Tuesday, February 20, 2024

"Punching up/down" in comedy: dating a lexical innovation in English

Any educated English speaker nowadays is likely to be familiar with the idea that comedy should punch up, not punch down: i.e., that it's okay to make fun of people more powerful than yourself, but not of people less powerful. But I remember being struck by the novelty of this expression when I first encountered it, well into adulthood. Notwithstanding the recency illusion, a bit of research suggests that my impression was correct. The earliest attestations I've been able to track down online go back to July 2012, in connection with a controversy about rape jokes made by some comedian named Daniel Tosh:

"Kilstein trots out the old trope that all comics are victims who have been bullied and that’s why we’re doing standup. Total bullshit, of course, but he uses the tired cliche to glorify himself and others– who are “punching up”– and characterizes Tosh and others as tyrants or bully comics who are now punching down." (Brian McKim & Traci Skene, Tosh.Opus, 16 July 2012)
"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." (the pseudonymous "Kaoru Negisa", Punching Up, 19 July 2012)

All three writers are, naturally, American, and at least two of them are standup comedians themselves. Presumably the expression would already have been in use in some circles - perhaps backstage in standup comedy - for some years before that. But internal evidence suggests that it was still not assumed to be familiar to a general audience; both sources feel the need to put it between quotation marks on first use, and one even provides a definition, treating it as a metaphorical extension of a meaning used in the context of fights rather than as a familiar term in the context of comedy. (As further evidence, one may point to its complete absence from this 2012 Jezebel article about the same controversy; had it been written a few years later, it would seem unthinkable not to use the term "punching down" in expressing these ideas.) The term's use on MSNBC (as mentioned in the first source) would have been a good first step towards making the term familiar to a wider audience. By 2014, it was already appearing in The Atlantic (""We like standing up for the little guy, we like punching up," Bolton said."). On Google Books, however, the earliest hits in the relevant sense show up only in 2016, at which time the "'punching up' vs. 'punching down' dichotomy" could still be described as a way in which this tension has "recently been encoded" (Taboo Comedy.) Before that date, the object of "punching down" mostly seems to have been bread dough.

Can anyone find an attestation predating July 2012? And does this new terminology represent a new concept of comedians' moral duties, or just relabel an older one? If the latter, what did earlier American comedians call it?

Via @sanddorn on Twitter and Matt Farthing, a 2011 attestation - once again by a stand-up comedian, but from England this time.

"And a lot of comedians do jokes that I think aren’t funny enough to justify what they are about, and there’s plenty of ways you can be offensive without ‘punching downwards’. When FB does jokes about Palestine or black people there’s much more of a point behind it really. But it’s difficult because that’s his job, that’s how he sees himself – as this comedian who’ll say anything and make jokes about anything." (Richard Herring, 18 January 2011, )

And using this, I find that Ben Zimmer managed to discover an even earlier attestation, in a good discussion of this term's origins: a blogpost, also by Richard Herring, in December 2010. Note that, in these earliest attestations, it appears as part of a broader metaphor of likening satire to punching rather than as a preset cliché: "the weak punching the strong, rather than the strong bullying the weak", "Though there are no rules, comedy, I feel, should be siding with the weak and the oppressed and punching either inwards (at the comedian him or herself) or upwards (at the powerful or the oppressors)."

The metaphor derives, as Zimmer notes, from the world of boxing: "If you’re punching up, you’re taking on an opponent who might be taller or perhaps in a higher weight class, while punching down would be for an opponent who’s shorter or in a lower weight class." But its transfer to comedy doesn't appear to have been direct: the earliest relevant metaphorical uses found by Zimmer reflect power differentials in the contexts of British football (2002), then American politics (2006).


David Marjanović said...

What Zimmer found was the earliest written attestation. The podcast transcript you're linking to shows Keith Olbermann using it in 2006 already, in his TV show.

2010 sounds about right for it breaking out into the blogosphere from Olbermann's somewhat insular audience.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

It would be if it's about comedy, but it's not clear to me that the Olbermann transcript related to that context; it looks like, as Zimmer says, political commentary. Other attestations in the same decade show it being used for American politics without any comedy context, again against Fox: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/weekinreview/18davidcarr.html?_r=0 .

David Marjanović said...

I see.

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