A tradition in comedy says: Always punch up, never punch down. That is to say, don’t attack people who are already marginalized.
Right now, we’re in the middle of two controversies involving humorists.
One involves punching up. Some people are upset over Michelle Wolf’s routine at the White House correspondents’ dinner, where she attacked President Trump and other Administration figures, as well as other politicians (on both sides of the aisle) and the media.
In other words, she gave a White House correspondents’ dinner roast. Some of her jokes pushed the envelope, but that’s the point. I don’t personally like that sort of humor, which is why I don’t watch it. But, having read the transcript, I didn’t see much to get upset over.
Why is there so much being made of this? Perhaps because she called the mainstream media out on its hypocrisy: As much as the media claims to despise Trump, he also drives ratings and clicks. Do you remember Obama getting this much press on a daily basis? This isn’t the first time I’ve seen that accusation, though.
Perhaps because the current President has a short temper. Are we reaching a stage in the national media where journalists all look for Trump’s reaction before deciding whether to laugh or be outraged? If so, that’s the next step down a very dark path.
I don’t remember the media checking with Obama before laughing at previous dinners. That’s because Obama was right there, at the dinner, chuckling along. Even if he was burning inside, it was his duty to laugh.
Ditto Bush, who was skewered by Stephen Colbert. This has become a Presidential rite of passage: Can you sit on the hot seat and take the tormenting? It’s all in good fun. You can take it.
Trump has failed this rite of passage. And because the President is ostensibly the person in the country with the most power, nobody can reasonably argue that this was punching down.
Wolf even had a joke about not punching down, when she said she was skipping attacking the print media because we’re not supposed to attack endangered species. Don’t punch down.
The other controversy, meanwhile, is entirely about punching down. A hushed liberal world has been waiting with bated breath to see how Matt Groening would weigh in on the Apu controversy.
Last year, Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu presented an excellent documentary called “The Problem with Apu,” in which he argued that the Apu character on The Simpsons was a tragic Indian stereotype which has contributed significantly to racism. He compared it to black minstrel characters of a century ago.
The documentary was complex, well-reasoned, and heartfelt. In it, Kondabolu acknowledged loving The Simpsons overall, but resenting how that one character was embraced by the American psyche.
A few weeks ago, “The Simpsons” responded in the show by suggesting that the complaints were several decades too late, and that they had no intention of changing anything.
In response to the backlash, Apu’s voice actor (Hank Azaria, who is white) has said he was considering moving on from the character. Show runner Al Jean promised a more considered, more nuanced response.
But what of Matt Groening, who first created The Simpsons and remains inextricably linked with the characters?
He had this to say: “People love to pretend they’re offended.”
The thing is, this isn’t new. We haven’t really reached a point in society where Apu is suddenly offensive. We’ve reached a point in society where we have a high enough density of celebrities from the Indian subcontinent that their voices can be heard.
The apologist response is that The Simpsons skewers a lot of groups. But many of those attacks are punching up (rich people, evangelicals), and other parts are self-deprecatory in nature. Overall, The Simpsons is simultaneously rote and sublime in its reliance on the middle class suburban TV family sitcom trope.
But there are some stumbles, some cases where the butt of jokes is a minority group that can’t easily defend itself. And the most blatant example of this is Apu and his family.
Whether we’re comfortable admitting it or not, the character is undeniably an act of punching down. The fact that it took decades until the voice of unrest got loud enough to be heard on the national stage is evidence of that.
Some people do love to pretend they’re offended, Mr. Groening, but at the same time, people who are powerless and feeling offended have learned to just smile and take it. Being confused and dismissive about that is just more punching down.
A lesson from the #MeToo movement is: People often take a long time to get up the nerve to complain when they’re being offended. The less power someone feels they have, the longer it will take them. We shouldn’t shrug it off and say, “Where were you twenty years ago?” We should realize how deeply we must have threatened them, intentionally or not, that it took that long for them to say something.
Michelle Wolf attacked people who have put themselves in position to be attacked. This was the gist of the Supreme Court ruling in Hustler v Falwell: Celebrities don’t merit the same kid gloves that private citizens do. Celebrities have their own rules.
The Simpsons attacked a group of people that were powerless, marginalized, and had no clear voice. Azaria admitted that he based his voicing on a Peter Sellers character that is now widely accepted as having been openly racist.
And therein lies the difference: Even if you’re throwing punches in every direction, as both Wolf and The Simpsons do, never, ever punch down.
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