After nine years hosting one of the most popular comedy programs on air, it’s hard to remember a time when Stephen Colbert might have been mistaken for the kind of conservative commentator he satires. Yet before Colbert became an international celebrity, some people didn’t know what to make of him—especially if they agreed with what he seemed to be saying.
Some research has suggested that the mixed messages in “The Colbert Report” might actually make people more sympathetic to Republicans. In a 2008 paper in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan Morris, political scientists at East Carolina University, devised an experiment to explore how Colbert’s message was really coming across. They recruited over 800 college students and divided them into three groups: One watched clips of “The Colbert Report”; a second saw clips of “The O’Reilly Factor”; and a third group didn’t watch anything. Both sets of video clips concerned the same subjects, like the Mark Foley scandal and the U.S.’s policy on torture.
The students then took a survey about their political beliefs. Both groups—whether they’d been shown "Colbert" or "O’Reilly"—were more sympathetic to conservative points of view. This leaning affected issues of both policy and character: They were more likely to believe Republicans would do a better job than Democrats at managing the economy, and they reported more “warm” feelings toward George W. Bush. “Not everyone comprehends the nature of Colbert’s satire,” says Morris. “Early on in his career, people didn’t know where he was coming from. His character caught people off guard.”
Students who watched "Colbert" also ended up feeling less confident about their understanding of politics: They were more likely to agree with the statement, “Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on.” (Similar research on “The Daily Show” shows the opposite effect: Jon Stewart—whose style invites his audience to feel like they’re in on the joke—leaves viewers feeling more confident in their political knowledge.) “The mixed messages contained in Colbert’s presentation create the possibility that young viewers may actually become more confused about politics,” write Baumgartner and Morris.
One major caveat is that the study only measured viewers’ feelings directly after watching the clips; we don’t know if there was any meaningful long-term effect. And like many psychology studies, it relied on a pretty homogeneous sample: 81 percent were white and everyone was under 25. They were also a little more politically sophisticated than the general population, having been recruited from intro-level political science courses. In other ways, though, the students were a good representation of Colbert’s average viewers. Their political affiliations were similar to those of the population at large—30 percent Democrat, 37 percent Republican, 33 percent Independent or “no preference.” Their TV habits also resembled those of their age group at that time: 27 percent regularly watched “The Colbert Report” or “The Daily Show,” as did 26 percent of 18–29 year olds in the country.
Colbert isn’t the first left-wing comic to be blamed for accidentally aiding conservatives. Back in the 1970s, liberal commentators began to worry that viewers of the popular sitcom “All in the Family” might not be laughing at the racist, bigoted Archie—as the writers intended—but identifying with him. In 1973, a pair of psychologists, Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach, set out to test this hypothesis empirically. Vidmar and Rokeach questioned 237 Midwestern high school students on their interpretations of “All in the Family,” and, as they suspected, they found that not everyone was getting the joke. Forty-two percent believed Archie usually “wins” at the end of the episode, and 35 percent said there’s nothing wrong with Archie’s use of ethnic slurs.
Vidmar and Rokeach also gave students a survey to test their degree of prejudice, asking questions like whether they believed black and white children should go to school together and whether hippies should be “forced to take a bath.” When they broke down the results, they found that the more prejudiced viewers were more likely to admire Archie and to see him as something other than the butt of the joke. Both the “high-prejudice” and “low-prejudice” groups found the show equally funny, though: Unprejudiced viewers are laughing at Archie, while prejudiced viewers are laughing with him.
“People see what they want to see,” says Heather LaMarre, a professor at Temple University. “It’s a psychological principle called motivated processing.” Just a few years ago, LaMarre and colleagues at Ohio State University showed that many Conservatives still didn’t “get” Colbert: They showed 332 college students clips of “Colbert” and found that the more conservative a student’s personal views, the more likely she was to believe that Colbert wasn’t kidding. Colbert ends his show as a liberal hero—but he might have a broader reach when he breaks character.