, it seems reasonable to suspect that Republicans might
notfindthemfunny.
On the other hand, the rating of the humor may be a reflection of the quality or nature of
the humor. The last significant networkbroadcast attempt at conservative political
humor, Fox News’s Half Hour News Hour
, which featured Miller, survived for just 17     
episodes in 2007. The show drew a rating average of 2.5 stars out of a possible 10 by 585
IMDb “users” (The HalfHour News Hour
, n.d.), and a preponderance of negative online    
reviews like “A sad travesty” and “Thank God it’s only a half hour!” (“Reviews &
Ratingsfor‘TheHalfHourNewsHour
,’”n.d.)
In the interest of fair and balanced reporting, it should be noted that the show also drew a
number of enthusiastic reviews from politically conservative IMDb “users,” but it must
also be noted that their ratings seemed to be based at least as much on the targets of the
humor as on the quality of the show’s humor, as evidenced by comments such as:     
“American television has too long been run by those with a liberal mindset. It's good to
see the other side,” and “Okay you Liberals, it's our turn! How's it feel?” (“Reviews &
Ratingsfor‘TheHalfHourNewsHour
,’”n.d.).
Since the demise of The Half Hour News Hour
, political comedy on broadcast television    
has had no conservative representation except perhaps the Comedy Central sendup of
conservative punditry, The Colbert Report
, starring Stephen Colbert. It is open to     
question whether this reflects a world in which “reality has a wellknown liberal bias”
(Colbert, 2006), or that conservatives haven’t had a lot to laugh about lately. When
Colbert was named as the replacement for longtime host David Letterman on CBS’s
Late Night with David Letterman show, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly predicted    
Colbert would “bomb” because he would fail to attract conservative viewers (Gold,
2014). Sportstalk host Colin Cowherd disagreed, however, suggesting that comedy is a
liberaldominated industry and that conservatives don’t watch late night comedy shows
anyway:
…I mean seriously, who watches TV at 1 in the morning? It’s not the married
conservative couple in Nebraska. They’re not watching television at midnight.
Vampires, bartenders and college kids, that’s who’s watching TV. I mean all
those guys – By the way, all the hosts right now on late night TV are all liberal.
That’s fine. Seth Myers, Jimmy Fallon, they all lean left. The whole comedy
industry leans left. All the writers on that show, 99% of them lean left. When I  
was working on a sitcom, you couldn’t find a conservative in that room. That’s
fine. If you’re going to be offended by who’s writing stuff and you’re a
conservative,turnoffyourtelevision.
Every sitcom, every show on every network, was written by liberals. Every
stinking one of them. I mean every one of them. So I don’t buy that. I think  
Colbert’s going to do very well. (Cowherd, 2014, April 15: Excerpt of transcript
fromTheHerdwithColinCowherd
,ESPNradio.)
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The audience for Colbert’s political satire is strongly progressive, with just 12%
identifying as Republican versus 39% as Independents and 45% identifying as Democrats
(Gold, 2014). But is the audience short of conservatives because they don’t find jokes
about conservatism funny, or because they just aren’t interested in comedy? Are there
differences in the ways conservatives and progressives experience and react to humor that
areunrelatedtothepoliticsofthehumor?
While most studies of the interaction of humor and politics focus on humor that is
explicitly political (e.g., Baym, 2005, 2007; Hmielowski, Holbert and Lee, 2011; Holbert,
2005; Holbert, Hmielowski, Lather & Morey, 2011; Holbert, Tchernev, Walther, Esralew
& Benski, 2013; Nabi, MoyerGusé & Byrne, 2007; Schutz, 1977), the current study
focuses on a broader range of humor consumption to examine whether people who harbor
different political ideologies also harbor different preferences for humor in general,
including that of a nonpolitical nature. In addition to satisfying our curiosity about who
laughs at what, this study may shed light on the role of dispositional differences in media
preference and offer potentially useful insights into media selection and messaging
strategiesforcommercialadvertisingaswellaspoliticalpurposes.
Literature Review
Distinguishing Left From Right
Before addressing potential differences between Republicans (or conservatives) and
Democrats (or Progressives or liberals) in humor appreciation, it might be useful to
establish an understanding of the characteristics of their differences in political ideology.
