The Trouble With Looking for Political Bias in Late Night Comedians
If you like comedy but love statistics, then this was your week. Two studies released this week look into the political leanings of late-night comedians and their audiences. As raw data, the information they provide is fascinating, but the conclusions they draw are a bit iffier. Is it really possible to tell something about a comedian’s political leanings by counting jokes?
First is a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, which analyzed 1,652 political jokes told by late-night hosts this year. In a release titled Jay Leno Is Red, Jon Stewart Is Blue, the center claims that late night hosts are as divided as Fox and MSNBC:
According to CMPA President Dr Robert Lichter, “Just as conservatives get their political news from Fox and liberals from MSNBC, conservatives are getting their political humor from NBC and liberals from Comedy Central. Noting Stewart’s October 30 Washington DC ‘Rally to Restore Sanity,’ Dr. Lichter added, “Jon Stewart’s approach to Glenn Beck is to beat him and then join him.”
I’ll grant them Leno and even Letterman, but I was surprised to learn that the same Jimmy Fallon I’ve been watching is a Republican. As CMPA tells it and news organizations have spread it, Jimmy Fallon made fun of Democrats 78% of the time — making him the most partisan comic of all.
That doesn’t seem right, but the findings themselves would seem to back this up. The Center hasn’t released all the raw data (however, previous studies are available on their site, and chart nerds who want to know how many times Letterman made fun of Dennis Kucinich in 2008 will not be disappointed), but in their overview, they listed the Top 5 targets for each comedian they studied:
Jon Stewart: 1. Barack Obama (72 jokes); 2. Glenn Beck (44); 3. Sarah Palin (35); 4. John McCain (29); 5. Michael Steele (28).
David Letterman: 1. Barack Obama (92 jokes); 2. George W. Bush (72); 3. Sarah Palin (58); 4. Scott Brown (38); 5. Michael Bloomberg (37).
Jay Leno: 1. Barack Obama (68 jokes); 2. Al Gore (29); 3. Joe Biden (27); 4T. Sarah Palin (24); 4T. George W. Bush (24).
Jimmy Fallon: 1. Barack Obama (77 jokes); 2. Joe Biden (27); 3. Sarah Palin (19); 4. Eric Massa (14); 5. Bill Clinton (12).
You can’t argue with numbers, right? These statistics would seem to back up their claim, but, I mean, Joe Biden? Joe Biden is a signature Fallon joke topic. He owns the late-night Biden joke. Along with Jason Sudeikis on SNL and The Onion, Jimmy Fallon has helped paint a picture of Joe Biden as a lovable, blundering scamp. In his hands, Biden comes across as living the life in what would have been George W. Bush’s dream job.
Here is a typical Jimmy Fallon joke about Joe Biden:
“A new poll found that 41 percent of Americans don’t know who the Vice President is. In response, Joe Biden was like, ‘All right, at least give me a hint.'”
Here is a typical Jay Leno joke from this year, provided by the CMPA:
“Bill Clinton [said] his only involvement in Chelsea’s wedding is paying the bill. Since he’s a Democrat he doesn’t actually pay the bill himself, he leaves it for future generations of Americans.”
It’s misleading to count both of these jokes as equally partisan. In Leno’s example, the joke seems almost incidental to the talking point. But Jimmy Fallon’s joke is poking fun at Biden’s character, not smearing his political philosophy.
The whole enterprise seems misguided. Finding hidden political bias everywhere has become a parlor game and a weapon to discredit information politicians or pundits disagree with. When all sources are biased, there is no truth, only message. So the strategy goes. As a comedy fan I like to believe that good comedians use comedy to expose truth. It would be a shame if networks began pressuring late-night hosts to sacrifice truth in the name of balance.
The CMPA’s study looked just at the jokes, not the audience. But as Splitsider noted on Tuesday, the Hollywood Reporter has released a survey of late-night audiences. Among their findings: Daily Show fans are “Most likely to be married, Catholic, and drive a GMC truck” as well as watch HGTV. Jay Leno fans are the wealthiest, drink red wine, and prefer country music and Fox News. Letterman fans like How I Met Your Mother and drive Toyotas.
I think we’re being punked here. Pigeonholing demographics through their consumer preferences is nothing new, but this jumble of choices doesn’t make any sense. Wine-drinking country music fans? Daily Show watching truck drivers who like HGTV? During the Bush administration, this type of demographic data was used in service of the culture wars. (Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman in 2004: “If you drive a Volvo and do yoga, you are pretty much a Democrat. If you drive a Lincoln or a BMW and you own a gun, you’re voting for Bush.”) Some consumer choices became accepted as more American than others. The trend reached its peak in the hilariously outrageous anti-sushi, anti-latte Howard Dean ad:
Those divisions don’t match up with the data in the late-night audience survey, which by Mehlman standards would have all late-night watchers be equal parts American (country music, GMC trucks) and un-American (wine drinking, being a Democrat), no matter which show you preferred. Either the data is wrong, or we still have a lot to learn about ourselves.
Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.