Punching Up vs Punching Down
I've been hearing this phrase over the last few years, so figure I'd make a post just so I can get it out of my head & reference it later.
It's a comedic axiom known as "punching up vs punching down."
This has to do with social power dynamics. The idea is simple: Your power & influence should alter who you publicly insult. Because your power effects the joke.
You should always "punch up" — meaning insult people of higher power & influence than you. And you should never "punch down" — insult somebody of lower power & influence than you.
I get the axiom. It makes sense. There's a lot of wordy articles on the Internet trying to disprove this or make this point needlessly nuanced. There's no need. It's simple. Use it.
I'll just add two little bits of commentary: On mastery & proper comedic hygiene.
On proper comedic hygiene
The people I see defending their right to insult people below them appear, to me, to be the same: Nazi-sympathizers or pseudo-enlightened dude bros (often white).
I don't know why they're getting so worked up about this subject. It's obvious they enjoy making fun of minorities, women, etc and just want an excuse to do it.
People have the right to express their stupid opinions all they want, and try to persuade culture to espouse their ideas. That's literally the definition of the First Amendment: To convince the voting public of your position. The thing is... the position of "punching down" is inherently distasteful. Negative association alone diminishes the power of the argument.
Remember: This is comedy. The main result is to laugh. This shouldn't be complex.
So, although many of these comics defending "punch down comedy" use a variety of arguments, their theory is flawed. Their basic defense is that they have the right to "punch back" (whatever that means), and that "comedy has no rules."
The idea of "punching back" is lame. Comedians aren't attacking a specific person (unless it's a heckler or punching up!). If a comedian does attack you, and it's slander, sue them, ammirite? No problem there. And, sure, "punch back" (it'll actually be an act of "punching up").
But if somebody perceives comedy-in-general as a threat to their existence, and so in response they begin "punching down" to whomever they don't like, out of fear... That's not a good look. That kind of behavior will only attract weirdos & fanatics. And it won't persuade others.
As far as "comedy has no rules" ... That's where my "comedic hygiene" idea comes in. This is where I split from general opinion to dogma. I expect nobody else to accept this dogma. It is my own. Now that's been established, this is the dogma:
Comedy's function is to express our anxieties about living by helping us laugh at it.
Comedy, by this definition, is an overall good thing. Yeah, it gets into the dark places with tension & shadows. Yeah, it gets weird. But it's ultimately there to help us laugh about life, as a manifestation of the very joy of life.
Because of this dogma I believe comedy should be self-regulated for good hygiene.
One should hold themselves to the comedic discipline of never punching down.
This should sound like: "Never mix paint thinner in cake batter." Because it's the same.
In this way, comedy is like cooking...
Does cooking have rules? It sort of doesn't (since it's creative), but obviously it does! You wouldn't cook with dirty hands, unless you want people to get sick. The oven works a certain way. Ingredients mix in certain ways. You can throw an egg at a wall to crack it, but won't do you much good. There's chemistry involved. Math. Digestion.
The end result of a recipe is reproducible but the experience is ephemeral and unique.
The same goes for comedy. Joke structures may be set, but the audience is experiencing it new during a live show. Ultimately people pay to laugh & have a good time.
To excuse whatever impulsive behavior you have just because you say "comedy has no rules" is a cheap gimmick, not a solid aesthetic theory.
It's like shitting in a souffle. "What? I thought cooking had no rules?!" Give me a break.
Comedy is like cooking. It's a matter of taste.
Comedy should be hygienic... Not "G-Rated" "bland" nor "mainstream." Hygienic — Meaning: Safe to eat. Comedy should never oppress. Not even for shock value.
This notion of "comedic hygiene" is about mindfulness in the construction of your set / and when you improv on stage. This is to help you move through your set with confidence, knowing you don't have to cower over certain topics or stupidly go forward into others. Because comedy, ultimately, should make your audience feel better about themselves and about the life we share together. It should be a positive social catharsis. Even when you're screaming about totalitarianism, like Bill Hicks.
Comedy should dismantle oppression. It's not a licence to shout about whatever you want. I mean, you can... It's just going to suck.
All of this is dogmatic & true... Unless! You're a comedic master.
You know who you are because there's only a few of you. They're the household names.
And not even all the household names. Only a select few within those.
If you're thinking this is you, I assure you, it's not. I'm making this note about mastery because it's an important — specific — exception to the rule that a lot of dopes bring up.
Masters are people who've refined their craft over decades. It's intuitive to them.
When a master performs, in any medium, they're creating something with nuance, elegance, minutiae, and surprise. The rules still apply, but masters stretch them.
An aesthetic master is like a Large Hadron Collider (one that can cook!)
Having paid their dues & accumulated mass influence over society, they now have the ability to create new dimensions of thought by stretching the edges of what we accept as possible... A comedic master does not take this responsibility lightly.
The very definition of mastery is somebody who thinks all the potential thoughts before doing something, then adds one unique thing on top. Maybe it'll fail. Maybe it won't.
But the effect will ripple through society. And it'll be a work of supreme craftsmanship.
Can a comedic master punch down? Yes. They're the only exception to the rule.
The intended effect is to make us laugh HARD. And on a subconscious level, the joke helps dismantle the system of oppression more than maintain it... Only a select few possess the mastery to pull this off. That person likely isn't you. At least, not yet! :-)
So, I guess what I'm trying to say is: Shut up, NaziMAGA333.