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U.S. Election 2016
Alec Baldwin, as Donald Trump, and Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, perform during the opening sketch of Saturday Night Live on Oct. 1.

Alec Baldwin, as Donald Trump, and Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, perform during the opening sketch of Saturday Night Live on Oct. 1.


Millions of viewers tune in every night to watch late-night TV shows. When presidential candidates are the regular punchlines, how do late-night comics sway U.S. presidential elections?

As if the U.S. presidential election couldn't stand on its own as a dark comedic display, late-night TV personalities are piling on – spinning one-liners and delivering biting takedowns.

Over the weekend, Saturday Night Live kicked off its 42nd season, promising to provide from now until election day in November a near-to-reality version of presidential politics in which veteran actor Alec Baldwin plays the seething, erratic, cocky real-estate billionaire who tells Hillary Clinton to "shut up" during a sketch mocking the first presidential debate.

The daily diet of late-night TV shows skewering the candidates provides shareable clips that can travel far on social media and disrupt a campaign's attempts to control the message about its candidate's strengths. Mr. Trump appearing unhinged in real life can be reinforced in a damning impersonation. Ms. Clinton's single-minded ambition and untrustworthiness becomes a regular punchline. The jokes can stick.

"It turned out that the more you watched late-night comedy the more likely you were to have the most dominant themes of those jokes at the top of your mind when it came time for you to make political evaluations," said Dannagal Young, associate professor in the department of communications at the University of Delaware.

Because jokes often pick at personality traits, voters are likely to remember those most-caricatured qualities when asked about presidential candidates, added Prof. Young, who studies the effects of late-night comedy on viewers.

If some voters in 2000 felt that George W. Bush scored low in presidential intelligence and that Al Gore was a walking robot, there is a reason for that. Late-night comics had zeroed-in and relentlessly mocked Mr. Bush's command of foreign policy and Mr. Gore's stiff public persona.

The Trump punchlines

Stephen Colbert, on Donald Trump’s debate night sniffling: “He sounded like the coked-up best man in the bathroom at a wedding."

Jimmy Fallon: “There are now about six more weeks left in the election. And we know that because this morning, Trump’s hair popped out and saw its shadow.”

Trevor Noah, on how debate organizers caved in to candidates’ demands: “They gave Hillary a shorter podium, and they let Donald Trump stop and frisk Lester Holt.”

In 2016, parts of the late-night comedy scene are relentless in their anti-Trump critique, and that is a big shift from past presidential elections, according to Prof. Young. The message from these comics to viewers, she added, is simple: "Trump's crazy and the people who support him are crazy."

When Mr. Trump tried to put an end to the "birtherism" controversy in September with a short statement tacked at the end of a lengthy press conference showcasing his new hotel in Washington, comedian Seth Meyers exploded with an expletive-laden rant.

"You don't get to peddle racist rhetoric for five years and decide when it's over. We decide when it's over," he said to loud applause.

Donald Trump: Obama is American, blames Clinton for ‘birther’ controversy


Seth Meyers: ‘You don’t get to peddle racist rhetoric … and decide when it’s over’

On the other end of the spectrum are comedians like Jimmy Fallon, whose chummy handling of Mr. Trump and ruffling of the now-famous hairdo caused a stir because some felt it sent voters the wrong message.

"Why do so many Americans think playing footsie with fringe hate groups isn't a disqualifier from polite society, much less the presidency?" said Canada-born comedian Samantha Bee during her Full Frontal monologue. The answer was obvious, at least to Ms. Bee. Late-night comedy had normalized Mr. Trump.

Ms. Bee is among those comedians making it her mission to help translate Mr. Trump wherever there may be any ambiguity about what he means.

After playing a clip of the Republican candidate from the first presidential debate during which Mr. Trump dodges a moderator question about what he meant when he said Ms. Clinton lacked a "presidential look" – he said he was referring to her lack of "stamina" – Ms. Bee was unequivocal.

"Just say penis, Don. Three-syllable words don't suit you," she said.

Samantha Bee: ‘Just say penis, Don’

With such an array of comedians taking digs – and often full-blown swings – at the Trump candidacy, there is the question of how political humour and satire are likely to influence voters.

"My hunch is that the fact that late-night content is so unapologetically critical of Donald Trump … that constant reminder to the American public that this guy is unhinged, a demagogue, narcissistic, unpredictable, dangerous – I think that will have some kind of effect, especially on that core middle part of the country upon whom the election outcome really rests," said Prof. Young.

