Schudson, who teaches at the Columbia Journalism School, does not advocate for one model of citizenship over another, as each of these eras was plagued by different threats to democratic health. But his reminder that rational, staid political discourse and participation are cultural constructions, not a fixed reality, allows us to consider some functional alternatives. 

To date, most quantitative studies of the impact of Colbert and The Daily Show have been rooted in rational political science, the un-fun Mugwump model of citizenship. We tend to ask respondents the old (sometimes 60-year-old) National Election Studies questions like, “Do you know how much of a majority is necessary for Congress to override a presidential veto?” (to measure civics knowledge), and, “Did you try to persuade someone whom to vote for?” and “Did you donate money?” (to measure political participation). Though there is evidence of a Stewart-Colbert effect when looking at these rational constructs, imagine what we will find if we begin to ask questions that better capture the spirit of what political humor really does for its viewers.

For example, when analyzing the impact of political satire, Jeffrey Jones, director of the George Foster Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia, suggests we should consider how viewers use political satire and parody to connect with politics and find meaning in political issues. Colbert and Stewart, Jones says, present political stories and issues in a way that is accessible and appealing, making viewers feel more connected to politics and empowered to think about it in an active and playful way.

The idea of measuring something as squishy as “play” or “connection” might send quantitative scholars running. However, several recent studies suggest that these outcomes are real and can be captured through innovations in measurement and analysis.

For a forthcoming article in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, my colleague Paul Brewer and I looked at how college students’ prior exposure to The Colbert Report affected their later exposure to traditional news stories. Participants read news stories about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and super PACs, a topic with which Colbert dealt extensively over a period of months on his program. They were randomly assigned either a story that mentioned Colbert’s super PAC, a news story about super PACs that did not mention Colbert, or a control. What we found, among other things, was that those students who were avid viewers of The Colbert Report in real life experienced dramatic increases in their sense of political efficacy when exposed to traditional news stories about super PACs (regardless of whether those stories mentioned Colbert). Their prior exposure to The Colbert Report armed them with information and awareness that made them feel more confident in their ability to navigate our complicated political world.

Another soon-to-be-released study that I conducted of college students’ reasons for watching (or avoiding) shows like The Daily Show and Colbert suggests that viewers’ uses for these programs do not fit neatly into an entertainment-or-information dichotomy. While some viewers reported watching The Daily Show and Colbert as “sources” of news, or as “sources” of laughter, a large proportion of respondents said they watched the shows to find the humor or joy in information they had obtained elsewhere. Similarly, a smaller contingent of respondents reported using The Daily Show and Colbert as sources of context to help them create meaning out of information they already had.

Dannagal G. Young is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware and a research fellow at the university's Center for Political Communication. She is also a professional improvisational comedian with ComedySportz in Philadelphia.