Some scholars attribute differences between left and right to cognitive choices or
communicative practices. Lakoff (1995), for instance, suggests that the reactions of
conservatives and liberals to various situations are guided by metaphor, and that their
prioritization of different metaphors leads them to different reactions to the same sets of
data or circumstance. Tuschman (2013) asserts that their differences are largely
innate—perhaps even their adherence to different metaphors—and that “political  
orientations are natural dispositions that have been molded by evolutionary forces
” (p.    
24). Hibbing, Smith and Alford (2014) agree with this dispositional viewpoint,
suggesting that “liberals and conservatives experience the world differently” (p. 4). Jost,
Glaser, Kruglanksi and Sullaway (2003) posit the two “core aspects of conservative
ideology” as “resistance to change and acceptance of inequality” (p. 342). Galloway and     
Chirico (2008) characterize conservatism as “a generalized fear of stimulus and response
uncertainty” (p. 130). Verhulst, Eaves and Hatemi (2012) note that “political
conservatism has been associated with dogmatism… intolerance for ambiguity or
uncertainty, a personal need to achieve order… desire for structure or closure, integrative
complexity, and fear of threat or loss” (p. 3536). Hibbing et al. (2014) suggest
conservatives tend to have a strong desire for “cognitive closure” (p. 105) and a distaste
for uncertainty, while liberals tend to be more open to new experiences and alternative
points of view. Tuschman (2013) suggests that conservatives “desire to keep what is good
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and prevent it from deteriorating” while progressives believe “that human nature can
evolveintosomethingbetter”(p.312).
The Role of Personality
A number of researchers cite two of the “Big 5” personality traits—openness to
experience and conscientiousness—as significantly correlated with and reliably able to
predict subjects’ political ideology (see, for example, Galloway & Chirico, 2008; Hibbing
et al., 2014; Kahan, JenkinsSmith & Braman, 2011; Lewis & Bates, 2011; Tuschman,
2013; Verhulst et al., 2012). Openness to experience has been identified as “the most
common personality trait linked to politics” (Verhulst et al., 2012, p. 35), with high levels
of the trait associated with more liberal positions on social and moral issues, and low
levels associated with conservative attitudes, rightwing authoritarianism, and social
dominance orientation (Verhulst et al., 2012). Research has found a highly consistent but
moderate .3 correlation between high levels of openness and liberal political attitudes
(Lewis & Bates, 2011). Based on the lexical derivation of the openness trait, this
correlation seems quite modest since in some instruments participants are asked to rate
themselves against descriptions that explicitly include words like “conservative,
conventional… and progressive, favor social reform” (McCrae, 1994). Galloway and
Chirico (2008) note that openness is “associated with a need for novelty, variety and
complexity” (p. 130). Adjectives used to define openness include artistic, curious,
imaginative,insightful,original,andwideinterests(McCrae&John,1992).
High degrees of conscientiousness have been positively associated with conservatism
(e.g., Hibbing et al., 2014; Kahan et al., 2011; Tuschman, 2013), but to a lesser extent
than the negative relationship with openness (Verhulst et al., 2012). Adjectives associated
conscientiousness include efficient, organized, planful, reliable, responsible and thorough
(McCrae&John,1992).
The tonal difference between the characteristics associated with low levels of openness
(e.g., “rightwing authoritarianism”) and high levels of conscientiousness (“reliable,”
“thorough”) is notable because of the liberalacademic temptation to interpret
conservatism as a pathological condition (Hibbing et al., 2014). While a deficient sense
of humor may not be pathological, low levels of openness—especially in the areas of
tolerance for ambiguity, need for closure, and social dominance—seem to relate to
traitinfluenced differences in appreciation of humor. As may be seen from the following    
discussion of humor motivations, the “core aspects” of conservatism suggested by Jost et
al. (2003)—e.g., resistance to change, and acceptance of inequality—may have a    
determinativedispositionalinfluenceonhumorappreciation.
Different Types of Humor
Lynch (2002) has proposed that there are three prevailing theories of humor motivation:
as an expression of superiority, as tension relief, and as an interpretation of incongruity.