In a Revisionist History podcast episode called The Satire Paradox, the writer Malcolm Gladwell explores current research showing how political satire gets laughs, but also taxes the cognitive functions of viewers occupied with trying to process the joke.

What gets lost is that next step: absorbing the underlying critique and assessing whether it is fair and worthy of consideration, according to researchers.

Mr. Gladwell uses the example of comedian Tina Fey, whose 2008 Saturday Night Live portrayal of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is still widely hailed as a triumph. But the writer views it as "toothless" and argues that by focusing on Ms. Palin's manner of speech, the real problem is ignored: her politics and lack of experience.

"Saturday Night Live has taken out its dentures and is sipping the political situation through a straw. Lord help us if some other even less qualified and more frightening political figure comes along," said Mr. Gladwell in the August podcast.

Actress Tina Fey plays Governor Sarah Palin and actress Amy Poehler plays Senator Hillary Clinton on

Actress Tina Fey, left, plays Governor Sarah Palin and actress Amy Poehler plays Senator Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live in 2008.

Dana Edelson/AP

The idea that late-night TV comics can make the Trump candidacy so unpalatable that it impacts voters on election day is not likely to happen, according to Heather LaMarre, a professor in the school of media and communication at Temple University in Philadelphia.

The field of research looking at the effects on late-night comedy on the democratic process is still evolving. But there are some established findings, said Prof. LaMarre.

Late-night comedy engages people in the political process, although it is often a younger demographic that ends up skipping voting day; it can misinform – it was Tina Fey, not Sarah Palin, who said: "I can see Russia from my house;" and it has the power to persuade.

On the last point, added Prof. LaMarre, the most likely to be persuaded are those viewers that don't have preconceived political ideas – she calls them the "mushy middle" – whereas the hardened viewers with firm political identities will see and hear what they want to hear.

Stephen Colbert's "God, are you there?" sketch from May depicts a liberal-leaning creator.

"What is with you people? C'mon, I give you free will and you nominate a guy who looks like a microwave circus peanut," says God when the comedian informs him that Mr. Trump is set to become the Republican presidential nominee.

"Okay, that's it, that is it, I'm taking away your opposable thumbs," God later adds, before giving up on Americans and vowing to move to Canada.

To anti-Trump viewers, God's reaction to the rise of Trump is about right. To Trump supporters, the sketch could be seen as a hilarious liberal-America fantasy.

Stephen Colbert: ‘God, are you there?’

What will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks is how shows like Saturday Night Live handle the depiction of Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton, says Prof. LaMarre.

If sketches shift from lighthearted parodying to ominous and dark satire, those in the "mushy middle" could tune out and end up sympathizing with Mr. Trump.

"If Alec Baldwin goes down that path [of dark satire], then people will start to think: 'This is not funny, it's just mean,'" she said.

It's not just Mr. Trump who is the subject of mockery.

A summer segment by Mr. Colbert picked at Ms. Clinton's carelessness while using a private e-mail system to share classified documents.

"You were so vulnerable to hackers that you might want to check your e-mail servers for fortune cookies, because I'm guessing there's been a lot of Chinese takeout," he said.

The Clinton punchlines

Kate McKinnon, who plays Ms. Clinton on Saturday Night Live, telling voters: “If you never want to see my face again, elect me president. And I swear to God I will lock myself in the Oval Office and not come out for four years.”

Stephen Colbert: “You’re so dishonest, Hillary ’16 is the number of times you’ve told the truth.”

Jimmy Fallon: "At a town hall in Iowa, a voter asked Hillary Clinton how her views align with the Ten Commandments, and she said that 'in many areas judgment should be left to God.' Then God was like, 'Okay, you really shouldn't have deleted all those e-mails.'"

The underlying critique of late-night jokes about the Clinton e-mail server scandal is that there are serious questions about the candidate's competence, integrity and trustworthiness, says University of Delaware's Prof. Young.

That critique is hard for liberals and Clinton supporters to hear when presented seriously because it creates "cognitive dissonance," she said.

But in the late-night comedy setting the audience is less defensive.

"When people are in that state of play and they are reconciling that joke and the punchline is that Hillary Clinton lied and has stuff to hide and has this crazy server in her basement, all of a sudden those things are now in your mind and you are treating them differently," said Prof. Young.

"You're not immediately out of hand saying, 'Stop! That's not right, she had reasons, it's not that big of a deal,'" she added.