An Interview with Sociolinguist Otto Santa Ana

by Matt B. on March 7, 2011

Otto Santa Ana is a sociolinguist and critical discourse analyst at UCLA.  He is the author of several books, and he is currently at work on a book-length study of “ethnic and other kinds of out-group humor” in the mass media and politics.

Professor Santa Ana recently spoke at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard.

In your presentation, you talked about some recent research on the ambiguous politics of Stephen Colbert, and the ambiguous effects of watching his show. You cited an Ohio State study in which several hundred people were shown a clip of the show.  Broadly, it turned out that liberals thought Colbert was a liberal, while conservatives thought of him as conservative. What it is about Colbert’s comedy that enables people to come away with such different interpretations of what he’s up to?

Colbert is in character…throughout. He plays that self-absorbed guy who has a very conservative perspective, and is self-important. Now, irony and satire is a more challenging process to process conceptually or cognitively than straight jokes, because what it does is you’re reading material, and you have to say, “Well, there’s not enough information.” So, you have to reevaluate everything. So, it’s a double take that’s involved. Now, if people don’t realize or feel that there’s no signals out there that he’s giving us [that] this is satire, then people might misread it. So, that’s what’s considered ambiguous; that there’s no confirming information in his shtick that comes out signaling “definitely parody, definitely parody.”

In contrast to John Stewart, what John Stewart does is he actually jumps around from one character to the next. He interrogates himself as a commentator, and he even laughs at himself. You see him move sort of from one position to another.


The classic example of…misunderstanding satire is Jonathan Swift, when he proposed cannibalism of little Irish babies in 18th century. He wrote articles, saying, “The Irish problem, there’s too many Irish people, they’re all poor, they’ve got too many kids. You know, they’re pretty tasty little things if you roast them the right way, and so we could get rid of it. We get rid of the problem, and have a good meal as well.”

So, people were outraged until they realized it was satire. It still trips up the student who is not aware of that.

So…that’s the argument [about the study]. It was eight hundred people, it’s statistically done, and so forth. But I really am a little concerned about that because that takes a lot of willful inattentiveness.

Right – because if you watch The Colbert Report from start to finish, and particularly if you’re a regular viewer, there are all kinds of giveaways.

Yeah…I know…from the study that they did look at particular clips, so it isn’t regular viewer[s], as far as I can tell. They did differentiate between regular viewers and non-regular viewers, but they didn’t report very well….[B]ut what was interesting was two different studies confirmed that….

There is really clearly more energy involved in looking at irony and satire….[A] classic example is “The Office.” I’ve asked people who watched “The Office” all the time. They think, and they love it….But if you watch an episode, and you’re not a regular viewer, or you watched it and you don’t like it, it’s primarily because you don’t see that it’s satire.

So, for the ‘Colbert Nation,’ everyone loves him. Everyone knows it’s satire, and everyone is on that position. You know, they’re standing with him in terms of his political stance. It’s in these channel-surfing kind of moments that I think the researchers are [interested].

I’ve got to say, I’m not so sure where Colbert stands a lot of the time. I’m aware that he’s speaking in hyperbole and caricaturing a certain kind of political commentator, but it’s not always clear to me where he comes down personally.

Right, exactly…because he doesn’t tell you….Did you happen to see him testify on farm worker issues?

Yes, I did.

That was striking because he was being challenged to leave, so he really did have to struggle to maintain the character. He could not be as cocky and self-assured, until he could present his statement. And that was quite interesting for me, because I haven’t seen him nervous, even when he roasted George Bush.

You make a distinction between comedy that reinforces the status quo – ‘hegemonic humor’ – and two types of comedy that challenge the status quo – ‘anti-hegemonic humor’ and ‘counter-hegemonic humor’. Talk about those concepts.

Well, the basic proposition is that in political humor, there’s always a “butt.” There’s always the target of the mocking, or the ridicule, or the put-down. And there’s a purpose of political humor – to create in-group solidarity among the people who are laughing at that butt. And the comedian, if he or she is successful, is able to be part of that in-group at the expense of the out-group that’s being distanced emotionally with the physical laughter, with the actual physiological response of the laughter.

