Punching Up

“But why aren’t rape jokes funny?” you ask.

They are…kinda.

….

Ok, I’ve now learned I can’t start blog posts in media res. Let me back up a bit.

Last night I was listening to Culture Wars Radio, Ed Brayton’s radio show that broadcasts out of Grand Rapids, MI. He had Jamie Kilstein on the show which, if you haven’t heard his stuff, you should immediately listen to his stuff. Seriously, there’s videos on his website, go watch a few.

I should mention now that I love to know how things work. Something becomes infinitely more amazing and wondrous to me when I grab its mechanism, when I can figure out how it does the thing it does. That’s why I adore listening to magicians and comedians talk craft with one another, since the way in which these two professions can, in front of people, manipulate an audience into delight baffles and charms me. I will happily listen for hours to discussions of slight of hand techniques, or how to properly ditch X, or how to write a joke that pushes a social boundary, or why the Simpsons is funny, but is it more than conventionally funny?

So, when Brayton and Kilstein started discussing the most recent comedy kerfuffle, which would be that Daniel Tosh is a moron, I sat up and listened for a good “why”.

For those of you who don’t much like feminist blogs or comedy blogs or Twitter or any of the other places where this was discussed, here’s what happened. Basically, Daniel Tosh was doing standup and mentioned that rape jokes were always funny. An audience member yelled back that rape jokes were never funny.

At this point, things are pretty standard. Comedian makes a statement, somebody in the audience responds, they go into “deal with heckler” mode. And apparently the impulse was to ask the following:

 “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

*blink blink*

Huh?

What, in the name of all that is good and nommy (Ceiling Cat be praised), would be funny about a woman being gang raped in front of a comedy club audience? Is this something that you require some sort of special pHD to get? What could possibly have been funny about that?

Cue Twitter firestorm in which people call him an asshole, he pretends to apologize, other comedians come to his defense…you guys have probably read my blog before. You know the drill.

Let’s look at another example from last week. Another of my favorite comedians, Bill Corbett, made a Twitter mistake. For those who don’t know him, you know him. He was the second voice of Crow on MST3K, as well as Observer (Brain Guy), a number of other small characters, and is now one third of Rifftrax.

Corbett’s mistake was a two-part tweet.

1) My son got a Transformer for his 5th birthday and named him “Tranny.”

and

2) I’d MUCH rather have my son playing with a Tranny-the-Transvestite doll than anything associated with Michael Bay.

At first he posted something that was not really an apology, saying he would look into it later, but largely trying to justify his behavior under the “all’s fair in comedy” clause. A couple of days later, he came back with a really well-written, tear jerking, and heartfelt apology for what was an honest mistake on his part. A friend of mine described it as “Jason Alexanderesque” and I agree.

Now, what was the problem with these jokes? They were just jokes, right? What made them offensive and why should a comedian who’s supposed to make people a bit uncomfortable if they’re doing comedy right apologize for making somebody feel uncomfortable?

The answer is that in both cases, the comedians were “punching down.”

Punching down is a concept in which you’re assumed to have a measurable level of power and you’re looking for a fight. Now, you can either go after the big guy who might hurt you, or go after the little guy who has absolutely no shot. Either way, you’ve picked a fight, but one fight is remarkably more noble and worthwhile than the other. Going after the big guy, punching up, is an act of nobility. Going after the little guy, punching down, is an act of bullying.

“But why aren’t rape jokes funny?” you ask.

They are…kinda.

(see why I wanted to start in media res?)

The reason why rape jokes are generally not funny is that the target of the joke far too often is not the rapist, but the rape victim. In the Tosh example, he’s not making a joke in which the five hypothetical rapists (and the idea that rape is intrinsically funny) are ridiculed and mocked for being awful, he makes one in which the woman he’s talking to needs to be brutalized by five people in order to shut her up.

A number of his defenders have described this as “edgy.” “He’s challenging our perceptions of rape!” No, he’s not. He’s going for the easy out by playing to our prejudices about rape victims and women who he implies are best kept quiet by forcing them into sex. People were telling that joke when Lenny Bruce was playing to crowds of three. People were telling rape jokes in fucking Pompeii, for the love of Ceiling Cat! That’s not edgy, it’s entirely predictable.

The thing is, rape jokes can be funny.

But what makes them funny is that the comedian in cases like that isn’t taking a shot at the victim. They’re punching up, addressing how terrible rape is and how awful the perpetrators of it are. In some cases they’re addressing rape culture, the tendency to look for rational excuses for a behavior that boils down to “that person gets off on forcing people to have sex,” or even recognizing how easy some people have it (i.e. men, who don’t really have to worry about rape all the time).

Punching up in comedy isn’t always about rape, obviously. What made George Carlin such an amazing comedian is that he was an expert at punching up. His best comedy was attacking institutions and repositories of power.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is George Carlin’s “Religion is Bullshit” routine from the You Are All Diseased tour in 1999. Arguably his most famous routine, at least on par with the Seven Dirty Words. If you haven’t heard it in a while, take a listen. BTW: All George Carlin routines are NSFW due to language.


