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Laughter Beyond Resilience - Webpaper #3

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Marni Klein

Professor Dalke


10 May 2011

Laughter Beyond Resilience: The Use of Political Humor

            In one of our group discussions, we talked about the uses of humor and why we laugh. One person said that we employ laughter as a form of resilience, a coping mechanism. This is certainly one of the reasons why we laugh, but it is not the only reason. I was surprised that this cause was the main topic of the discussion. We barely touched on the use of humor in a satirical sense, when an individual intentionally provokes laughter from an audience. Nor did we talk about how this deliberate use of humor can influence the audience’s opinions. In this paper, I will first discuss laughter as a form of resilience. I will then show that resilience is not the only determining factor in the employment of laughter, but that it can be utilized to mock an individual or event, which in turn can transform a person’s opinion. To demonstrate this function of humor, I will provide look at a sketch from Saturday Night Live during the 2008 election.

            I came across an article titled, “The Evolution and Functions of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach,” by Matthew Gervais and David Sloan Wilson. In the article, the authors describe two types of laughter: Duchenne and non-Duchenne laughter. Duchenne laughter is “stimulus driven and emotionally valenced,” while non-Duchenne laughter is “self-generated and emotionless” (Gervais and Wilson 396). It is this latter form of laughter that we talked about in class. Gervais and Wilson write that studies have shown that non-Duchenne laughter “occurs more during casual conversation than following deliberate humor” (396). I believe this is part of the reason why we focused on laughter as resilience in class. I think that people were trying to focus on the non-obvious use of humor, on how the individual uses humor to express and change his or her own emotions, versus eliciting laughter in others. The question was raised about how humor relates to evolution, and, in my opinion, people in our felt that such an explanation could only be provided from the individual level. Resilience refers to the positive ability of an individual to deal with stress. Laughter is, therefore, a form of resilience because it can be used as a coping mechanism. As Gervais and Wilson write, “laughter can be expressed simply in response to an awareness of stress (i.e. nervous laughter)” (400). But laughter goes beyond resilience. This brings me to Duchenne laughter, and its manifestation in political humor.

            Duchenne laughter is humor-driven. It is associated with the positive emotions “with which it coincides” (401). It can link the emotions and behaviors of individuals within a group and “promote the integration of new individuals into an already present group structure” (403). This relates to the use of political humor on Saturday Night Live, in the sense that, during the 2008 election campaign, candidates were introduced to the public either through spoofs or actual appearances. While such portrayals of these political figures may not have always put them in a good light, they did get people around the country more interested in the elections. These portrayals also influenced the way people viewed the candidates. The show did not necessarily intend to sway public opinion in one particular direction, but it did seem to have that effect. A lot of people do not “follow the media closely” (McHugh 3). For these individuals, “satirical shows (such as Saturday Night Live) can hold even greater sways” (3). Political humor, as satire, can actually benefit candidates (in some cases). Though satires of political figures may not always portray the candidates in a positive light, they can still benefit the candidate. As mentioned above, Duchenne laughter is associated with positive emotions. By being joked about on Saturday Night Live, a candidate can show that he or she “has a sense of humor” which enables him or her “to connect with voters in a more humanizing way” and attain a kind of “instant sort of credibility” (6). By “humanizing way,” the author means that, unlike shows such as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, comedians on Saturday Night Live  “are playing roles rather than making direct politic commentary […] provid(ing) a means of comic correction wherein political players can accept their roles as comic clowns” (6).

            While satire may have brought more attention to candidates and the political events occurring at that time, this attention did not always benefit the candidate. I said before that when a candidate shows a sense of humor, he or she connects to the public. But, if a candidate is not willing to show a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at his or herself, the attention may only focus on the negatives, which in turn will influence the public. Many of the sketches about Sarah Palin, played by Tina Fey, made jokes about her “intelligence, physical appearance, and folksy ways” (8). Such jokes, and Palin’s unwillingness to accept her “role as a comic clown,” shaped the public’s opinions about her, raising questions of her credibility and experience. These jokes were based of real life incidents, and in many cases, contained direct quotes. My favorite sketch that (unfortunately for her) exemplifies the damage that political humor did to her image is the parody of Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric (see link and transcript below). In real life, the interview did not go well, and in fact, made her “look less qualified” than her previous interview. The reason I like this sketch is because, even though it emphasized Palin’s lack of experience and her “folksiness,” is that Tina Fey made Palin seem likeable. I believe if Palin played off of this and used it to her advantage, she could have regenerated her campaign. But instead, the “actual interviews and the humor” that was built up from them “through the spotlight of SNL” made Palin “even more of a comedic figure,” which in turn only injured her already damaged image (15-6).

            As I have shown in this paper, laughter is more than a form of resilience. Individuals use humor not just to cope with stress, but also as a way of influencing an audience. Political humor is an example of this. As long as those at the center of political humor are willing to accept their position as the subjects of jokes, they will elicit positive emotions among people, through Duchenne laughter, promoting a better relationship with them.  


Here are the links to the transcript and video of the SNL interview:





Works Cited

Gervais, Matthew and David Sloan Wilson. “The Evolution and Functions of Laughter and

Humor: A Synthetic Approach.” The Quarterly Review of Biology 80.4 (2005): 395-430. Web. 17 April 2011.


McHugh, Mary. “Live From New York: The Impact of Saturday Night Live and Late Night Talk

Shows on the 2008 Presidential Election Race.” Midwest Political Science Association 2009 National Meeting (2009). Web. 6 May 2011.