When did comedians start saying ‘punching up’ and ‘punching down’?
This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.
Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Patrick Cox: A note about today’s episode: There’s going be some explicit and potentially offensive topics discussed. The explicit stuff begins in a few seconds.
Dave Chappelle: They say I was punching down on them. Punching down. What the fuck does that mean?
Patrick Cox: I know who that is, it’s Dave Chappelle.
Nina Porzucki: You’re right! Comedian Dave Chappelle, talking about an expression that has been bubbling up lately in conversations about comedy. I’m “punching down.”
Patrick Cox: Oh, Nina, I have so many questions about this. “Punching up,” “punching down.”
Nina Porzucki: Punching inward, punching outward. So many ways to punch.
Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them. In this episode,
Speaker: “Is what we’re saying punching up, speaking truth to power?”
Speaker: “Comedy never punches down, it always punches up. I read this from 50 people that never did comedy.”
Speaker: “I think it’s just lazy humor to punch down.”
Patrick Cox: What exactly is punching up and punching down? Is it a thing of our times? And how did it enter the comedy world?
Patrick Cox: Nina, you’re back so soon!
Nina Porzucki: I’m back– for better or worse– with another unfunny take on the language of humor. Fun times.
Patrick Cox: Nina Porzucki is a friend of the podcast, I’d say a BFF. So, all of these punching terms, they’re a bit violent for comedy aren’t they.
Nina Porzucki: And “punchline” isn’t? Or “nailed the joke”
Patrick Cox: OK, OK, but who came up with “punching up” and “punching down”?
Nina Porzucki:I knew you’d ask, so I asked!
Ben Zimmer: Well, as people use the term these days…
Nina Porzucki: Ben Zimmer is the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and chair of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society.
Ben Zimmer: “Punching up” and “punching down” refers to how one might attack or criticize someone else, depending on a kind of a power relationship. So that punching down is attacking someone in a less powerful position and punching up is attacking someone in a position of greater power.
Nina Porzucki: It’s a very jargon-y, insider; a comic’s term for other comics but lately I’ve been seeing it slip more and more into the mainstream conversation.
Patrick Cox: Oh yeah, for sure.
Nina Porzucki: A tipping point in my mind was back in October last year when comedian Dave Chappelle made headlines…
News clip: “Dave Chapelle is back with an all new special that is headed to Netflix, The Closer”
Nina Porzucki: The Closer on Netflix sparked a huge debate played out in the media about whether his jokes were punching down at trans people and the LGBTQ community at large.
News clip: “Since Chapelle’s special has aired he’s received a ton of backlash over his comments.”
News clip: “Some say Chapelle went too far specifically about jokes that could be construed as homophobic and transphobic.”
News clip: “He joked about trans women, about genitalia. He said he was a TERF: trans exclusionary radical feminist.”
Nina Porzucki: Basically, he was accused of punching down, which, as we heard at the top of the show — he pokes fun at the expression. I don’t know if you remember the swirl of controversy. There were protests by Netflix employees about the offensive material and then there were people calling out cancel culture, including Dave Chappelle. But the discussion around punching up and down in comedy far, far predates the expression. Greek philosophers even debated it. There’s a theory of humor called the Superiority Theory that dates back to Plato and Aristotle and later Hobbes. Aristotle posited that we laugh at those we find inferior, because we find joy in our own superiority.
Patrick Cox: Wow, that sounds like old Aristotle had a serious case of punching down.
Nina Porzucki: He actually really disapproved of this type of humor. He found it quite distasteful. Plato and Aristotle found this very distasteful. They are just theorizing about why people laugh when you are putting down somebody who is in a less powerful position than you. And because it’s like this schadenfreude of feeling better than someone else.
Patrick Cox: You can certainly see that in more recent history, like in the US in the past couple centuries. I’m no expert on this but I know there’s a been a ton of punching down comedy, whether it was blackface minstrel shows or vaudeville that targeted a whole series of immigrants — Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese — and then after there would be a backlash, there’d be people who cry foul and say you can’t even make a joke about the Irish, Chinese, whoever it was: “Comedy is dead.”
