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Demosthenes's avatar

Is the concept of "punching up/down" in humor legitimate?

Asked by Demosthenes (14902points) October 30th, 2020

It’s an idea in comedy and satire that making fun of the establishment/white people/rich people or anyone else in the majority or seen as having power in society is “punching up” and thus okay and funny, but making of racial/sexual/religious minorities or people who lack power in society is “punching down” and thus is not okay and not funny.

From an article on the concept:

“Trans people, people of color, immigrants, ESL immigrants — whoever might be considered a minority — are the worst targets, because comedy inherently requires a shift of power. People who are targets merely for existing are already operating at an inherent loss; the real gold is in taking a shot at someone who thinks they’re invincible. At comedy’s core is risk, and there’s no risk in making fun of the already-mocked.”

So what do you think? Can “punching down” be funny? If you’re a member of a minority group, do you find humor targeting your group to be funny? (I am Hispanic and LGBT. I can find humor targeting these groups funny if it’s clear that it doesn’t come from a position of contempt. The problem is when it’s not clear).

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15 Answers

hmmmmmm's avatar

Yes. And just to be clear – it’s not that comics can’t find audiences that will find low-effort, tired punching-down humor funny. It’s just that comics who do so are not guaranteed this audience.

This is connected with the concept of “pc and cancel culture”. You can say any boring shit you want, but it doesn’t mean that you are somehow protected from people responding to those words.

gorillapaws's avatar


I would argue that shock comedy can sometimes get away with “punching down” because what makes it funny is how wrong the joke itself is. It’s like a kind of meta-humor that’s self-deprecating, so the butt of the joke isn’t the person/people who is/are “down” but the joke itself—and by extension the comedian telling it.

ragingloli's avatar

Like that joke by Jimmy Carr:
When you are part of a group, you have the right to make fun of that group.
For example, gay people can make gay jokes, fat people can make fat jokes, and black people can make racist jokes.
So, a paedophile walks into a bar….

stanleybmanly's avatar

You are asking about the borders between good & bad taste—a hopeless task regarding what is and isn’t funny. It makes for interesting thinking. Take for example the standard opening in loli’s joke above. There’s no restriction on poking fun at alcoholics or pedophiles.

Zaku's avatar

Punching down can be funny, to people who don’t care about being offensive and/or laughing at suffering people.

“AHAHAHA! Look at that limbless cripple try to get into that chair! It’s so funny! Throw a rotten tomato at him! AhaHA! That’s even MORE funny!”

Y’know, Joffrey Lannister will think it’s a gas.

zenvelo's avatar

”’s clear that it doesn’t come from a position of contempt”

That isn’t punching down, that is telling a joke. As a general rule, though, there is a layer of contempt when using other groups as the target of humor.

Don Rickles used to justify his humor as insulting everyone. But it was so tiresome and really not funny, and served to separate people more than unite them.

Demosthenes's avatar

This dichotomy assumes that “punching down” carries little or no risk, but it seems to me that doing so has resulted in career death and actual death in the case of French satirists mocking Muslims. So I’d say there can be substantial risk in that kind of humor. I’m not saying that makes it funny, but framing comedy in terms of “risk” leads to some ironies.

hmmmmmm's avatar

@Demosthenes: “This dichotomy assumes that “punching down” carries little or no risk…”

Could you elaborate?

Demosthenes's avatar

I was referring to Scaachi Koul’s conception of the core of comedy being risk (in the BuzzFeed article I linked). I understand what she means: taking a shot at someone with power, who thinks they’re immune to being lampooned, is more risky than going after easy targets that society already looks down on and mocks. So I was pointing out that the threat of your career ending if you venture into a certain kind of humor is a kind of power dynamic, whether or not it reflects the traditional model of who has and doesn’t have power in society. Trump may be powerful, but he’s become the easiest fodder of all and a comedian who mocks Trump is hardly a maverick. So then what makes something an “easy target”?

zenvelo's avatar

Punching down carries risk of being labeled (rightly) an asshole.

Punching up does not carry that risk at all; there is no real risk from punching up (unless you are Kathy Griffin who went too far with her beheading joke). In fact, what makes trashing Trump so funny is that despite his power, the man only laughs at the unfortunate,a and cannot laugh at himself.

hmmmmmm's avatar

@Demosthenes – Saying anything publicly is risky. And if your career is dependent on balancing risk/reward, then that’s the job. Speaking specifically of comedy, of course there are certain targets that are going to be more risky than others. Ridiculing Muslims might be punching down in the sense that they’re already vilified and are at risk in the US just for being a Muslim. And in this case, “punching down” means that you are siding with the majority – and the concentration of power. It’s the move of a bully. If some asshole decides to blow you up for it, that doesn’t change the power structure in the US or the dynamics of living as a Muslim.

@Demosthenes: “Trump may be powerful, but he’s become the easiest fodder of all and a comedian who mocks Trump is hardly a maverick.”

There is nothing less funny than Trump humor. It’s extremely safe because it a) is tightly constrained to a few character targets (appearance, language, truth, etc) and hardly ever about policy due to much bipartisan agreement, and b) it doesn’t challenge power. It challenges one man.

@Demosthenes: “So then what makes something an “easy target”?”

It depends on the audience and the context, but you know. This isn’t very complicated. And it doesn’t always have to come back to Islam. More importantly, make sure you’re not considering “career risk” as a measure of “punching up” or “punching down”.

Honestly, drilling into this as much as we already have is giving this whole concept too much credit. Comedy is either funny or not. And it’s speech. If a comedian expects to be doing standup gigs in safe spaces for comedians, then maybe that is what they should be advocating for.

Demosthenes's avatar

Yes, I know, there’s nothing less funny than analyzing comedy. This spun out of a discussion on another site about the recent events in France but I did not intend for this to only be about Islam and Charlie Hebdo (which is more about free speech and the position of Muslims in French society), but rather about whether the concept of punching down or up in relation to humor is valid itself. It seems most here think that it is. I just did not agree with the idea expressed in that article that punching up or down corresponds with risk, because it does not necessarily do so. That does not mean I reject the concept of punching up/down.

Obviously something is either funny or it’s not and it can’t be demarcated objectively. I may find gay jokes funny. I know other gay guys who do not. There is no one “correct” view of humor that makes fun of gay men and those who tell such jokes cannot expect everyone to like them and expect to face no criticism.

SavoirFaire's avatar

I think you are conflating two separate things. The distinction between “punching up” and “punching down” is old, and the concepts have long been a part of practical comedic theory (that is, the lessons that comedians learn and share with each other). The distinction exists alongside concepts like callbacks, reversal, and crowd vs. audience, and it has to do with what works (i.e., what’s “funny”) in the majority of performance situations.

The question of whether or not punching down is “okay” is a relatively new discussion, and it comes out of our growing recognition of the various ways in which words matter. It concerns the way that punching down can contribute to the othering of certain people, the distinction between allowing something and encouraging it, and the nuances of when someone is really up or down (since any given individual will have a variety of aspects that could potentially be targeted by a joke).

It’s true that sometimes people use “funny” as a normative concept rather than a descriptive one (i.e., they’ll say that something isn’t funny when what they mean we ought not find it funny, as opposed to using the word “funny” to describe anything that anyone has ever laughed at). And it’s true that people will sometimes declare an entire category of jokes to be “unfunny” (in the normative sense) when they’re really targeting a particular subset of jokes in that category. But that doesn’t mean we should continue the conflation.

Darth_Algar's avatar

It’s a legitimate concept and yes, “punching down” can be funny. As far as I’m concerned no subject is in itself off-limits.

doyendroll's avatar

The concept is risible.

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