"The nature of satire, when you boil it down, is that messages are to varying degrees implied messages," explained Lance Holbert, a professor of communications at The Ohio State University who studies the intersection of entertainment and politics. "It requires the audience to fill in the gap, to get the joke. And it requires a certain bit of knowledge to fill in the gap. ... Certain types of humor are much more explicit. In satire the humor is very complex."
LaMarre got interested in the question of how audiences interpret Colbert back in 2007, when she started puzzling over how several appearances by Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had seemingly helped to jump-start Huckabee's campaign from out of nowhere. Was it a joke? Or what?
"[Huckabee] would publicly thank Stephen Colbert," she said. "So, from a research point of view, you can ask is this because there are a lot of conservatives who watch Colbert and are now suddenly interested in Mike Huckabee? Is it because they think Colbert is supporting Huckabee?"
One parallel study the authors note is a 1974 article on perceptions of the television show All in the Family. In the piece, professors Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach found that although the show's creator, Norman Lear, had intended to use the Archie Bunker character as a gentle way to poke fun of and discredit racist attitudes, audience members who held racist attitudes never quite got the joke — instead they sympathized with Archie Bunker and may have even found his folksy prejudices to justify their own.
In general, communications researchers are now only beginning to explore the implications and impacts of the new and growing domain of late-night political comedy. Though political satire is nothing new, it was typically encapsulated in larger comedy programming, for example as a sketch on Saturday Night Live. But both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are primarily about politics. And their widespread audiences — both average more than a million nightly viewers (mostly in the 18-to-49 demographic) — give them the potential to have an impact on American politics.
"Satirists provide a unique perspective to what's going on with elite decision-makers," said Holbert. "They're holding them to the fire a bit. There are discussions to whether they can be too powerful, but those discussions have been around for a long time, and their influence ebbs and flows."
Most studies have focused on the The Daily Show. One ongoing debate, for example, is between those who think that Jon Stewart promotes a level of cynicism that is ultimately harmful to democracy, and those who think that Stewart actually gets citizens engaged in politics and helps them to feel more politically efficacious.
But this Colbert study is the first to focus exclusively on The Colbert Report. So what, exactly, does it matter if people see in Colbert only what they want to see? One consequence LaMarre and colleagues discuss is that Colbert may actually be reinforcing existing prejudices and polarization. If his goal is to persuade, he is doing a poor job of it.
But, what is Colbert's purpose, anyway? LaMarre said she'd love to interview him to find out what he's up to. (Miller-McCune.com tried to talk to him but hasn't had any luck so far.)
But then again, would Colbert ever give a straight answer? And if he did, wouldn't that ruin the whole effect? "I think what I enjoy most about Colbert is that he is true to this character," said LaMarre. "I think he's brilliant. He always leaves you wondering a bit how serious he is."
Or ... is he?
Comment from ABS:
The premise of this article seems to be that what's remarkable is how cleverly ambiguous is Colbert's presentation. He's so good at playing both sides of the satire-vs.-serious depiction, this article seems to be saying, that he ends up being appreciated by both left (who dig the satire) and the right (who see him as seriously supporting their views).
I don't buy it.