Nina Porzucki: Right, that’s the rallying cry: “Comedy is dead!” Yeah, it’s not an old statement and “punching up” and “punching down” are not new ideas. And actually, Patrick, I want to just point out that there are some really good podcasts and articles that explore this idea including one episode of WTF with Marc Maron and the comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff. And there’s a great article about punching up and punching down in American comedy history in The Baffler. That we’ll link to those in the show notes. But, I point to the Chappelle incident because all of a sudden, I was seeing the expressions “punch up” and “punch down” in headlines everywhere from online sites like Buzzfeed — not wholly surprising — but even more mainstream publications like USA Today using this phrase. And I thought, huh, has this phrase gone from insider jargon to the mainstream?
Patrick Cox: And when people are using this, I wonder if they know where the expressions “punching down” and “punching up” came from? I don’t.
Nina Porzucki: My question exactly, So let’s get back to Ben!
Ben Zimmer: Yeah, with expressions like this, we can’t say definitively where it might have originated from, but we can look at the sort of patterns of usage just by looking at databases of historical sources like newspapers. And in newspaper databases, for instance, you’ll find the expressions “punching up” and “punching down” used literally for many decades in the context of boxing. If you’re punching up, you’re taking on an opponent who might be taller or perhaps in a higher weight class, while punching down would be for an opponent who’s shorter or in a lower weight class.
Patrick Cox: Ah, of course. Why didn’t I think of that? I don’t love boxing, but I love boxing vocab. “Below the belt.” “Saved by the bell.”
Nina Porzucki: Yeah, it’s a pretty linguistically rich sport. “Throw in the towel.”
Patrick Cox: “Out for the count.” “Pull your punches.”
Nina Porzucki: “He’s on the ropes.” “The gloves are off.” “It’s a knockout!”
Ben Zimmer: It’s the sports pages where you get the boxing commentators or the racing commentators using kind of a freer use of language than you might find elsewhere in the newspaper, where you often see these new expressions bubbling up.
Nina Porzucki: So it’s very possible that this expression is another colorful contribution from boxing. However, I will say that another expert who I spoke with pointed out that “punching down” is also a phrase used by bakers: “Punching down” the dough. Think about that for a section.
Patrick Cox: Oh, come to think of it, bakers do punch. Maybe that’s part of the job satisfaction. But how does a baker punch up??
Nina Porzucki: Throw it in the air, like pizza dough? I don’t know. As these things go, as Ben said, it’s really hard to nail down exactly where and when an expression is born. But if it does come from boxing the question is when does it make the leap from literally punching someone to punching someone in a metaphorical sense. You’ll like this Patrick: In his sleuthing, with a little help from other word nerds, Ben found the first jump from literal to figurative is in an account of a football incident — I mean, in American English parlance, a soccer incident.
Ben Zimmer: There’s one usage from in the newspaper databases from 2002, which is actually from The Times of London that was talking about a situation involving a footballer named Roy Keane, who was struck in the face by his manager, Brian Clough.
Patrick Cox: Oh yeah, I know those guys, they’re kind of legendary figures. Brian Clough was a sort of genius coach who got into a lot of trouble for his volatile behavior. And then Roy Keane, who’s now a pundit on British TV — he was a super tough guy on and off the field. But he’s Irish, so he’s also a great raconteur.
Nina Porzucki: Yeah, listen to him talking about Brian Clough.
Roy Keane: He was upset, he was heated and he punched me. I remember thinking, ah, I still think you’re a brilliant manager. The manager’s upset. You take it, you take it.
