On Punching Up

It’s Not Rocket Science, Although Given My Utter Ignorance of Rocket Science, Maybe Part of It Is

But I doubt it. I recently tweeted something on the Twitter machine – a silly, mildly amusing tweet that said, “I have never been harassed or demeaned by Scott Rudin; this isn’t meant to condone his behavior in any way; it just shows how far down the ladder I am in my career.” Now, it’s ok-ish as jokes go; it got a handful of likes. But it also got some finger wagging responses questioning whether this tweet was “moral.”

I’m now undergoing physical therapy to rehabilitate my eye muscles after the severity of the reflexive eye-rolling it induced.

Now, like the joke, don’t like it, whether or not you enjoy the joke on its admittedly modest merits doesn’t matter. The point is that the person who is the target of this joke is 1) Me, 2) Me, and, arguably, 3) Both me and Scott Rudin (with whom I’m OK mocking).

And I’m ok mocking Rudin because he was apparently a terrible, terrible person to work for. In fact, downright abusive. It should go without saying, but it clearly doesn’t, that I was in no way mocking the people who were repeatedly yelled out, called demeaning names, and occasionally had actual heavy office supplies hurled at them.

I’m Not Sure I Follow Your Thinking, or Lack Thereof

I’ll go further: there is no way that tweet can be interpreted as such.

Unless, of course, you really, really want to. There is a pretty well-worn axiom about comedy; namely, that it should always “punch up.” In other word, the targets of jokes should be those with power, and those who clearly deserve ridicule (there’s often a healthy overlap on that Venn diagram). Punching down, therefore, is a joke that makes fun of people who are not in any way responsible for the topic at hand because they lack the agency to control the situation.

I’ll give you a current example. I found the movie Licorice Pizza, problematic in a lot ways, both aesthetically and ethically, which I assume is keeping Paul Thomas Anderson up night. But there has been a bit of a, and this a word I don’t use lightly, hullabaloo, about a minor character: A white man who weds two Japanese wives. The joke Anderson writes is that neither wife speaks English very well (and spoiler alert, the man doesn’t speak Japanese, a punchline we saw coming from the opening moments), and so, when he talks to them, he adopts a cringe-worthy, caricature of a white person’s insensitive impersonation of how Asian people talk.

And yes, it’s super cringe-worthy. But also, if you can get past the cringing, pretty funny. Because we’re not laughing at the Asian women, nor are we chuckling at the imitation. The man himself is the object of derision: the joke is about his utter stupidity and cluelessness that this is either acceptable or effective. Anderson is mocking – and mocking pretty scathingly – the character’s white, male cluelessness.

Several groups have protested the movie because of this (the public seems largely indifferent to issues of the central plot of a 25-28 year old woman in a complicated and ultimately romantic relationship with a 15-year-old boy. And man, let’s just take a moment to not only wonder what PTA is up to with this, but the hypocrisy of the viewing public. Would people be OK with it if the genders were reversed?) bit. And I respect the argument that if said joke offends a portion of the Asian community, who am I to tell them they’re wrong?

I’m not. I just want be clear that if they are protesting that this bit makes fun of Asians, then I respectfully submit they’ve really misread that joke.

But, but, BUT

Should that matter? Especially given the atmosphere in America and the increase of racial verbal and physical violence the Asian-American community has experienced? And aren’t there going to be some people too stupid and hateful not to understand it’s satirizing the patronizing, racist attitudes of some white male Americans?

To the first point, I say…maybe. I certainly take the point. To the second, I say, absolutely not. This is what I believe: We should never refrain from making something, from a joke to a painting to a cathedral, because someone, somewhere, might misinterpret it. That’s known as playing to the lowest common denominator.

When Did People Become Convinced They’ve A Right Not To Be Offended?

I have seldom set out to deliberately offend anyone, and when I have, I’ve always tried to make sure, I was punching up. If someone approaches me in an open-minded and hearted way and says what I said/did/didn’t say/didn’t do caused them to be offended, I would invariably apologize and explain as best I could why I had meant no offense. I’m no saint, sometimes I speak without thinking, and I’m, despite my best efforts, occasionally insensitive. I try to assume the fault is mine (thanks, Mom and Catholicism) until I am persuaded otherwise.

But being offended isn’t a sign of moral superiority. At least not a lot of the time. Someone tweeted at me that I was mocking the Trans community with that tweet. Perhaps Rudin was transphobic? Certainly wouldn’t say it was beneath him. But in what world is that Tweet an attack on anyone (other than Rudin), let alone on a marginalized community?