Given that premise, then, the question is what the social relationships are….

In political humor, by and large we’re talking about social structure. And when we laugh at Obama, at Hillary Clinton, at Brad Pitt, or at the federal government or the Congress, we’re laughing at entities or individuals who have greater status and greater power than we do as the general public, so that I call anti-hegemonic humor.

[T]hat humor makes us feel good, as lowly, little, puny individuals, when we face someone like Obama, who is the strongest, the most powerful man in our country, and probably in the world….[W]e bring him down a notch.

Now, if you laugh at mentally challenged [people], at minority groups, at undocumented immigrants, you are laughing at groups of people who have lesser status than you and the general audience, and so that I consider hegemonic humor – it’s reproducing and reinforcing the relationships that already exist.

Now, counter-hegemonic humor is the different animal. [It is] the kind of joke that questions the structure of society at large – some major mega category, such as race or gender. [Think of] the commercial that Bud Light played during the Super Bowl last year.

That was a classroom of second language learners – they were immigrants from all over the world, and they all had pretty thick accents. They demonstrated power over the native English-speaking audience by not allowing other people to have a [bit of] their drink [by pretending not to speak English].

[That]…allowed…the people who were less capable of carrying on a conversation and maintaining their status – because they have a weaker control of English – to turn the tables on monolingual America. That’s why I consider that a counter-hegemonic joke.

It’s ironic for me because Mencia is one of the worst of the hegemonic joke tellers. This was the exception. I’ve never heard him tell what I would feel is a politically cool joke. And that was it.

But other people—it’s not my coinage; well, maybe it’s my coinage—but other people have made that distinction. What I do is I try to put it into an explanatory setting….

You also shared some findings about Jay Leno and the frequency with which he tells hegemonic jokes at the expense of illegal immigrants.

[A] couple of years ago, a paper came out that I wrote on Jay Leno’s humor. We looked at five days of monologues, and those five days are right before the great immigrants’ rights marches of 2006.

His jokes during that five-day period were almost all about immigration, so there were thirty-six jokes – thirty-five – I’m not sure….[A]lmost all of the particular jokes that we could count had to do with immigration, and undocumented immigrants, or unauthorized immigration. That was pretty clear.

What’s striking about him is Leno’s writing team for jokes had an intuitive sense of what a social movement was.

[Take] Sydney Tarrow, who’s the sociologist…who…came up with four factors which were present in successful social movements, movements that led to greater civil liberty.

So, the classic cases I think about are the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, 50’s and 60’s. You had to have a large number of people committed even to the point of personal, individual loss. They had to have a high moral standing in the general public’s eye. So commitment, numbers, willingness to sacrifice….Oh, the other thing was they had to have legal authority to do what they needed to do, so they shouldn’t be lawbreakers in some sense.

[T]he upshot is that Leno actually touched on—he gave jokes that attacked each of [these] four different areas.

[T]hat was what was striking – although he repeatedly states that he does not take political positions – that he’s ‘every man’. With regard to unauthorized immigrants and the rights [and] civil liberties of all people in this country, he was very eager and systematic about it, mocking immigrants and…their positions.

Who else do you think of when you think of examples of hegemonic humor?

Comedians and stand-up comedians are—oh, okay, this is the way to do it. The best examples are Futurama, Family Guy, South Park – all those sorts of…situational cartoons.

They’re the ones that really are addressing [substantive issues] – frequently and regularly…they exploit social structure, and they mock it. And so, they have a stock set of characters, you know who they are…and then it’s just one situation after the other.

Stand-up comedians are a very different crowd. That’s a very specific psychological profile, that stand-ups have. So those guys, on the other hand, really need to make themselves vulnerable in public – either to crash or to receive all the laughter that they can from an audience. They use every kind of joke.

And who do you think about when you think about counter-hegemonic humor?

Dave Chappelle – his classic counter-hegemonic joke is, of course, Clayton Bigsby, the blind, African-American, White supremacist. Remember that one?


That’s the most incredible skit for mocking the blindness, the ignorance of racism. And yet, he also had to play over and over and over a crack addict….So, he played to stereotype, as well as playing against stereotype, in a very, very remarkable way.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: