Lee Drutman has written this excellent article over at Miller-McCune about research on viewers' perceptions of Stephen Colbert's actual politics:
They then asked participants to evaluate Colbert's ideology and his attitude towards liberalism. What they found was that the more liberal participants reported their own ideology to be, the more liberal they thought Colbert was. And the more conservative they reported their own ideology to be, the more conservative they thought Colbert was. Both, however, found him equally funny. The results are published in the April edition of the International Journal of Press/Politics. "Liberals will see him as an over-the-top satire of Bill O'Reilly-type pundit and think that he is making fun of a conservative pundit," LaMarre explained. "But conservatives will say, yes, he is an over-the-top satire of Bill O'Reilly, but by being funny he gets to make really good points and make fun of liberals. So they think the joke is on liberals."...
..."The nature of satire, when you boil it down, is that messages are to varying degrees implied messages," explained Lance Holbert, a professor of communications at The Ohio State University who studies the intersection of entertainment and politics. "It requires the audience to fill in the gap, to get the joke. And it requires a certain bit of knowledge to fill in the gap. ... Certain types of humor are much more explicit. In satire the humor is very complex."
Just like 12 year olds and college professors can love the same South Park episode. Or the Simpsons. Or the Sarah Silverman Show.
Is it possible for irony to ever be used transformatively? Does it matter if the audience understands when you're winking? Is this simply a brilliantly inclusive form of comedy?
Like my friend Andrew says, "Even when you're doing it ironically, in the end, you're still just doing it."