What is the Colbert Bump?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Colbert Bump is a phenomenon which strikes people who appear on The Colbert Report, a television show broadcast by American network Comedy Central. Supposedly, individuals who make guest appearances on the Colbert Report experience an uptick in public interest after the show is broadcast. Several statisticians have investigated the Colbert Bump, and they have discovered that there is in fact some truth to the theory: using objective comparative measures like campaign donations, researchers found that a Colbert Report appearance did indeed result in increased popularity for many politicians.

When guests would appear on The Colbert Report with comedian Stephen Colbert, they were said to get an increase in popularity, known as the supposed "Colbert Bump."
When guests would appear on The Colbert Report with comedian Stephen Colbert, they were said to get an increase in popularity, known as the supposed "Colbert Bump."

Politicians are not the only ones affected by the Colbert Bump, although the impact on them is easiest to measure, thanks to the fact that political success is regularly measured with tools like polls. Authors who appear on the Colbert Report have experienced rises in book sales, and musicians have noted increased interest in their albums after appearances on the Colbert Report. Critics of the Colbert Bump theory have, however, pointed out that many of the people who appear on the show are already popular, so it's hard to say how much influence the Colbert Bump really had.

This phenomenon is clearly related to the popularity of the Colbert Report itself. The show regularly receives high ratings, and younger Americans especially have stated that they get a great deal of their information about American politics from the Colbert Report. The show has won a number of awards, and it has had a significant cultural impact; “truthiness,” a term from the show, was named the Word of the Year by Merriam-Webster in 2006.

Politicians are certainly well aware of the Colbert Bump, and the topic has even come up on the Senate floor. Stephen Colbert, the host of the show, also regularly references the Colbert Bump in his segments, and after an appearance by Presidential candidate Ron Paul in 2008, Colbert even did a segment specifically on the Colbert Bump, using Ron Paul's sudden gain in the polls after his appearance to illustrate the phenomenon.

Although the truth of the Colbert Bump has clearly been illustrated, statisticians stress that it should not be taken too seriously. By tracking public response to people who have appeared on the show over the long term, the Colbert Bump has been shown to be primarily temporary, with public interest returning to pre-show levels within a few weeks. However, the Colbert Bump could potentially influence the outcome of an election or an appearance on the best-seller list, if a guest spot was well timed.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What's missing here is that the Bump applies to Democratic politicians but not to Republicans. The statistical analysis that was done, and it wasn't meant to be encompassing, only used increases in political donations to politicians who appeared on the show as a specific measurement. Since Colbert pretends to be conservative but actually mocks them, the Bump gives a boost to Democrats while Republicans get no increase in donations. Long live Colbert.


I'm not surprised the Colbert Bump is only temporary. I'm sure a lot of people forget about the previous guests when they see the next episode of the show! Also, Colbert does tend to feature people who are currently newsworthy on his show. Once they stop being as newsworthy a decline in popularity only makes sense.

I definitely agree that this shouldn't be taken too seriously. I actually doubt that appearing on the Colbert Report could have any real effect on winning an election. Unless the politician says something extremely stupid on the show, that is!


@JessicaLynn - I can't speak for other political shows, but I have heard of this phenomenon in a different setting. I knit, and there is a very popular blogger/author in the knitting community called the Yarn Harlot.

Most knitters read the Yarn Harlot's blog, and even those who don't read regularly are still familiar with it. If the Yarn Harlot talks about a yarn or a pattern on her blog, it experiences an immediate increase in sales and popularity.

One different between the things the Yarn Harlot talks about and the politicians who appear on the Colbert Report is that a lot of the patterns aren't popular when the Yarn Harlot writes about them. So the blog entry is pretty much the only factor in making them popular. People who appear on Colbert's show are already well known though.


@miriam98 - I don't think comparing Colbert to someone like Rush Limbaugh is very valid. Colbert does joke at other people's expense, but Rush Limbaugh makes a lot of very hateful remarks, especially about women.

Anyway, I would be really curious to know whether politicians experience this same "bump" in popularity after appearing on other popular shows. Or maybe after being featured in a magazine?

It seems like any kind of publicity could increase a politician's visibility, not just appearing on the Colbert Report.


@miriam98 - What’s amazing is that many young people who get their news from Colbert actually think they’re getting real news. Yes, they can see that it’s filtered through humor, but I think Colbert has a higher credibility rating among today’s youth than just about any other anchor out there today.

I personally believe that this is a phenomenon that transcends political bias. Clearly Colbert has tapped the nerve of America’s young like no one else, comedian, politician or pundit.

@Charred - I would take some exception to your claim of his bipartisan appeal. Colbert is clearly a Democrat and a liberal. I think conservatives have been gracious to welcome his kind of jousting but that doesn’t mean they embrace him.

Do liberal politicians welcome the political humor of guys like Rush Limbaugh? I don’t think so. There is still a very clear partisan divide in this country.

I think if the tables were turned and Colbert were actually the President a lot of his jokes would come back to haunt him. A Colbert Whitehouse might not be the paradise that some imagine.


@allenJo - Colbert is a political commentator and a comedian. Most people think only that he is a comedian but I think it’s his political commentary that gives his humor its bite.

Colbert is so influential that he is treated as a VIP in some political settings, including the White House correspondent’s dinner under President Bush. Yes, Colbert became the correspondent himself. The Colbert correspondent took the opportunity to roast the President to the guffaws and giggles of people in the audience and even got a few chuckles out of President Bush himself.

There are not many kinds of pundits that have that kind of power. Of course humor always makes things go down easily, which is what makes him popular to people on both sides of the aisle I think.


I think the Colbert report is hilarious. I watch it when I can and Steven Colbert is a master wit in my opinion. Sometimes I wonder if the people that he interviews understand that it is even a comedy show.

I say this because from some of his televised interviews the subjects seem taken aback by Colbert’s witticism and snappy one liners, as if they thought he was serious when he wasn’t.

That’s what makes the show even more funny, this constant tension between uptight politicians and a master comedian. I had no idea that politicians appearing on the Colbert report episodes got a bump in popularity. I am sure they certainly don’t mind that, even if it meant being the butt of ridicule for even a few minutes on the show.

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