Ben Zimmer And this was a big incident at the time. And so this footballer didn’t strike back at Clough. And The Times of London, a writer in that paper, wrote, “It is the logic of the playground bully that allows a manager to strike a player. He punches down, not up.” So what’s interesting there is it’s kind of halfway from the literal meaning to the metaphorical meaning. We’re still talking about actual punching, actual striking of a person. But the “up” and “down” has already kind of moved away from just simply one person being taller, one person being shorter — or perhaps again, weight classes being involved in boxing. We are actually talking about a kind of a power differential.
Nina Porzucki: The expression makes the full leap into the realm of metaphor a few years later.
Ben Zimmer: The earliest that I’ve been able to find comes from Keith Olbermann in 2006.
Patrick Cox: The TV broadcaster?
Nina Porzucki: Exactly.
Ben Zimmer: At the time, Keith Olbermann hosted his own show on MSNBC, and he enjoyed going after Bill O’Reilly, then host at Fox News. Bill O’Reilly had a much larger audience. And Keith Olbermann delighted in sort of taking pot shots and sort of exposing hypocrisy and that sort of thing from Bill O’Reilly’s show.
Keith Olbermann: Bill O, 267,000 of your nightly viewers have vanished since last June. Call Fox security, they’re missing!
Ben Zimmer: And so in 2006, he was asked about that by the New York Times, and he pointed out that his ratings were very, very small compared to Bill O’Reilly’s. And he said, “You don’t punch down. If you’re in my position, you punch upwards.” And that’s an expression he continued to use in other interviews.
Nina Porzucki: Like this clip from an NPR interview.
Keith Olbermann: You punch upwards and not down. If I’m Bill O’Reilly and Keith Obermann criticizes me. My reaction is, “Who?” And his reaction is, “KABOOM!” And I have been the beneficiary of that.
Ben Zimmer: Keith Olbermann did come from the world of sports before he was at MSNBC. He was an anchor for ESPN. So it’s possible that Keith Olbermann, in his mind, was taking this sports-related expression and applying it to the world of political commentary.
Patrick Cox: Ah! So maybe it did come from boxing.
Nina Porzucki: Alas, I reached out to Keith Obermann for comment but sadly he’s ignored my requests. I feel like there’s a joke to be made here about me punching up at him and his ratings. Not getting back to me, I don’t know what the joke is but there’s something there.
Patrick Cox: You didn’t land the punch? Or maybe you did land it and knocked him out cold?
Nina Porzucki: Doubtful.
Patrick Cox: But at this stage– there’s no sign yet of this term migrating to the comedy world?
Nina Porzucki: The earliest evidence that Ben found comes actually several years later.
Ben Zimmer: And I found, interestingly, two examples that came from late 2010. And at the time there was some controversy over the stand up act of a British comedian named Frankie Boyle, who told some controversial jokes and was getting some backlash about those jokes.
Patrick Cox: Oh right, Frankie Boyle. Yeah, he’s ethically lost the plot a few times.
Ben Zimmer: And two of his fellow comedians, also British, named Richard Herring and Paul Sinha, both chimed in on this in blog posts. So on the same day, December 23, 2010, Richard Herring and Paul Sinha now both put up blog posts. Richard Herring wrote, “Though there are no rules, comedy, I feel, should be siding with the weak and the oppressed and punching either inwards at the comedian him- or herself, or upwards at the powerful or the oppressors. Punching downwards is just bullying.” Meanwhile, Paul Sinha on the same day posted about Frankie Boyle saying, “He’s finally punching up and not punching down, and I, for one, am not in the least bit offended.” So you can see that there was something in the air at the time and particularly as it related to stand up comics and and whether jokes should be made at the expense of people who are, as Richard Herring put it, weak or oppressed, and that that Richard Herring, as he explained in a later interview, he says, “For me, if I’m doing a joke, I’d want to be on the side of the weak punching the strong rather than the strong bullying the weak.” And he goes on to say there’s plenty of ways you can be offensive without punching downwards.
Richard Herring: You know, it’s quite a long time ago and I can’t really remember. I would be amazed if either me or Paul had come up with the term.
Nina Porzucki: This is comedian Richard Herring.
