Political Jokes

Jokes are often conceptualized as having a premise and a punch line. The premise places us somewhere in the real world and the punch line changes things up. To some extent this implies the premise is real and the punch line is fake. This syntax is hard-wired in us to the point where our subconscious mind recognizes the formula and is more likely to believe facts laid out in the premise.

This is a rhetorical tool that can impact people’s understandings without much notice. It’s a way to sneak facts into somebody’s mind. It allows for The Daily Show to “prove” that Hillary’s campaign is just like the Rocky movies. A Huffington Post article actually used the word “prove” in its headline.

The segment started with the following joke: “Hillary and Rocky are both lefty scrappers who get no respect. They both have an old guy who used to criticize them, but is now right in their corner.” The first sentence is the premise and the second is the punch line (referencing Bernie Sanders and Mickey). The syntax of the joke inclines us to look at the second sentence with skepticism, but the first sentence is to be accepted as fact.

That Hillary is a “lefty scrapper” and that she gets “no respect” is presented as simply giving context. This information is not meant to be challenged or even really considered. These facts slide past our lie detectors because they aren’t the meat of the argument. They are not the thing onto which our attention has been focused.

Another assertion presented in a joke premise is “Right now, Hillary’s going to train hard, earn our support and prove she’s who can go to the distance.” The joke-teller frames it where that’s the status quo, and the punch line will add some witty commentary. But those are not certain facts. It is not like saying the sky is blue. These are issues that could be the matter of substantive debate, but when they are slipped into joke premises our fraud detection systems often fail.

Many people watching will question the content presented in the punch lines but blindly accept that laid out in the premises. Comedians certainly can affect the political discourse, but powerful punchlines are often less powerful than surreptitious premises.