Of these, using humor as an expression of superiority seems most compatible with the
social dominance orientation of conservative values and personality traits (Hibbing et al.,
2014; Kahan et al., 2011; Tuschman, 2013). The need to establish and maintain
superiority aligns with authoritarian personality traits, which personality theorists have
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connected to conservatism (Hibbing et al., 2014). There is a long tradition of the use of
humor as a weapon of the weak and powerless to diminish the strong and powerful
(Lynch, 2002; Schutz, 1977). But when humor is used from a position of dominance to    
assert that dominance and diminish others, it reflects poorly on the character of those who
deliver it, often coming across as cruel, meanspirited or like bullying (Herzog et al.,
2006; Schutz, 1977), qualities of which the most recent Republican candidate for
President, Romney, has been broadly accused (e.g., Pexton, 2012). If there is a tendency
among conservatives to use humor to express their superiority over others, this may be
moreofareasonforpoorratingsofconservativehumorthanthepoliticsofthetarget.
Similarly, laughing at incongruity may require the ability to appreciate the juxtaposition
of familiar and unfamiliar concepts, a characteristic of the “Big 5” personality trait of
openness, which, as noted above, has been correlated with a high degree of significance
to Liberalism (Hibbing et al., 2014; Tuschman, 2013). The laughter that comes from
observing a violation of expectations is an example of a reaction to the incongruity of that
situation (Lynch, 2002). This may explain the humor found in watching someone being
caught on videotape in the act of violating social norms by lying or stealing, or of
politicians giving conflicting testimonies to different audiences as is so often presented
on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
(Baym, 2005). People who rate low in the trait of     
openness may not find such incongruity as amusing as those who are high in the trait of
openness.
In differentiating between two types of humor that involve incongruity, Galloway and
Chirico (2008) suggest that people high in openness like nonsense humor and unresolved
incongruity, while those who are high in conscientiousness dislike nonsense humor and
prefer their comedic incongruities to be resolved. In incongruityresolution humor, an
incongruity is introduced and then resolved, producing a reaction that could be
interpreted as tension relief (e.g., Lynch, 2002). In nonsense humor, on the other hand,
the “incongruity is left unresolved, or only partially resolved” (Galloway and Chirico,
2008, p. 130), which must then be interpreted as absurdity. They present the following as
examplesofthesedifferentconceptsofhumor:
Resolvedincongruity:
It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid, than to open it and remove
alldoubt.
Unresolvedincongruity:
The two most abundant things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.
(p.   
132)
According to Galloway and Chirico (2008), Republicans should favor the first joke, while
Democratsshouldfavorthesecond.
Humor and Politics
In recent years, much of the attention on political humor has focused on its role in
providing political information to an increasingly fragmented media audience (e.g.,
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Baym, 2005, 2007; Jones, 2005). Among some population segments, it may be a primary
source. According to a 2004 Pew Research Survey, 21 percent of respondents aged 18 to
29 said they got at least some political information from comedians (“Cable and internet
loom large in fragmented political news universe,” 2004). Clearly, humor has a growing  
role in the theater of political life, but what is much less clear is who decides what is
funny,andwhoisgettingthejoke.
A number of researchers focus on the persuasive and informative influences of humor
and other forms of mediated entertainment (e.g., Baum, 2003; Baym, 2005, 2007; Jones,
2005), including examination of interactions between individual attitudes, personality
traits and cultivation effects (MoyerGusé & Nabi, 2010; Nabi & Krcmar, 2004; Nabi,
MoyerGusé & Byrne, 2007; Nabi & Riddle, 2008). Holbert and his colleagues have
conducted a number of studies on the consumption and influences of various kinds of
entertainment programming, including satire, sitcoms, and drama (Hmielowski, Holbert
& Lee, 2011; Holbert, Shah & Kwak, 2003; Holbert et al., 2013). Holbert (2005)
provides an integrative overview of theoretical research into the connections between
entertainment and politics and offers a typology for categorizing mediated entertainment
that orients individual programs and program types along two main axes: (1) explicitly or
implicitly political, and (2) primarily political or secondarily political. In his description
of programming examples, he notes that the “fake news” satire of The Daily Show with    
Jon Stewart is primarily political, but because it is presented as satirical humor and  
therefore “fake,” it should be considered implicitly political and not overtly political.
Similarly, while the animated satire, The Simpsons
, carries politically oriented messages  
and implications, it is not primarily political. As a comedy, its politics are also implicit
and not explicit. Holbert classifies Jay Leno (The Tonight Show
) in the same general area     
as The Daily Show and The Simpsons
, implicitly and not explicitly political, with an      
expectationthatatleastsomeofthenightlymonologuewillincludepoliticalcontent. 
