While doing some reading for my graduate seminar I came across this neat study in Social Science Computer Review (no, not making the name up) that looks at the effects of Internet humor. Ya know, the JibJab Effect.
The set of experiments by Jody Baumgartner (who has done some interesting stuff recently) finds that often humor has a negative relationship with exposure to Internet-based political humor and evaluations about political institutions and actors. But -- there's always a but -- self-effacing humor can have a positive impact on evaluations about a politician. In other words, the JibJab Effect here is positive because it's kinda self-deprecating. Of course it's not really self-deprecating since in this case neither Bush nor Kerry actually performed, but you get the idea.
So what's it all mean? I'm reading a bunch of humor stuff for my class this week, about Colbert and Stewart and even a fascinating case study of a politician's attempt at humor on TV that goes wrong). The basic result is that humor of a negative tenor tends to damage perceptions of our major institutions and political actors, at least a little. And people tend to report lower self efficacy (or internal efficacy, for you polisci types). Nothing much to report on political knowledge, but I suspect humor gets in the way of learning.
Thus we have the two big camps: parody and satire are bad, or they are good. The answer? Probably both. How's that for a PhDweebish fence-riding response?
I do believe satire and parody and humor serve an important role in political communication. The viral nature alone has a function, as well as shared experience. But there are downsides in all of our traditional dependent variables: efficacy, cynicism, trust. Is one worth the other? It doesn't matter, not really, since we have no control over them. I'd put this recent explosion of political humor in the category, to borrow a book title, of amusing ourselves to death.