Now, who is he making fun of? Carlin is clearly making fun of somebody or something. Actually, he’s making fun of two things: religious institutions…and god.

Talk about punching up!

Seriously, at no point in this routine does Carlin go into a riff about how dumb he finds religious believers, how ignorant they must be, how gullible or credulous. He doesn’t talk about how only a moron believes the bullshit story he lays out at the beginning nor does he get into a series of jokes about how believers will believe anything (it’s right there in the name).

Instead he talks about religious institutions and how they’re always asking for money as if god can’t handle a buck. He talks about the ridiculousness of prayer. He presents the problem of evil as if god were incompetent or ambivalent.

He goes after the powerful.

Daniel Tosh and his supporters live in a fantasy world where everybody has equal power, and that’s why it’s ok to go after everybody equally. But we don’t live in a world where everybody is equally powerful, has equal access to the mechanisms that make them safe, or is held in at least a default of equal regard. Lindy West puts it really well:

And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

And the thing is, Tosh is known for this kind of shit. Like that time that he encouraged people to “sneak up behind women” and “lightly touch their belly fat”, recording their reaction to send into him. Because encouraging people to record themselves touching unwilling people and making them out to be fat on television is funny…how again? I’d be more entertained if he got people to do it to mobsters.

You know what was a funny version of the same joke? Watch the episode of 30 Rock titled “Lemon in Real Life” (season 2, episode 8). During the course of the episode, Tracy Jordan mentions his love for “sharking,” and toward the end of the episode ends up sharking Jenna in front of what he thinks is a live audience he’s being broadcast to via satellite. I can’t find any clips from the episode, but take a look at this jpeg of an interaction to get a general idea of how the joke works.

You’ll notice, again, that the target of the joke here is not the “ladies on the street” that are being exposed and filmed. The target is Tracy, who’s willing to blame the Puritans for ruining the fun he could have by embarrassing random women on the street. The joke isn’t, “Look at how humiliated that woman is,” it’s “look how dumb Tracy Jordan is.” Again, same joke that Tosh was trying to do, but one punches up (at out of touch, coddled actors) and the other punches down (at women who don’t meet a vague standard of beauty).

Much has been made about comedy as art during this whole affair, often coming with some variation on “comedy is supposed to challenge people.” The questions then become, “Who are you challenging and why?” Are you trying to challenge an established power structure, or are you going after people who are already mistreated on a regular basis? Are you trying to poke holes in a pristine facade that is carefully maintained or are you just recycling stereotypes like a shadow puppet Punch and Judy show?

If comedy is to be good, if it is to be challenging, then comedians have to challenge the people who pose a threat to them and their audience. They need to join the audience together rather than pitting them against one another. They need to punch up.

40 thoughts on “Punching Up

  1. Okay, people how can Dez Bryant(Dallas Cowboys) only be a twitter trend for an hour, after it is made known he assaulted his MOTHER because she kicked him out of her house, but Tosh trends for 3 days for his incident? Who is more of an influence on youth? I don’t hear a cry about assault culture. Oh by the way some people on Twitter ended up saying things like “I’m about to go Dez Bryant on my mom.” Where is the outcry about those jokes. “His mother is a crack whore she deserved it.” Instigating “assault culture” yet I don’t see any hoopla.
    Bryant actually assaulted his mother slapping her across the face repeatedly(by hand, other stories with a baseball cap), people just shrug and go on with their days. This is exactly what those women were crying about, that violence against a women is accepted, and that is exactly what they are doing by not reacting to it. I find the Tosh hoopla idiotic, I also find it idiotic that something has to be blogged about and go viral for anyone to care. What is worse a joke, or an actual mother being assaulted? Internet says joke.

    • First of all, moral equivalence fallacy. One story is no more or less worthy of being spoken about than the other.

      But let’s address your point. “Assault culture” is not a thing. People are not dismissed because they were assaulted. Even in your example, she was dismissed because she was poor, black, a woman, or any combination of those. That’s the demographics that the phrase “crack whore” refers to. She wasn’t necessarily *asking* to be hit, but she deserved it because she was X. I’m not saying I agree with this, but that’s the basics of the attitude.

      When it comes to rape, the assumption in many cases is that the person was actively inviting unwanted sexual contact. Very rarely is somebody accused of inviting assault actively. That being said, rape is assault and therefore as much a part of “assault culture” as just hitting people. They’re related to the same problem which is that people in power think it’s entirely ok to make light of dire situations and then recoil when their careless words that make assault seem like no big deal are taken seriously. It’s that whole, “Who could have predicted that telling men they have to control the women in their life would result in some man hitting his mother to take control of her?” nonsense that wants to make people entirely control of every aspect of their lives and thoughts, and we’re far too complex for that.

      As to why the internet picked up this story more than others, could be any number of reasons, and I recommend thinking about why and writing something to try and explain it.