The three major competing theories of humor motivation described by Lynch (2002) help
to define the different roles humor is intended to play, but some researchers note that
regardless of motivation, the effect of humor is likely to be different for different
individuals (e.g., Cantor, 1976; Zillmann & Cantor, 1972). This dispositional approach
seems compatible with a “uses and gratifications” approach to understanding the
consumption of mediated entertainment (e.g. Cooper & Tang, 2009; Haridakis &
Whitmore, 2006; Ruggiero, 2000). It seems reasonable to assume that people would seek
out programming they find entertaining. When it comes to comedy shows, people would
notwatchshowstheydonotfindfunny.
Research Hypotheses
The main purpose of this study is to try to tease out the possible influence of people’s
dispositional differences, as reflected in their political identification and ideology, on
their appreciation of humor. Do Republicans and Democrats appreciate humor
differently? Can those differences be illuminated through analysis of their media
consumptionchoices?
In reviewing research in the areas of political identity, personality, humor motivation, and
dispositional differences in media consumption, several areas of influence seem to      
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intersect. Personality trait theory seems to suggest that people with personality traits
associated with conservatism (e.g., dogmatism, intolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty,
resistance to change, need for social dominance) will have difficulty appreciating
incongruous humor and humor that diminishes those in power and therefore will find
fewer comedic subjects funny than people who have personality traits associated with
liberalism.
Hypothesis1: Republicans will express less appreciation for humor than
Democrats, and this will be reflected in their choices of
televisionprogramming.
The directional nature of Disposition Theory (e.g., Cantor, 1976; Zillmann & Cantor,
1972) suggests that those who perceive themselves to be the butt of someone else’s jokes
will not find those jokes as funny as those who are not the targets. Since there is a
perception that most politically oriented humor in the major media is directed toward
conservatives (Bromley, n.d.; Gold, 2014), conservatives are unlikely to find this humor
asentertainingasliberals.
Hypothesis2: Republicans will express much less preference for political
comedyprogrammingthanDemocrats.
Hypothesis3: Republicans will express less preference for nonpolitical
comedy programming than Democrats, but not as much less as
forpoliticalcomedyprogramming.
Method
Statistical data for this survey were derived from Wave 5 of the 2008 National
Annenberg Election Survey (NAES08Online), which was conducted online from
November 5, 2008, through January 31, 2009, with respondents drawn randomly from a
Knowledge Networks panel. This wave of the Annenberg survey was chosen because it is
the only one that questioned respondents on their entertainment television viewing
behavior as well as the standard demographic measures. In total, 19,234 respondents were     
included in the Wave 5 sample, of whom 10,886 were female (56.6%) and 8,348 were
male (43.4%). Average age of the participants was 50.46 years. (A summary of
descriptivestatisticsispresentedinTable1,below.)
Measures
The Annenberg study collected a wide range of demographic, attitudinal and behavioral
information from its respondents. The following measures were used as control variables
in the current study: age, gender, education (a sixpoint scale ranging from “did not
complete high school” to “graduate degree or higher”), household income (a 16level
scale based on annual income ranges), urban or nonurban place of residence, political
party identification (a sevenpoint scale ranging from “strong Democrat” to “strong
Republican,” which will be discussed later), and political ideology (a sevenpoint scale
rangingfrom“extremelyliberal”to”extremelyconservative”).
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Two sets of dependent variables were derived from the television viewership responses to
the Annenberg survey: individual preferences for general types of programming, and
regularviewingofspecificprograms.Thoseincludedinthecurrentstudyinclude:
Generaltypeofprogrammingpreference(ascendingscaleof0to4):
LikeComedy:“Comedies/sitcomslikeTwoandaHalfMen
orThe
Simpsons
”
LikeDrama:“DramashowslikeGrey'sAnatomy
orLawandOrder
”
LikeSports:“Sportsprograms”
LikeDocumentaries:“DocumentaryprogramsonchannelsliketheHistory
ChannelortheDiscoveryChannel”(NAES08OnlineCodebook,p.128)
(Respondents were asked to rate their top four preferences on a 1 = most preferred, 2 =
next most preferred, etc., basis. These scores were recoded to provide an ascending
scale.)
