Title page for ETD etd-10292007-182007

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Sarver, Danielle Lynn
URN etd-10292007-182007
Title "But Seriously, Folks...": Understanding the Political Effects of Late Night Television Comedy
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Department Mass Communication
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Kurpius, David Committee Chair
Erickson, Emily Committee Member
Garand, James Committee Member
Osborne, Anne Committee Member
Kamo, Yoshinori Dean's Representative
  • late night talk shows
  • "The Daily Show"
  • political evolution
  • Jay Leno
  • political sophistication
  • independence of thought
  • construction of meaning
  • Jon Stewart
  • David Letterman
  • Conan O'Brien
Date of Defense 2007-09-14
Availability unrestricted
The potential political effects of late night comedy programs have been a subject of much debate and concern, particularly since the 2000 Presidential election. Research into this area has been characterized by inconsistency in operationalizations of audiences and an almost exclusive focus on quantitative research. This project was designed to address key concerns that are central to this burgeoning literature by examining “heavy” viewers of late night talk shows (including audiences of Leno, Letterman, and Conan O’Brien) and “heavy” viewers of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” A combination of qualitative and quantitative methodologies were used to understand the relationships between late night comedy viewership and how citizens engage with the political world and news media. In addition, I sought to understand the perceived benefits of viewership (entertainment versus information), including how audiences construct meaning around political information and integrate said information into their views of the world.

Findings indicate viewers of late night talk shows tend to be politically unsophisticated and low news media consumers, relying on incidental exposure to news about current events that are introduced throughout the day in the course of other activities (i.e., news headlines on email servers, jokes in late night monologues). Viewers of “The Daily Show,” however, are on the other end of the political spectrum, reflecting high levels of political sophistication and high news media consumption. They tune into “The Daily Show” for a “twist” on news stories with which they are already familiar, expecting Stewart and his team to provide a humorous slant on current events.

The differences between these two audiences can be attributed to their political evolutions. A function of independence of thought and political sophistication, engaging in a political evolution process allows citizens to thoughtfully and deliberately consider (and re-consider) their political beliefs and perspectives. This conscious and effortful engagement with political information means those who are highly politically evolved have flexible and well-functioning mental schema in place to understand and contextualize new information, draw connections between seemingly disparate issues, and recognize and challenge media conventions in political coverage.

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