Punching Up Instead Of Down: The Art Of Finding The Proper Victim In Comedy

At some point in this movie, Seth Rogen maybe wishes he didn't anger the American Sniper crowd.
At some point in this movie, Seth Rogen maybe wishes he didn’t anger the American Sniper crowd.

My wife and I watched The Interview off Netflix recently.  It was funny in some places, not so much in others, but it got me to thinking about why it is considered acceptable to mock some figures in comedy and not others.  The basic idea is, it is OK to “punch up” and not to “punch down”.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with free speech rights or anything along those lines.  It simply has to do with what is and is not funny.  That’s highly subjective at the best of times for any number of people.  So, to make things as clear as possible, these are my thoughts on what is and isn’t funny, and that is not to stop anyone from making jokes at the expense of anyone anywhere.

Also, there’s going to be some MASSIVE SPOILERS below the cut for The Interview, so you’ve been warned.

To start, a few months ago while listening to a woman give an interview on NPR, I heard a few things about The Interview before it came out, and she raised some good points.  The woman in question was a Korean-American journalist who wrote an expose on life in North Korea under Kim Jong-un, and she felt it was wrong and irresponsible for anyone to mock the lives of average North Koreans.  These people are poor, hungry, and deserving of pity.  Their lives should be above being the butt of jokes.  She also didn’t seem to think mocking Kim Jong-un was much better if I remember right, but I’ll get to that, so hold on.

The idea this woman was basically expressing is that it is OK to “punch up” in comedy and not to “punch down”.  Punching up is when the comedian makes those in power above him or her, or at least people on his or her own level, the target for the humor.  Punching down would be mocking those below the comedian.  The idea is the former is acceptable, while the latter is wrong.  The former is OK because in reality we should perhaps challenge our assumptions about those above us, one of the functions of comedy, and the latter is wrong because it seems just plain mean to pick on people while they are down.

Case in point:  classic film comedians like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges often crash and ruin high society parties and gatherings.  If poor people are portrayed for laughs at all, it will be to make their poverty seem more absurd than realistic.  Think of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character making a meal of his own shoe.

This theory is an old one.  In medieval societies, the one who could speak truth to power was the court jester, the only figure at court who could tell the king when the king was wrong, but in a humorous manner.  This leads to the trope of the Wise Fool, a figure found in many places, such as Shakespeare’s plays King Lear or Twelfth Night.  The Wise Fool can recognize when the king is wrong, tell him so to his face, but do so while seeming simple and stupid, or just for a laugh.  No one else would dare criticize a king.

This brings us back to The Interview.  Seth Rogen and his longtime friend and collaborator, writer/director Evan Goldberg, do an interesting take on North Korea.  The real North Korea is probably decades at best away from having a nuclear missile that could hit the United States, but to raise the stakes and make the movie’s basic premise (that an entertainment journalist and his producer will be recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un) seem more acceptable this fictional version of North Korea has nuclear capability and could wipe out the west coast of the United States.  The real North Korea is hardly a friendly nation, and could be a large danger to its neighbors, but it isn’t much of a direct threat to the mainland United States.  The movie changes that much.

What makes it odder, then, is that the movie seems content to mix facts about how awful life in North Korea is, and the cult of personality surrounding the entire Kim family, with clearly crazy and exaggerated scenes.  Actor Randall Park’s version of Kim Jong-un at times probably would not have looked too out of place hanging with the guys in Rogen, Goldberg, and James Franco’s previous collaboration, This Is The End.

This facet is what I found most problematic with The Interview.  Very little of what happens to the Kim character is anything new.  His own father was the villain for Team America, Saddam Hussein was killed in each of the Hot Shots! movies, and the opening scene for The Naked Gun had Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin infiltrating a meeting of various real world figures and beating the snot out of them while they planned something to make America look bad.

The thing is, these other movies are clearly being played as completely absurd.  Frank Drebin smacks around the Ayatollah Khomeini, Yassir Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Idi Amin among others in a fight that would have made Larry, Moe, and Curly proud (you can see a figure representing Fidel Castro at one of the table when the scene starts).  Saddam in the second Hot Shots! movie fights with a lightsaber and reforms like the T-1000 after being shattered into a thousand pieces.  And Team America was made entirely with puppets by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, two guys who may not know what restraint is.

But The Interview uses real things about North Korea.  HBO’s Vice did a report inside North Korea while traveling with Dennis Rodman.  Much of what Vice showed mirrors Franco and Rogen’s tour, and the basic idea being that the North Korean government shows you what they want you to see, and its probably something of a lie.  Satellite footage routinely shows most of that country doesn’t even have electricity.  North Korean lies and photoshopped threats are often laughably bad.  Everyone outside that country knows the Kims lie about their achievements, and there’s even a chance a lot of people in that country know it too but likewise know keeping their mouths shut will keep them alive.  When the movie Kim brings out some scantily-clad women to entertain himself and Franco’s Dave Skylark, I couldn’t help but feel extra queasy.  Normally a scene like that would get an eyeroll from me and I’d wait for the obvious exploitation scene to end.  This time around, I felt somewhat sickened because, for all I know, the real Kim Jong-un really does that stuff to women in his country!

Now, I do want to credit The Interview for what I thought they did right.  The movie portrays Franco’s talk show host as a vacuous moron, and the satirical jabs at America were right on-target.  The reaction of Franco and Rogen’s North Korean ally to learning of the CIA plan showed additional nuance people might not expect from a movie from these guys.  Plus, Rogen and Franco have great chemistry together.  Pretty much anything that didn’t have Kim Jong-un in it was right on the money.  Plus, the guys do kill Kim, but out of self-defense instead of anything else.

It all comes back to the punching down instead of up.  A fictional dictator, similar to Kim, might have worked better, or not layering in true information about life in North Korea, would have worked better.  The seemingly-pat happy ending also bothered me.  Very little humor was directed at average North Koreans, aside from the idea that they really do believe every ridiculous thing their government tells them.  But given North Korea’s actual strength in the world compared to our own, I still felt it was punching down, not up.

The really odd thing is Franco, Rogen, and Goldberg got the punching up versus down thing right for This Is The End.  The main target for the humor was the guys playing themselves as stupid, vain celebrities with no actual survival skills.  In the rapture scene, among the people Jay Baruchel sees getting taken up in the blue light inside the convenience store is a priest.  They could have gone for something mocking the Christian religion (also a somewhat safe target in the punching up rule in a country where the majority of religious people are some sort of Christian), but they opted not to.  They went for the highest target for punching up in that scenario, themselves.

Let’s keep in mind that even though it is generally better to punch up instead of down, the comedian still has to be funny.  Dave Chappelle often punched up with The Chappelle Show no matter how racial the humor got.  After he left, Comedy Central tried a few replacements hoping for a second round of lightning in the bottle, one such attempt being with Carlos Mencia.  Chappelle’s racial humor was often edgy and sharp.  Mencia’s was often filled with stereotypes older than my dead grandma, and he would take time to lecture people on how funny he was.  If you have to tell people you’re funny, you probably aren’t.

Now, none of this is to say that the Kim scenes in The Interview couldn’t have been funny to anyone, or that it isn’t OK to mock things and people below us.  I simply believe that, for many people, comedy that comes across as mean will not be seen as funny.  Tackling our social equals and betters will always be the right way to go to get a laugh.

2 thoughts on “Punching Up Instead Of Down: The Art Of Finding The Proper Victim In Comedy”

  1. I love this idea of “punching up” vs “punching down” – never heard of it, but realized after reading your article that I’ve witnessed it many times. Now I have a term. Thanks Tom!


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