Regularviewing(i.e.,atleastonceamonth)ofspecificprograms(yes=1,no=0):
TheDailyShowwithJonStewart
:politicalsatire
TheColbertReport
:politicalsatire
TheSimpsons:
animatedsocialsatire
TheFamilyGuy:
animatedsituationcomedy
Scrubs
:hospitalbasedensemblesituationcomedy
TheTonightShowwithJayLeno
:latenightcomedyvariety
24
:Actionthrillerwithaninternationalpoliticalcontext
CSI:Miami
:Policeproceduraldrama
Table 1. Means and standard deviations of key variables
N
x̄
s.d.
Age
19041
50.46
Party Identification (1-7)
19234
4.20
Political Ideology (1-7)
19041
3.86
Education Level (1-6)
19041
2.69
Household Income (1-16)
19041
11.66
Live in Metro Area (0-1)
19041
.86
Gender (0=M, 1=F)
19041
.56
Like Comedies (0-4)
19041
1.30
Like Dramas (0-4)
19041
1.85
Like Sports (0-4)
19041
0.28
Like Documentaries (0-4)
19041
1.55
Household income rating of 11= $40,000 – 49,999; 12 = $50,000 – 59,999.
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Analyses: One-way ANOVAs and regressions
The data on audience characteristics were analyzed using two different varieties of
statistical analysis. To examine potential differences in the demographic makeup of the
audiences for the individual television shows and genres, a series of oneway ANOVAs
compared the mean values of political ideology and other variables for regular viewers
and nonviewers of the show audiences. To include general programming preferences
(e.g., Like Comedy) in the oneway ANOVA analyses, respondents who rated a
particular type of programming highly (e.g., 2, 3 or 4 on the 4point scale) were identified
as regular viewers for that type of programming. A summary of the results of these
analysesarepresentedinTable2anddiscussedintheResultssection,below.
To examine contributing factors to media choices for the consumption of humor and
other entertainment programming, a regression analysis was conducted with “Like
Comedy” as the dependent variable, and with age, gender, education, household income,
urban/nonurban residency and political ideology as predictor variables. To provide
context for interpreting this analysis, additional regression analyses using the same   
independent variables were conducted with “Like Drama,” Like Sports,” and “Like
Documentaries” as the dependent variables. Summaries of these regression analyses are
presentedinTables3–6anddiscussedintheResultssection,below.
Examination of Assumptions
While large sample sizes such as those obtained in this study tend to eliminate problems
with normality, examination of graphic representations of distributions of the predictor      
variables identified potential normality issues. Because there were so few cases at the
extremes in the original 1 through 8 coding of the education variable, this variable was      
recoded into a 6point scale in which the two values representing less than high school
graduation were combined, and the two values representing levels of postgraduate
degreewerealsocombined.
As can be seen Figure 1, below, the values for political party identification exhibited
almost a perfect reverse of a normal distribution. This may have been a function of the
survey question, which asked respondents to identify themselves as one of the following:      
“Strong Democrat,” “Not Strong Democrat,” “Lean Democrat,” “Independent/other/
undecided,” “Lean Republican,” “Not Strong Republican,” or “Strong Republican.”
Apparently, respondents did not seem to want to characterize themselves as “Not Strong”
or“other/undecided.”
The Party Identification variable was included in the oneway ANOVA analyses that
follow, but because of the normality issue it was not used in the regression analyses. The
Political Ideology variable (see Figure 2, below) was used as the predictor variable for the
regression analyses. While the Party Identification and Political Ideology variables are
highly correlated (r = .671, p < .001), the difference in their midpoint and extreme values
isstriking.
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 
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Results
To test a series of hypotheses considering the role of political ideology in the
consumption of televised comedy programming, audiences selfidentifying as frequent
viewers of eight representative television shows and four programming genres were
examined. The demographic characteristics of the audiences, as well as those of the Wave
5 sample as a whole (i.e., Grand Mean) are presented in Table 2, below. Oneway
ANOVA analyses were conducted for several demographic variables, and the results of
theseanalysesarerepresentedgraphicallybythered,blueandblackcolorsofthevalues. 
Table 2. Comparison of Means for Selected Television Audiences, Nov. 2008 – Jan. 2009
N
Age
(Ave)
Sex
(F=1
)
Educ
1-6
Income
1-18
Party
ID
1-7
Pol
Ideol
1-7
Daily Show
Viewers
2369
48.39
.517
3.75
12.59
5.47
4.84
Non-Vwrs
15029
51.43
.570
3.25
11.56
4.04
3.72
Colbert Report
Viewers
2210
48.40
.501
3.71
12.47
5.19
4.66
Non-Vwrs
15188
51.40
.572
3.26
11.59
4.09
3.76
Scrubs
Viewers
2105
43.39
.555
3.31
11.69
4.46
4.15
Non-Vwrs
15293
52.07
.564
3.32
11.70
4.20
3.83
Simpsons
Viewers
2084
42.24
.410
3.30
11.25
4.59
4.25
Non-Vwrs
15314
52.21
.584
3.32
11.76
4.18
3.82
Family Guy
Viewers
2376
40.22
.468
3.19
11.32
4.59
4.25
Non-Vwrs
15022
52.73
.578
3.34
11.76
4.18
3.82
Leno
Viewers
3715
52.95
.542
3.35
11.88
4.34
3.91
Non-Vwrs
13683
50.50
.569
3.31
11.65
4.20
3.86
24
Viewers
1879
50.08
.518
3.37
12.29
4.10
3.77
Non-Vwrs
15519
51.13
.569
3.31
11.63
4.25
3.89
CSI: Miami
Viewers
4953
52.97
.607
3.17
11.33
4.22
3.81
Non-Vwrs
12445
50.24
.545
3.38
11.84
4.24
3.90
Like Comedy
Viewers
7700
45.69
.581
3.26
11.76
4.28
3.99
Non-Vwrs
11341
53.69
.546
3.35
11.59
4.14
3.77
Like Drama
Viewers
10283
49.44
.684
3.36
11.84
4.29
3.97
Non-Vwrs
8758
51.65
.415
3.25
11.45
4.09
3.73
Like Sports
Viewers
5364
52.73
.277
3.41
12.33
3.98
3.68
Non-Vwrs
13677
49.56
.671
3.27
11.40
4.29
3.93
Like
Documentaries
Viewers
9037
51.70
.485
3.41
11.78
4.08
3.80
Non-Vwrs
10004
49.34
.628
3.22
11.56
4.31
3.92
Grand Mean
All
19041
50.46
.560
3.31
11.66
4.20
3.86
Figures in Red: Less than non-viewers, p < .01
Figures in Blue: Greater than non-viewers, p < .01
Figures in Black: Not significantly different than non-viewers
As can be seen by the preponderance of blue numbers in the columns relating to political
identity for all the comedy shows in the sample, audiences for the individual comedy
shows and for comedy programming in general tend to skew Democratic and liberal. By
far, the largest differences in Party Identification and Political Ideology between viewers
and nonviewers are found in the data for The Daily Show
(Party ID: F = 869.50; df = 1,      
17396; p<.001; Political Ideology: F = 1195.51; df = 1, 17396; p<.001). The Colbert       
Report
, the other primarily political comedy show in this analysis, also yielded large
differences in political leanings between viewers and nonviewers (Party ID: F = 470.25;
df = 1, 17396; p<.001; Political Ideology: F = 704.10; df = 1, 17396; p<.001). The
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Gans: Asymmetrical Nature of Political Humor
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greatest differences in a nonpolitical comedy, with The Family Guy, were not nearly as  
marked as with the political comedy shows, but were still highly significant (Party ID: F
= 69.42; df = 1, 17396; p<.001; Political Ideology: F = 171.94; df = 1, 17396; p<.001).       
For all the individual comedy shows, the regular viewers were significantly (p < .001)
more Democratic and liberal than the nonviewers. The same held true for the genre of
comedy in general (Party ID: F = 17.18; df = 1, 19039; p<.001; Political Ideology: F =
94.43;df=1,19039;p<.001).ThesefindingssupportH1,H2andH3.
With the exception of The Tonight Show
, the comedy audiences also tend to skew  
significantly younger than for other kinds of programming. Interestingly, comedy
audiences also tend to skew more male than female. Among the programs and genres
studied here, the programming types most preferred by conservatives and Republicans
appear to be sports and documentaries, and to a lesser extent, the “official operative”
programsrepresentedby24
andCSI:Miami
.
To examine the dispositional influence of political ideology on programming choices,
regression analyses were conducted on four different programming types with political
ideology as a predictor variable along with a selection of other oftenstudied demographic
variables. The results of these analyses are summarized in Tables 3 – 6, below. As can be
seen in Table 3, age is the strongest predictor of comedy preference among the variables
studied, with political ideology (“ConstoLib”) also a highly reliable predictor but to
much less effect, accounting for less than onehalf of 1% of the variance. These findings
may act to confirm the expectations of those who expect comedy audiences to be young
andliberal.
