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Why "Punching Down" is Irrelevant to Comedy

A speaking event at a library I did a while back. Not glamourous, but fun nonetheless.

I remember taking a comedy writing class with Second City many years ago where the object was to learn about, write, and get feedback regarding satire.

The teacher made it clear that avoiding “punching down” and “adhering to the power structure” is essential for proper comedy writing. The idea being that if you were a member of a group known to have power, you cannot be writing jokes about people known to have less power.

This is much of the logic behind canceling comedians who have made controversial jokes about subjects and/or people you are not supposed to write about for the purpose of comedy.

One famous example is Dave Chappelle who got into trouble for often talking about LGBTQ, particularly Trans, and his point, if you actually watch his specials, is not that he is against Trans people, but rather he can make jokes about it like he could anything else and as long as it’s funny then he is doing his job as a comic.

Seinfeld, most recently, has also noted in an interview with Bari Weiss that “comedy is binary” meaning that you either laugh or you don’t, and so everything else is just commentary or talk from all the lovers/haters out there.

What’s interesting about Seinfeld is that not only is he known as a “purist” in the world of stand-up because that has been his love and passion more than TV, film, or any other job he’s had, but his comedy has been for the most part generic — in the best way possible — meaning stuff we all can relate to (observational) and almost always is clean and non-controversial. Doing jokes about raisins likely won’t cause a media storm on X or Instagram (unless those raisins are talking about politics of course).

Jimmy Carr has frequently performed on this topic in the midst of doing “edgy” jokes that are edgy on purpose. He’ll say, correctly, that there is a big difference between a thing and a joke about a thing.

At the end of the day, the concept of “punching down” boils down to the offensive aspect of comedy. If you are offended by any joke and do not laugh, then for you this is clearly not good comedy and you probably won’t want to watch that performer anymore, which is reasonable.

Louie C.K. is another comic who has routinely done an act about really dark aspects of humanity or what one could easily call “contrarian” comedy. This style is certainly not for everybody but for his audience, he will continue to be highly successful because even after his “canceling” which was regarding shady personal behavior that got caught up in the MeToo movement, he came back doing his thing, talking about terrible subjects in a humorous way, and still selling out huge venues.

In this sense, Seinfeld is correct: Comedy is a big equalizer. Like professional sports, you either perform to win the game (getting laughs) or you don’t so the world ultimately doesn’t care about anything else (assuming you like that sport and assuming you like that style of humor).

When I took that comedy writing class, I was accused of punching down — of violating a rule of the class where I joked about things that were (according to the teacher) taboo. I actually brought up the idea of some things being politically incorrect. Amazingly enough, nobody really knew what that meant. The teacher even asked the class to define it, and one student replied, “it means to punch down” and the teacher agreed. There were four online meetings for this class, and I, shockingly, was kicked out after the 3rd one. If there was one place I thought I could be safe making jokes and discussing comedy, it would be a satire writing class — but clearly I was wrong. That class was not my kind of humor you could say, and so I just had to move on and not let it get to me.

Perhaps I was ahead of my time because the piece I shared that started the issue that turned everybody against me was about education, and how colleges can be a tough place to be an educator due to the culture and politics of the moment. As we have since seen with the conflicts in the Middle East, as a clear example, university professors have probably had the most volatile times in decades to teach whatever subject (particularly though history, politics, and humanities courses).

Seth McFarlane, I will never forget, was on a late night talk show and he had mentioned that while in the writers room for Family Guy, a question that would often come up, “is this joke funny enough to be this offensive?”

Clearly, comedians take chances with their performances, some more than others but in order to get to the laugh, we often have to go there and for that reason you can see it one of two ways: As a vile thing that strips one of their humanity or — as an artform.

I find it absurd to think of comedy as anything other than an artform. I find it absurd to attempt to take the absurd seriously.

If the terrorists in places like in the Middle East actually had a sense of humor, I wonder how differently things would be. Life is, after all, too short to not be making jokes.

Obviously some aspects of art are and will always be offensive. If you thought Joan Rivers was offensive and too dirty for your taste, then you probably didn’t go to her shows or turned off the TV if she was on it.

Some people make fun of Joe Rogan because his shows are often 3 or 4 hours long — and friends have told him, at least for business reasons, to edit it. He replied — “they don’t have to listen, they can just turn it off.”

Too many fantastic comedians, like Chappelle or notably edgy comic Ricky Gervais are keen on Seinfeld’s point of view. Being offensive is not necessarily the goal, but laughter is. It makes sense that you wouldn’t want to support an artist because you differ with them politically (or stylistically), but in the end, if they get laughs then they are getting their job done as a comic.

I look at great standup the way art fanatics look at the Musée d’Orsay — just beautiful work that elicits great feelings of joy. After seeing a polished set by a Brian Regan or a George Carlin, I’d argue it is not only art, it is like seeing a wonderfully satisfying game of football, it is an adventure.

I say comedy is a ride, and in my view, a fun one I hope to experience time and time again.



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