Date of Award

May 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Lois Agnew


affect, feminist rhetoric, humor, political satire, rhetorical analysis, rhetorical circulation

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation offers an analysis of how popular political satire news shows use humor, emotion, and circulation to critically respond to emergent exigencies and power dynamics. This project is grounded in the primary research question: how do these shows, through the affective processes of production and circulation, impart critical literacies uniquely suited for our current moment?

Drawing from classical rhetorical theory, feminist and queer affect studies, and rhetorical circulation studies, I analyze three popular political satire shows: Saturday Night Live, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. All of these shows highlight the everyday effects of policy and political debates on individuals in a greater effort to call for political action, are among the most popular of the political satire television shows currently on air, and provide a different lens through which to investigate satire’s rhetorical and affective character. For each show, I analyze a YouTube clip and viewer responses posted on the show’s YouTube page. Together, the YouTube clips and viewer responses build an affective network for each show, offering insight into how their rhetorical ecologies shift and are repurposed in the service of different arguments and political ends.

From this analysis, I argue that these shows operate as forms of affective rhetorical intervention uniquely suited for the spectacle and divisiveness that characterize the current political milieu. Affective rhetorical intervention employs emotion as a rhetorical strategy to dismantle and effect change within dominant arguments and narratives. In my analysis of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, this intervention aims to convince viewers that all information is framed through the lens of some type of bias. In Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, this affective rhetorical intervention is channeled towards feminist consciousness raising and confrontation of institutionalized racism. Saturday Night Live employs humor and affect to kairotically respond to changes within the milieu, particularly the growing influence of personality over viewers’ political decision making and voting practices.

My study contributes to the field a rhetorical and affective inquiry into how popular forms of satire respond to a political moment in which we are hard pressed to tell the difference between a salacious rumor and news. Focusing on the rhetorical processes of these shows also complicates the affective feedback loop of cynicism often associated with contemporary political satire. Finally, this project provides critical insight into how and why viewers increasingly turn to political satire as a legitimate source of news, interjecting nuance into dichotomous perceptions of political satire news shows as either democratizing forces or sources of apathy that exacerbate partisan polarization.


Open Access