Table 3. Summary of Regression Analysis Predicting “Like Comedy”
B
SE(B)
β
t
p
Intercept
2.516
0.064
39.40
.000
Age
-0.028
0.001
-.279
-39.94
.000
Education
-0.071
0.009
-.057
-7.69
.000
Household Income
0.009
0.003
.026
3.54
.000
Live in Metro Area
0.074
0.030
.017
2.46
.014
Gender
0.015
0.021
.005
0.72
.474
Cons-to-Lib
0.061
0.007
.063
9.01
.000
R
2
= .088; F = 306.42; df
= 6, 19034; p < .001
Political ideology is also a reliable predictor of preference for drama programming, as
can be seen from an analysis of Table 4. Gender, age and income are also reliable
predictors of drama preference, with gender far and away the most powerful. While the
effect, again, is not strong, it appears that not only are liberals more likely to prefer
comedythanconservatives,theyarealsomorelikelytopreferdrama.
 
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Table 4. Summary of Regression Analysis Predicting “Like Dramas”
B
SE(B)
β
t
p
Intercept
0.847
0.071
12.00
.000
Age
-0.006
0.001
-.056
-8.05
.000
Education
0.067
0.010
.048
6.65
.000
Household Income
0.026
0.003
.064
8.78
.000
Live in Metro Area
0.014
0.033
.003
0.42
.672
Gender
1.007
0.023
.306
44.09
.000
Cons-to-Lib
0.051
0.007
.048
6.88
.000
R
2
= .108; F = 384.82; df
= 6, 19034; p < .001
Table 5. Summary of Regression Analysis Predicting “Like Sports”
B
SE(B)
β
t
p
Intercept
0.275
0.019
14.40
.000
Age
0.002
0.000
.072
10.56
.000
Education
0.004
0.003
.010
1.35
.178
Household Income
0.008
0.001
.072
10.11
.000
Live in Metro Area
0.006
0.028
.004
0.65
.513
Gender
-0.309
0.019
-.341
-50.00
.000
Cons-to-Lib
-0.011
0.002
-.037
-5.40
.000
R
2
= .140; F = 515.56; df
= 6, 19034; p < .001
Table 6. Summary of Regression Analysis Predicting “Like Documentaries”
B
SE(B)
β
t
p
Intercept
1.333
0.068
19.72
.000
Age
0.006
0.001
.062
8.63
.000
Education
0.096
0.010
.074
9.78
.000
Household Income
-0.002
0.003
-.006
-0.81
.421
Live in Metro Area
-0.004
0.032
-.001
-0.13
.886
Gender
-0.436
0.022
-.144
-19.92
.000
Cons-to-Lib
-0.037
0.007
-.038
-5.20
.000
R
2
= .035; F = 115.54; df
= 6, 19034; p < .001
As indicated by the negative slopes and tvalues in Tables 5 and 6, conservative political
ideology seems to reliably predict preference for sports and documentary programming,
althoughbeingofthemalegenderisamuchstrongerpredictorinbothcases.
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Gans: Asymmetrical Nature of Political Humor
Published by DOCS@RWU, 2015
Taken in total, these analyses suggest that people who identify as Republicans and
conservative tend to choose considerably less humor programming than people who
identifyasDemocratsandliberal.
Discussion
Results of the statistical analyses demonstrate a small but reliably significant ability of
political ideology to predict preference for comedy programming, to the effect that
conservatives seem to avoid comedy programming while liberals seem to seek it. From a
usesandgratifications perspective, it can be assumed that conservatives do not enjoy    
humor as much as liberals—at least the humor that is presented on television. The
research cited in the literature review above suggests that dispositional differences may
beinfluencingthesedivergentchoicesofprogrammingconsumption.
