Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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Working on the punchbag

I’m always very conscious of the way in which the public and private views of ourselves differ, and yet relate to the same person. Amusingly, Jem, who also writes here, describes herself in her Twitter biog as angry, yet when we talk I experience someone who listens with skill and questions with an evolving, forensic care that is full of reminders that her questions are a response to what you’ve said, not a script.

I’m aware, too, that the external performance of being is different to the internal motivation. Jem and myself discuss regularly the way in which the version of me she experiences, confident, in control, dominant and safe, is a product of an internal dialogue I have about self-awareness, care and risk. She can’t, no, mustn’t experience the external me if I’m not having that internal dialogue, but like the workings of a conjuring trick, it’s best if she only gets told how it’s done once she’s experienced the performance, not during it.

One of the phrases Jem teaches me, with some style, is about punching up and punching down. We often use it in terms of understanding my tastes in comedy, but it’s a good rule for life in general. The concept is well summarized by Vlad Chituc hereIn humor, “punching up” is the idea that you should try to tackle the powerful, corrupt, and oppressive with your jokes. Making fun of a homeless man is “punching down,” but mocking greed and the callousness people take towards the homeless is “punching up.” The target is more proper, and the criticism and mockery feel less cruel. It’s much easier to respect a believer when we’re punching up than when we’re punching down at them.

Understanding the difference between punching up and punching down contributes to understanding why it might be radical to ask people to temper their language and their speech, to think before they attack. Frankie Boyle comes to mind.

In the last ten years no-one has made me laugh more than Boyle. Some of his jokes and observations are so precise, so clear, that he appears to have shared my life. His joke about seeing a man pissing against a front door, then taking out his keys and letting himself in, may have been specifically Scottish, but, to me, is a perfect metaphor for being a drunk – it’s always your own front door you’re pissing on.

Boyle though is the perfect example of a man who lost his way and forgot, if he ever knew, about punching up not punching down. In the process he became lamentably unfunny. Google the moment in Mock The Week where he cited Richard Hammond’s recovery from brain trauma in a stunt crash for an example of punching up, right on the edge of taste. No TV series has done more to legitimize bad driving and bad risk management than Top Gear; using Hammond’s injuries and their consequences as a reminder of what can happen is legitimate, fair, and was funny. There are two more Boyle moments that deserve to be deconstructed though. Both are cited here. Now, taking the piss out of of Jordan and Peter Andre is fair game. In fact I’ll go further, it’s practically a duty, an inevitable consequence of how they choose to live their lives. it has to be a sophisticated pisstake though, not just a coarse assault on the easiest targets, which is what Jordan’s disabled son is.

The same applies to the Boyle attack on Princess Diana. Satirizing the dissonance between the public narrative about the perfect mother and the reality of her marriage is one thing, but slut shaming is never a good tactic, irrespective of who the woman is, because others will take it as an endorsement of slut shaming, even if you intend it to be an example of punching up, not punching down.

This isn’t, by the way, a question of taste. It’s a question of what you target, and why. Hence my metaphor about a punch bag in the title – you use it to sharpen your aim and the force of your punches.

Want to satirize the dysfunctional relationship between the heir to the throne and his wife, while they act the part of the dream family in the public eye? Make him the figure of fun, not her. Make the dissonance explicit. If you want a synopsis, try this. C&D are happily married heirs to the kingdom, and parade their family for all to see. But in the bedroom C is a cuckold, chained at the foot of the bed while his wife brings in her lovers, making Charles watch while his cock strains against a chastity cage. It’s not quite a one liner – but a one liner about Charles missing the taste of other men’s spunk from Diana’s cunt is infinitely preferable, in my mind,  to slut shaming her, and a better way of sending up the awful fiction of monarchy and the ‘royal family’ in twenty first century Britain.

Taking the piss out of celebrity, and all it means in Britain today, demands more than mocking Jordan’s disabled son. If you want to punch up about celebrity, then a plot about singers in a boy band who market themselves as high class rent boys and put their earnings through the band accounts so they can set up their Svengali figure manager on charges of pimping has much more potential than implying that a disabled kid is some kind of future sex offender because of his disability.

The problem with Frankie Boyle is that because his act was built on punching someone, it didn’t take a lot for his shots to drift off target. And comedy doesn’t need to be about punching. Check out this list of fifty best jokes, especially the ones by Tommy Cooper or Milton Jones. There’s not a lot of punching up or down there, just wordplay, observations and a touch of the absurd. Very safe comedy, yes, but safe is better than needlessly causing offence.

Laughter is a response to shock, as well as to something that is funny. It is possible to laugh at something, then realise we don’t find it funny. Children do this all the time, laughing at window-lickers, or spastics when, on reflection, they realise it’s not funny. Not using that kind of language is not just a matter of taste; it’s a matter of targetting. The best way to pick your punches is to practice, and be aware of what you’re trying to do, to mock power and privilege, not just to mock.

Another boxing metaphor comes to mind, about the speedball, not the punchbag. The speedball is the small ball that hangs on a swivel, close to the ceiling. Many trainers will have you work on it with bare hands, or just bandages on, so you’re working on a small target without the size or protection of gym gloves. Often, at first, you’ll miss and hit the mounting of the speedball, or the backboard, or the ceiling. So you work on your aim, and your speed. Getting it right becomes part of the skill.

Anyone can take a swing at the heavy bag. Popping an accurate punch at the target bag, or pads, or building up a rhythm on the speedball, takes practice and care. In language, in debate and comedy, that practice and care is, inevitably, in the service of taste. That doesn’t mean, emphatically doesn’t mean, we’re siding with the tone police; just siding with those who punch up, not down, and recognising that there will be times when to some people we will seem to be up, and will have to ride with the punches.

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This entry was posted on February 7, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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