Political Humor and Anxiety: Getting the Joke (Update #1)

What is political humor?

The first stage in developing my method for researching the relationship between political humor and anxiety is defining what is and isn’t political humor. After going through an extensive literature review full of conflicting opinions, I think the best way of defining political humor is “a form of humor that is distinguished by its focus on issues of morals, ethical weight, and of issues of power within society”, which is strongly based off of observations about the field of political comedy research written by Amy B. Becker & Don J. Waisanen.  (From Funny Features to Entertaining Effects: Connecting Approaches to Communication Research on Political Comedy, 2013). This definition is sufficiently broad to encompass parody, satire, and all media types of political humor, but it lacks specificity. As I progress with this project, I hope to make this definition more restrictive.

Trends in online political humor:

This week, I tried to conduct a literature review on prominent internet resources for political humor, but unfortunately article publishing moves at a slower rate than online relevancy so the literature’s previously cited example websites are now defunct. Next week, I’ll begin writing a program to pull from the most popular US social media sites since there is no consensus on a definitive humor site. I pulled the top 20 of the most popular posts from reddit.com/r/PoliticalHumor for the prior week to see how this sample compares with the established literature’s trends in political humor.

Jody Baumgartner, in 2007, noted several common themes in online political humor during the Bush administration:

  1. Implicitly negative: humor tends to focus on the distrust of political institutions/figures
  2. Commonly targets the president
  3.  Cynical tone

From my initial collection, I agree completely with the 2nd point. Out of the 20 collected examples, eight directly depicted president Trump or referred to him directly. Other prominent political figures featured as well: former president Obama and Robert Muller were both mentioned or depicted three times. Baumgartner also observed a 2/3 anti-Bush humor to 1/3 anti-Kerry split in humor in 2007, but I haven’t seen any indication that this is currently replicated with present political actors.

What makes things funny?

This is a question that I grappled with for a long time when I was developing this project. Now that I have defined the political aspect as “focus on issues of morals, ethical weight, and of issues of power within society”, how do I define the humor aspect? Research yielded a few different ways that other researchers have categorized humor for study:

  1. Superiority humor: Humor in comparative superiority of the consumer to the target, wherein the target is portrayed as abnormal, pathetic, or not good in some way.
    • Example: a political cartoon depicting a politician as unintelligent
  2. Relief theory: The Freudian approach to humor. Humor is a subversion of normal thoughts and behaviors, allowing us to express bad or hostile ideas in socially acceptable ways.
    • Example: Democrats create a political cartoon that ridicules Republicans as an expression of hostility in a socially acceptable context (the editorial page in a newspaper)
  3. Incongruity theory: Humor is created by clashing ideas that are funny because they are unexpected or not normal.
    • Example: “I cannot stand people who disagree with me on the issue of Roe v. Wade … which I believe is about the proper way to cross a lake.” (source: Stephen Colbert)
  4. Recognition/Consensus humor: humor that relies on reinforcing consensus and reflecting a norm
    • Example: Seinfeld-esque observational humor commenting on an everyday topic: “As a new federal employee, I felt a combination of excitement and anxiety about meeting the strict standards of discretion and respect that our government imposes on its workers. Fearful of making a costly mistake, I decided to read up on procedures and standards on the federal Office of Personnel Management web page. I’m not sure if I was relieved or worried when I clicked on one page and found: “Ethics: Coming Soon!” (source: Reader’s Digest)

Across all these theories, humor relies on shared norms between the humor creator and the audience. Humor is found in reinforcing those norms or rejecting and subverting them. This is precisely why humor is so hard to translate across cultures: norms are not always universal and may only be possessed by some groups. For my hypothesis, I’m extending this to political groups and political humor. Assuming that people with different ideologies may hold different norms (with an ever-intensifying difference due to increased political polarization), political humor may not even read as humor to groups that oppose its underlying political content, and thus will result in different physiological reactions to the stimulus.

Approaches to coding: Python packages

BeautifulSoup is the Python module most associated with webscraping, but I found that other people has trouble scraping Reddit data in the past. Users recommended the PRAW (Python Reddit API Wrapper) module to effectively get Reddit data, which requires creating an account, registering a script, and interacting on the site to prove that you’re not a bot. While I was able to complete the first two steps and write a program, I need to actually engage on the site for a period of time before my program will run.

In the meantime, I’ll be developing programs to scrape Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr while manually collecting examples for the weeks prior to automation completion.