The tendency of humor to have a target that is diminished by the humorous attention, e.g.,
dominancerelated humor (Lynch, 2002), may be an area of differential appreciation by
liberals and conservatives. When the humor is directed at conservative political figures or
beliefs, people who identify as conservative are likely to feel assailed rather than amused
(Cantor, 1976; Zillman & Cantor, 1972). When the humor seems focused on diminishing
the powerful and thereby changing or equalizing the existing social order, it might
conflict with the “core aspects” of conservatism suggested by Jost et al. (2003), e.g.,
resistance to change, and acceptance of inequality. As people who tend to value social
dominance and the maintenance of the existing social order, conservatives would seem
more likely than liberals to engage in humor that maintains social dominance, i.e., by
directing the diminishing effects of humor at targets with less power and prestige. To
many, however, making fun of the less fortunate seems more like bullying than joking
around (Lynch, 2002; Schutz, 1977). This may account for low ratings of conservative
oriented attempts at humor (“Reviews & Ratings for ‘The Half Hour News Hour,’” n.d.),
andtheperceptionthatconservativesaresimplynotfunny(Bromley,n.d.).
As people who tend to rate low on the personality trait of openness, conservatives also       
may have less of a tendency to appreciate the humor of incongruity and nonsense
(Galloway and Chirico, 2008). Taken together, these factors would serve to reduce the
breadth of situations, topics and types of humor that conservatives find funny. Viewed
from this perspective, it is not surprising that conservatives would gravitate away from
comedyandtowardotherkindsofprogramming.
Limitations and Implications for Future Research
Any study of humor must cope with the inevitable impression that it is just not serious,
and therefore not worthy of significant effort or attention. The results of recent elections,
however, suggest that humor can sometimes tip the precarious balance of power. The
2006 senatorial reelection hopes of Virginia’s George Allen took a serious blow when  
his attempt at humor on the campaign trail was widely interpreted as racist (Millican,
2006). Mitt Romney’s awkward attempts at humor in the 2012 election (Rucker, 2012)
also did not help his chances. While the analyses in this study produced results with
extremely high degrees of statistical significance and reliability, the effect sizes—at least
in terms of predictive ability—were fairly small. Predicting behaviors such as
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programming choices from a dispositional variable like political ideology leaves a great
deal unaccounted for. In the current study, age was a much more powerful predictor of
preference for comedy than was political ideology, as was gender for predicting
preferences for drama, sports and documentaries, yet political ideology did have a
consistentandsignificantlymeasurableeffectonallofthosechoices. 
In rebutting the critique that personality traits and such small effect sizes provide limited
utilityinpredictingbehavior,somepersonalitytraitresearchersnotethat:
It is sobering to see that the effect sizes for many medical interventions—like
consuming aspirin to treat heart disease or using chemotherapy to treat breast
cancer—translateintocorrelationsof.02or.03.
…even relatively small effects can be important because of their pragmatic
effects and because of their cumulative effects across a person’s life. (Roberts,
Kuneel,Shiner,Caspi&Goldberg,2007,p.314)
Indeed, in a nation in which the 1960 KennedyNixon margin of victory was just
twotenths of 1% (49.7% to 49.5%), and Obama’s 2012 3.8% margin of victory over
Romney was the 2
nd largest since 1996 (“US Elections,” n.d.), it is clear that small effect        
sizescanhavelargeconsequences.
While the current study identified significant differences in the humorrelated media
consumption choices between conservatives and liberals, its use of an alreadyextant
dataset precluded any experimental exploration of those differences. Future studies that
could explore these differences might include those in which people of different political
ideologies describe and express what they find funny, or rate the funniness of different
jokes and other humorous situations, or watch the same humorous films while their
physicalandneurologicalreactionsarerecordedandanalyzed.
Finally, if humor can be used to subvert or support the balance of power in the existing
social structure, it suggests possible differences in expression and appreciation of humor
depending on which political party holds power. Liberal comedians seem to prefer
conservative office holders as their targets. Do Republicans tell more jokes and laugh
harderwhenDemocratsareinoffice?
Conclusion
Through analysis of the audiences for different genres of television programming, this
study provides confirmation for the impression that comedy audiences tend to be young
and liberal. The analyses provide clear evidence that conservatives are significantly less
likely than liberals to watch comedies, and that conservatives are even less likely to
watchpoliticalcomedythannonpoliticalcomedy.
In providing empirical support for the existence of consistent and predictable
dispositional differences between people of different political ideologies in their
consumption of mediated entertainment, this study may suggest areas of exploration for
media selection and messaging strategies in the fields of commercial advertising and
15
Gans: Asymmetrical Nature of Political Humor
Published by DOCS@RWU, 2015
public relations as well as politics. Whether you are trying to sell a candidate or a
convertible,itcanbeimportanttounderstandthatnoteveryoneisgoingtogetthejoke.
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Published by DOCS@RWU, 2015
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