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  9. Hi, can I share parts of this blog entry on my tumblr in the form of a quote? Particularly the passages, “Punching down is a concept in which…” and “Much has been made about comedy as art…”

    • If you want to show all your friends how you brainlessly ape social justice slogans and would rather shout people down than have a discussion, sure, by all means!

      • I can see how strong your desire to have a discussion is by the way you address none of the points of the article and just throw out “social justice” as a pejorative. Honestly, I wasn’t aware that we had to have a discussion about whether a woman getting gang raped in a club was funny or not. Please, feel free to present your argument for why gang rape in any context, specifically within a club, is hilarious. I’m not censoring you, though I may grow bored if you don’t have any arguments that I haven’t already addressed.

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  14. This is just blatantly incorrect. From the perspective of the performer, the power structure being assaulted (punched up at) is that of the Puritan ethic where there are social taboos that must be respected regarding what is or is not okay to say. The goal is tear down the taboo which has existed for literally the entire history of America. That is punching up. The woman in the crowd is not a rape victim being made fun of. She is a part of the Puritan power structure being made fun of.

    • In what way is she a part of the “Puritan power structure”? She’s in the crowd and pointing out that it’s not funny to make fun of rape victims. It’s also not funny to suggest that somebody ought to be raped. This is not Tosh standing up for any principle except the one that says he should never be held accountable for saying that it’s hilarious when somebody is raped. The Puritan ethic has made this so common as a joke that it is neither edgy nor funny, it’s distasteful and boring. If he were the first person to make a rape joke, you might have a point, but the fact that his very premise (” rape jokes are always funny “) implies how common they are means that he is not punching at a repressive system that is limiting his ability to speak. He’s saying the same shit thing that thousands of comedians before him have said and doing it by making fun of rape victims.

      • “It’s also not funny”

        In your opinion. Comedy is subjective.

        “Rape jokes are always funny.” Could be interpreted as a joke in itself.

  15. Man, that was an awful lot of words to burn when you could have just said “I finally found a socially acceptable excuse to be a censor.”

    • Oh, we’re translating what the other said? I love this game! My turn. What you were really trying to say was, “You can’t publicly express an opinion disliking something I like or it’s censorship. But me saying that you have to shut up about your opinions isn’t because reasons.”

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  22. Great article, Kaoru. I’ve just linked to it to illustrate the concept of “Punch up, not down” that I’m trying to explain to some people on social media who think it’s sexist to shame domestic abusers with: “Real men don’t hit women” instead of, & I kid you not: “[Good] people don’t hit people”. No idea yet whether it’s going to help, but hey, gotta fight the good fight, yadda yadda. Wish me luck! :)

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  27. This is wonderful! I study comedy theory and I have been looking for an articulation that expresses these thoughts. Punching up versus punching down is an important distinction to be made in the comedy sphere. Shows like Family Guy and South Park make a living off of ‘equal opportunity offending’ and I have been trying to define where the line is drawn between the offensiveness of rape and victim culture versus religious pastiche in these shows. Your concepts of punching up versus punching down make a lot of sense and are a valuable contribution to the victim versus artistic license debate. I followed the Tosh incident and read a lot of the comedian’s responses that defended comedy for comedy sake, which were intelligent and coherent, but failed to recognize the difference between the noble joke and the bullying joke. I am an advocate for comedy to exist in many forms because it operates as a reflection of a subculture’s needs, desires, and anxieties, but when those elements are offensive it is easy to create an indivisible binary between funny and not funny. For those commenters, to your post, who enjoy the bullying joke and, consequently, dismiss your argument, they are reacting out of the same elitism that created the jokes they enjoy…which is to be expected, yet your argument is not condemning those who appreciate victim comedy it is just expressing an important difference which needs to be taken into account instead of people polarizing comedy instead of reflecting on how it operates. Thank you!

    Would it be acceptable for me to link your article in a post on my comedy blog in the future?

    Cheers,

    Hal

  28. I love this article, but I think some of Carlin’s material can be blinkered by his multiple privileges and unintentionally “punching down” as it were, such as his spiel about politically correct language. While I totally agree with his excoriation of institutions like the military attempting to sanitize state-sanctioned murder using euphemistic language (an example of “punching up”, by attacking an established societal institution that is doing wrong), he then goes on to dismiss anti-ableist language which is used because ableism in our society has often resulted in the abled using language to bully the differently abled (whether those people face physical or mental challenges) in such a way that language which once was only used clinically in medicine to describe certain conditions, resulted in them being used as terms of bullying, abuse and worse.

    And that kind of language does need to change, because words and their meanings are not static: prescriptivists may try in vain to try and maintain some semblance of coherence to words and how they are used, as well as what they mean, but in the end, words take on the meanings that society collectively gives them through use and misuse, and that is particularly the case with words used as derogative and pejorative slang, where some words which may have started out innocently enough have in time gained so much negative connotation and have become so emotionally charged that they are entirely offensive to the marginalized group against whom such terms are used in order to demean, dehumanize and oppress them.

    For that reason, I often find it difficult to listen to some of Carlin’s material now, as it just reeks of the kind of ignorance perpetuated by the blinkers of privilege.

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