SU Professor Writes Book on Political Humor

“A conservative walks into a bar,” sounds like the start of a joke, but for one Shippensburg University professor, it marks the beginning of a new way to study politics in America.

“A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor,” is a new book written and published this fall by Alison Dagnes, associate professor of political science at Shippensburg University.

The book analyzes, among various facets of political humor, the growing presence of political satire in the increasingly polarized world of American politics. It also examines the contemporary satirical media’s role as a source of news and political commentary.

“Modern political humor is a rich and important field, one that provides some of the most forceful and incisive commentary around today,” Dagnes writes in the beginning of the book.

“But in our increasingly particularized political media system, there are efforts now to denounce the merits of political satire because conservatives say it is biased. So is it biased? Yes. Is that a problem? No,” Dagnes said.

The significantly larger presence of liberal satire is discussed, in particular thanks to the ever-expanding following of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”
“What Colbert and Stewart do so well is media criticism and partisanship on both sides, which is very informative,” Dagnes said in a book discussion on the Shippensburg University campus last Tuesday.

“That’s what satire is — taking down big sacred cows,” Dagnes said.

In the wake of September 11 and the early Bush years, satirical political commentary gained momentum as partisan politics grew further apart, with major news media networks following the dividing line. In the book, Dagnes mentions Rolling Stone Magazine’s comment that “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart’s mock journalism “beats the real thing.” This is in large part due to “bad quality news these days,” according to Dagnes.

During the book discussion Dagnes used famous satirically political riffs like George W. Bush’s “strategery,” or Sarah Palin’s “I can see Russia from my back yard,” as small examples of political satire’s impact on political commentary. Though neither was actually said, both became virulently associated with their respective politician’s character in the media – all thanks to fictional sketches on “Saturday Night Live.”

“This is what parody is – taking the obvious characteristics of someone and amplifying them for comedic effect,” Dagnes said. “That shows the impact of satire and how it adds to our vernacular.”

The nature of this liberally biased media-presence phenomenon has more to do with left and right political philosophy than satire, according to Dagnes.“Ideology clearly plays a role here because liberalism serves as a better foundation for satire than conservatism does, simply by virtue of its philosophy,” Dagnes writes. “Put another way: conservatives want to maintain the status quo and liberals want to change it. Satire aims at questioning the power structure, so why would conservatives want to do that?

The short answer is, they don’t.”The growing, liberally satirical “powerhouse of cultural influence” and the sway it maintains over young voters is both reason for the conservative complaint, and for studying this growing forum for political commentary.In her book, Dagnes admits to being no expert in comedy, stating she’s a political scientist interested in the way we communicate how we receive political messages and their broader impact on American politics. In her animated, witty and quick live persona, the reason is a little different.“I like to talk and think about things that are funny,” Dagnes said. “I liked hearing stuff that would make me laugh.”

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