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Robert Hariman

Professor and Communication Studies chair Robert Hariman

From Tina Fey's uncanny impression of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live… to spoof sites like 23/6 and the Borowitz Report… to the endless stream of YouTube videos virally spreading through cyberspace at record speeds… political satire in Election Year 2008 has been off the charts.

With comedic campaign coverage so much a part of our everyday lives – and candidates countering by trying to strike the perfect balance between the silly and the severe – the timing has been perfect for the SoC's Robert Hariman, professor and Communication Studies department chair. His article entitled "Political Parody and Public Culture" found its way into the most recent Quarterly Journal of Speech (Vol. 94, No. 3, August 2008). The peer-reviewed journal publishes articles and book reviews of interest to those who take a rhetorical perspective on the texts, discourses, and cultural practices shaping public opinion. You can view details on how to order individual issues or subscribe to the QJS online.

Hariman's article covers political parody in all its forms – including sketch comedy, editorial cartoons, comic strips, satiric magazines, animated sitcoms, late-night TV monologues, and even live theatrical improv troupes like Chicago's own Second City. He recently discussed his research and writing with the School of Communication:

SoC: What is your article's primary argument?

HARIMAN: I argue that political humor is a vital element of a healthy democracy. If the US had nothing but reasoned persuasion and rational deliberation, we would be in big trouble. Comedic highlighting, mixing, and debunking of all forms of speech is essential to maintaining the scope and vitality of the public communication. Parody is the core operation of political humor, and I identify some of its basic techniques. These include exposing the limits of public speech, encouraging audiences to be actively critical, and leveling social hierarchies.

SoC: Where did you get the inspiration to write your article?

HARIMAN: I was struck by the creativity and influence of The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report during a period that was otherwise a study in degraded public speech. Parody was clearly where the action was in the public culture. More than that, it was one of the few examples of the press really standing up to demagoguery. In the last year, the role of the comedians has grown exponentially and is one factor in raising the level of public talk and grassroots response in this election. Look, for example, at what Tina Fey has done in countering Sarah Palin's use of the anti-intellectual and nativist appeals that the GOP has been using successfully for years.  

As I was developing the article, I was encouraged by the experience of participating in a mock trial of Jon Stewart at the annual convention of the National Communication Association. The event was a lot of fun, and the room was packed with over 400 people, which told me something about the interest in the subject. My remarks on Stewart are published in another journal – Critical Studies in Media Communication (Vol. 24, 2007) – in an essay titled "In Defense of Jon Stewart."

SoC: So, how do you plan to integrate your writing into classroom curricula?

HARIMAN: I'm now much more attentive to what's happening in American comedy, and more likely to bring it into both teaching and research. I also include a weekly "sight gag" at my blog, In fact, I now believe that you shouldn't claim to have understood any political activity until you include an account of how it is parodied.