Richard Herring: But I sort of have a vague memory of seeing a lot more after that post and thinking, wasn’t that what I said, didn’t I say that? And also, I say punching upwards and punching inwards and punching downwards in the blog. I just checked it. So obviously I wasn’t quoting this established idea of punching up, punching down the sort of short version of it.
Patrick Cox: Nina! You did get a comedian about this! And you got the guy — the guy who coined the term, for comedy at least.
Nina Porzucki: Yes I did. But not fast on whether this particular mystery is solved.
Patrick Cox: Uh-oh. I’m sensing a “That’s coming up after the break” moment.
Nina Porzucki: That’s coming up after the break.
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Patrick Cox: Nina, I just want to establish something for the record. As if Subtitle is any kind of record. But we talked about Ancient Greece and other times, mainly of punching down. And I wanted to mention that there were people in the past who punched up — because they did. That was going on too. For example, I know from acting in bad college productions — I know that the Greek playwright Aristophanes, who was genuinely funny — he mainly punched up. He satirized the rich and powerful and the pompous. So did Shakespeare.
Nina Porzucki: Yeah, so many people. It’s not like punching up is a totally modern thing. But the expression “punching up” to mean that — it is modern. Not that Richard Herring sounds especially convinced that he was the one to coin it.
Richard Herring: As I say, you know, there’s a part of me that thinks I’ve made it up, but I don’t. There’s the realistic part of me thinks I didn’t. I think it was just something that we were talking about around that time amongst comedians. But I wouldn’t know who originated or who first said it unless it was me.
Nina Porzucki: Richard’s blog post from 2010 about the British comedian Frankie Boyle is one of the first written references of the metaphor “punching upwards and downwards” in comedy.
Patrick Cox: OK, there have been so many Frankie Boyle controversies. Which one was this?
Nina Porzucki: It had to do with a joke that Boyle made about the disabled son of a Page Three Girl who went by the stage name, Jordan.
Patrick Cox: OK, the Page Three Girl was introduced by The Sun tabloid newspaper. And they would have some kind of news on page one and then you opened it, and then on page three there would be a topless model. They don’t have that any more but they had it for many many years.
Nina Porzucki: Yeah, I’m glad that tradition has gone out of fashion. But there had been other jokes that Boyle was making at the time, taking pot shots at disabled people and disability that had bothered Herring. He was a spokesperson at the time for a non-profit advocating disability rights.
Richard Herring: The one I remember was him saying, “My uncle can make — he can make anything funny. He can make reading the phone book out funny. He’s a spastic.”
Patrick Cox: Oh yeah, that is punching down. I feel I need to British translate here again: The word “spastic” in the UK, I remember in my childhood, “spastic” was a nasty slur that kids would use. To be honest, I feel uncomfortable just saying that word.
Nina Porzucki : It’s a bit like the slur, “retard” or “retarded” over here. Which also feels pretty uncomfortable to say.
Richard Herring: So the joke is presumably, disabled people talking in an unusual way. But you know, that’s not as clever a joke as I would think Frankie’s used to. It’s just an abusive joke, saying disabled people talk in a funny way.
Nina Porzucki: Incidentally, Boyle didn’t take Herring’s criticism so well. They don’t speak anymore. But Herring is very clear that despite his critical blog post, he does think Boyle is a good comic.
Richard Herring: Frankie Boyle is a very hard-hitting, very brilliant and now quite right-on comedian, although he still has his moments of hidden invective and vindictiveness. He’s brilliant and he’s very clever and very political. And he was then as well, but he was also, as I think we all were in the noughties, both in the UK and America —we were examining how far you could push certain issues and where you could get laughs and where it was appropriate and where it was inappropriate. And I think there was a feeling almost there with some of the racial stuff and maybe some of the disability stuff that we had progressed far enough that, and we could start making jokes about that stuff again in a postmodern, ironic way. A lot people were doing jokes about pedophilia and that sort of thing. Again, this is something that isn’t funny, but they can make funny jokes about, which is true of any subject.
Nina Porzucki: Including, he notes, disability.
Richard Herring: The potential is there for all of us. I do a joke about — I asked a disabled person at a party, “How I should refer to myself as a non-disabled person?” Because that seems like a double negative. An “abled” person seems wrong. And she said, “We call you the ‘not yet disabled.’” Which I think is a great joke, but also like a real joke that has a lot of truth in it. And it’s one of those jokes that makes you go, “Oh, fuck, yeah. I mean, I almost certainly will be disabled at some point in my life.”
Patrick Cox: I think I can see why that isn’t punching down. Richard’s telling a joke where he is the object. But it’s not punching up either is it?
Nina Porzucki: I think Richard would agree with you. He says this kind of humor for him is not punching up or down.
Richard Herring: Most of my jokes are punching inwards — which is, I’m the victim of most of my own jokes. So I think that’s the best kind of joke when you yourself are the victim of it, even unwittingly. But yeah, that hasn’t caught on, “punching inwards” in the same way as “punching up” and “punching down” has.
Patrick Cox: Nina, did RIchard talk about why he thought the phrase “punching downward” had come into comedy at that moment in the 2010s?
Nina Porzucki: I asked him that exact question. He had a few different theories. One is that in the 2010s, at least in the UK, more and more diverse comics were coming onto the scene.
Richard Herring: I think in the nineties, there might have been ten female comedians, and three or four successful female comedians — and hundreds of men. And by the 2000s into the 2010s, it was certainly, aiming in the direction where more women were becoming comedians, more disabled people becoming comedians and more trans people were becoming comedians. And so I think there was a realization that some of those jokes that we’ve been doing were not fitting in anymore to that world.
Nina Porzucki: The other thing that he attributes to the rise of the phrase is the rise of something else, Twitter — and how easy it was to take a joke out of context and tweet it out to the world.
Patrick Cox: Oh yeah. You see that every day on Twitter. Someone makes a joke, and if it’s open to any kind of interpretation — boom! It’s a mess.
Nina Porzucki: Totally. And what’s interesting to note is that Twitter did go through an immense growth period during this time. By February of 2010, according to a story from The Telegraph, Twitter users were sending 50 million tweets a day. It was like a huge jump from years past, where it would be like 50 million tweets a month. They were still calling it a microblogging site then, which I thought very quaint. Also, the interesting thing that both Ben Zimmer and Richard Herring spoke with me about was how Twitter had this power where it was exposing the inner workings of comedy. Suddenly comics were having conversations that might normally happen, say, privately backstage out in the open on the internet. And jargony phrases like “punching up and punching down” were on Twitter for anyone to read, and then for anyone to use and be part of that insiders’ group.
Patrick Cox: Oh yeah, it’s part of the fun of it, reading tweets that are like back-stage whispers.
Nina Porzucki: By the way, Richard is quick to point out that he’s been on every side of the Twitter storm. So just as he criticized Frankie Boyle’s jokes back in 2010, he’s been the subject of minor Twitter storms himself. And yes, there is material that he doesn’t do anymore.
Richard Herring: If anyone thought my stuff about women was dodgy 15 years ago, which some people will do in a couple of jokes and I go, “Well, you know, now I wouldn’t do that and I don’t think that, and I think that was wrong. You can’t still be cross with me, right? Because I’ve come to the same conclusion as you. I’ve learned and I’ve changed.”
Patrick Cox: Yeah, I can remember those days when weekend TV entertainment was all punching down: race, gender, disability, you name it. I’m talking about the UK again here. We can condemn it — and should condemn it. But that was then and this is now.
Richard Herring: Comedy was never meant to — I don’t think it’s really meant to last that long. If it lasts more than 10 years, it’s kind of quite exceptional. But it’s meant to be in the moment, and it’s obviously going to reflect the society you’re in.
