A Brief History of Punch-Down Comedy
When we talk about “punching down” vs. “punching up” in comedy, we are talking about where the cultural power of a joke is weighted.
Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais can’t seem to help themselves. After being chastised for transphobic material in the past, both comics doubled down and included more jokes at the expense of trans women in their newest Netflix specials, as if to insist that the issue of changing one’s gender was simply too funny, too absurd, to leave well enough alone.
In Chappelle’s “Equanimity,” the comic compared trans women to Rachel Dolezal, and admitted that he doesn’t understand them, but supports their decision to “cut their dicks off.” He used the phrase “man pussy” to describe Caitlyn Jenner, and characterized transgender identity as a phenomenon created by and for privileged white men.
In “Humanity,” Gervais performed an extended routine that began with deadnaming Jenner and riffing about her “enormous penis and testicles,” and ended with the comedian joking that he identifies as a “pre-op chimp” named Bo-Bo in need of “species realignment.” It would be easier to become a chimp, Gervais explains, than to become a woman and have his “cock and balls ripped off.”
It may come as little surprise that, in our current cultural climate, these jokes were not well received, particularly among LGBTQ viewers like former Chappelle fan Tyler Foster, who saw “Equanimity” as “regressive, exclusionary, and cruel.” The British charity Stonewall described Gervais’ Caitlyn Jenner jokes as “bullying,” and cited the high levels of real life violence and abuse faced by trans people. Critics agreed that these moments were “not a good look” for the comedians. Commenter Jay Smooth called it “lazy punch down humor,” referring to the act of picking on marginalized groups for laughs.
When we talk about “punching down” vs. “punching up” in comedy, we are talking about where the cultural power of a joke is weighted. The idea that humor should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” has been a sort of moral directive for comedians for some time. Dorothy Parker argued that ridicule was best used as a shield rather than a weapon – in other words, as a defense mechanism for the victimized instead of a tool deployed by the powerful. George Carlin echoed this sentiment, observing that “comedy has traditionally picked on people in power.” Kathy Griffin, defending Michelle Wolf’s incendiary White House Correspondents’ Dinner routine, explained that comedians are supposed to be “anti-establishment,” and “disrupt the status quo.”
It’s true that, in many ways, the American history of stand-up has been one of resistance and retaliation, shaped by outsider performers punching up at dominant culture. Moms Mabley called out white male bigotry; Lenny Bruce made fun of “goys;” Richard Pryor mimicked the vocal tics and mannerisms of whites; and countless other comics crafted their acts to satirize powerful political figures and institutions – President Richard Nixon was such a popular target that he sent undercover agents to comedy clubs. In recent years, women and LGBT stand-ups have used humor to challenge the logic of conventional gender roles.
At the same time, there have always been other performers who made careers out of ridiculing the most despised and misunderstood social groups – in Carlin’s words, “the underdogs.” For much of history, women, immigrants, racial minorities, and queers have been cultural scapegoats, the targets of derogatory jokes written and delivered by straight white men.