I’m No Authority on These Matters (And Yet I’m Blogging About It)

I’m just saying, before I should post a joke, I should reasonably (Ah there’s the rub. What’s the definition of “reasonable”? Not literally, I mean, I majored in English) assume might be gravely misinterpreted or offend people? Absolutely, and I’m the first to admit – the people who tweeted at me would rightly point out I’m NOT the first – that I don’t always get it right. But perhaps, before you publicly question someone’s morality over a joke, maybe that person should understand the joke. We already miscommunicate enough as it is.

Let’s try, if even only as a thought experiment, not assuming the worst about each other. And maybe find the differences in ourselves between being offended and fetishizing that feeling.

I’m Not Joking When I Say This:

Some of you may disagree, in which case I welcome a healthy and civilized discussion. But it’s how I feel. I hope that doesn’t offend you, but I don’t think it should.

9 thoughts on “On Punching Up

  1. Not gonna lie (ever), but your post here triggered a big Deja Vu moment for me. Have you posted about this kind of social censorship before? Maybe it’s just so common a thing now, that I take people getting offended as par for the course. I hadn’t heard of ‘punching down’, but I have heard of ‘punch lines’, and I suppose this is where one or the other came from?
    I urge you not to try and placate everyone who is offended these days, or you’ll never get anything done. I know you only from on here, but even from that, I can tell you’d never intentionally be offensive, or punch down on someone, at least not intentionally. If you Did intend to though, I am convinced you would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that they had just had their butts served to them with style, and they’d richly deserve it.
    There is so much to really be distraught, offended and appalled by in the World today, that I cannot begin to understand why someone would use their time hassling you about something immoral in your writing. Writing not bad, ook ook! Writing just fine. 🙂

    1. You’re too kind. When I was younger, I’d have taken the bait, but I like to think I’ve learned something in all this time other than how much I’d always. undervalued sitting.

  2. I think punching up is the only way to go. I think complaining that your joke wasn’t moral, especially since it was self-reflexive, misses the point. And I think you missed the point with the cringe-worthy white guy. That was not punching up. And no, it’s not really making fun of the white guy.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate your comment. I’m curious on your views on the white guy. Whom do you think that but was mocking? For example, Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing performance is embarrassing because the movie is clearly milking unflattering parodies of Asians for laughs. That, to me, is punching down, and not only unfunny, but intensely insensitive. Given the fact that the character in Pizza was of much the same era and clearly thought this was ok, and anyone vaguely half-enlightened in 2022 finds such behaviors repulsive, I believe PTA is mocking him. As a white guy, all I could think – how grotesquely and laughably insensitive and dim-witted this white man is. Certainly
      this scene doesn’t make the white character look GOOD to anyone.

      Do you think PTA’s playing the actual timbre of his voice and affectations for laughs because cartoonish stereotypes are inherently funny? As I see it, I can’t get there at all, and even after some inner interrogation, feel confident that isn’t what I found comical in the uncomfortable way comedy can.

      Having said that, I am curious as to how I could be missing the point (wouldn’t be the first time). Thanks for having an honest-to goodness convo with me about it.

      1. I don’t necessarily disagree with you that Jerry is meant to be the butt of the joke. He’s been turned into a bit of a caricature: whether that’s reflective of the real man, who knows?
        I fell in love with Audrey Hepburn when I bought the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” record. We’d played a few of the songs in band, so when I found it in a thrift store, I scooped it up. I watched it a few years later and yes, Mickey Rooney is truly unbelievable. It hurts to watch. This isn’t as obviously awful, yet aren’t we supposed to be doing better by these things now?
        We laugh at Jerry but not only Jerry – the jokes are, in my opinion, meant to hit out at both. The stereotypically grotesque accent seems to me not only over-the-top but an unnecessary paean to the way people still behave. People still mock Asians with finger-pull slant eyes and bizarre mocking of their accent, as though being able to speak two languages (at least) where the nasties likely speak one is something to scorn.
        COVID19 brought much to this world including a spike in racism, especially against Asian people. We like to believe we’re all that with cheese on top and that these behaviours are aberrant. I don’t think so, especially when we still resort to cheap tropes (especially people who should know better, like those in the media. Anti-Asian stereotypical writing and behaviour shows up everywhere and the more people try to classify it as ‘not racism,” the more problematic it is. Though I have been told I take things like this too much to heart and I should develop a sense of humour. I thought I had one, though it does tend to the British side of things: we are our ancestry to a large degree.
        I struggle this because humour has to be funny, and it has to push the edges. It’s part of how we evolve, I think. But it’s lazy when it punches down or targets a group, and I’m usually sure that the director/actor/human has taken a wrong turn when watching/observing it makes me cringe and feel uncomfortable.
        My take-away, at any rate.

  3. I should clarify – I’m referring to the infamous performance Rooney gave in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And in my second sentence, but is meant be bit

  4. “But perhaps, before you publicly question someone’s morality over a joke, maybe that person should understand the joke.” Truer words.

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