Patrick Cox: Nina, you know the way that you said at the start of this episode that using the words “punching up” and “punching down” has just recently gone mainstream, like it’s a thing now? But does the fact that we now have words to describe this thing that comedians do — like, a super evocative metaphor that involves punching — I think that changes the conversation. It makes everyone more aware of what’s going on. Even if punching up and punching down has been around forever, we’ve now got this shorthand, so it’s in our minds.
Nina Porzucki: The problem with that is it’s always been in our minds and there’s always been conversations about comedy and making fun of others. I mean we’ve had phrases like making fun of someone or mocking. There’s always been words to describe it. This is a new evocative expression to put on it — I would say, Patrick, it’s more interesting that it rides along the expression highway along with other expressions like “cancel culture.” I think there’s something to that in this moment. It’s like other buzz terms. It’s yet to be seen whether it has staying power though. It’s having a moment, but will it still be around in ten years?
Ben Zimmer I did a quick check of major dictionaries and actually I did not find “punching up” or “punching down” in any of the major American dictionaries.
Nina Porzucki: This is Ben Zimmer again.
Ben Zimmer: But two British dictionaries did have entries. Collins has entries for “punch down” and “punch up,” and Macmillan has one for “punch down,” although no corresponding entry is there for “punch up” in the relevant sense.
Patrick Cox: Huh. Could it have been a British comic expression first and then migrated over later?
Nina Porzucki: Maybe. But that’s hard to prove or disprove. I reached out to both dictionaries. Collins wasn’t able to comment. But one of the editors at Macmillan said that the word was entered very recently in 2019 or 2020.
Ben Zimmer: I was kind of surprised. Actually, it’s like, huh? Merriam-Webster, you haven’t gotten to this one yet?
Emily Brewster: Well, we really want to see that the word is actually established in the language that it actually has taken hold, taken root.
Nina Porzucki: Emily Brewster is Senior Editor at Merriam-Webster.
Emily Brewster: So we’re not trying to enter words as soon as they’re emerging from the mouths of fifth graders. That’s not the bar. We want to know that it’s really established in the language that it likely has some kind of staying power. So in truth, it’s really when a word becomes — especially for non-specialized language — it’s when the word becomes kind of like, ho hum: Everybody already knows this word. But we want to see a substantial amount of evidence of the word in a variety of sources from over a period of time. And those criteria are intentionally vague because sometimes a word like COVID-19 comes on the scene and we enter it in 34 days. That’s the great exception.
Patrick Cox: Wow, 34 days.
Nina Porzucki: Yeah. Emily told me that was the fastest a word had ever been entered. Before that, the fastest entry had been a year before it entered the dictionary. And it was the word, “AIDS.”
Emily Brewster: But for a term like “punch down,” “punch up” — this particular use of “punch,” more common is something like about 10 years of evidence. And, you know, a wide variety of publications. So sure, it’s, you know, it’s being thrown around on Twitter, but it’s also in The Washington Post and it’s also on Vox. And it’s appearing in enough sources that most of the people who come across it understand what it means.
Patrick Cox: Okay, so Richard Herring’s blog post was in December, 2010. We’re nearing 12 years now.
Nina Porzucki: Yeah, we’re getting close to the deadline. But truthfully, if Richard had his way “punching up” and “punching down” might never make it into the dictionary at all. In a more equal world, there’d be no need.
Richard Herring: I would prefer to live in a society where we’re all equal and there was no punching up and punching down because everyone had to add a sort of decent whack at stuff. The phrase should almost become redundant. It’s never gonna, but it should get closer to becoming redundant.
Patrick Cox: Well, Nina, another great funny podcast episode. Thank you.
Nina Porzucki: You’re very welcome, Patrick. You know who to call on when you want some serious humor.
Patrick Cox: Many thanks to Nina Porzucki. Thanks also to Ben Zimmer, Richard Herring, Emily Brewster and to the Linguistic Society of America. Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our newsletter and social media.
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Richard Herring: It’s not about making bread. It’s not about kneading dough because you’re frustrated. I’m punching up my bread!
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