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On Comedy and Punching

Because I grew up in a fundamentalist Southern Christian household, I’m highly allergic to orthodoxy in all its forms. This makes comedy a natural haven for me. Comedy is the province of subversion, of misdirection, of flouting norms and defying expectations. The best comedy doesn’t truck in absolutes. It doesn’t operate in the Manichean realm of right versus wrong, but rather allows us to indulge in the subtle shadings of ambiguity and unique human experience. When everyone else is going this way, good comedy goes that way. It teaches our brains to stay supple by stimulating them with controlled doses of novelty and surprise. If you do it long enough it becomes more than just a vocation or a hobby; it’s a lens for viewing the world.

We now live in a time of absolutes, and that’s probably not so great for comedy. The president is absolutely a racist and an all-around sick fuck, and those who enable him are absolutely moral monsters cravenly servicing the perverted demands of power. The white supremacists are absolutely the face of modern evil, and those opposing them are absolutely on the right side of history. There aren’t “many sides,” there are currently just two. As Chris Rock tweeted, “If 10 guys think it's ok to hang with 1 Nazi they just became 11 Nazis.”

There is vanishingly little middle ground left in America. That could be a problem for an art form that revels in contradiction and nuance—and relies on ticket sales. In these highly polarized times, comedy runs the risk of being reduced to two basic attitudes: on the one side, choir-preaching; on the other, button-pushing. It’s the "clapter/floutrage binary" (which I previously wrote about here).

There is a saying about comedy that it should “always punch up, never punch down.” It’s another way of expressing the idea that comedy should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Dave Chappelle’s trans jokes have been met with outrage and disappointment because they punch down on an already grievously oppressed minority. Anthony Atamanuik’s hilarious portrayal of President Trump on The President Show punches up, hard and in the funniest possible way.

This dictate to “only punch up” has become so mainstream that it’s now cited as gospel by even the most disinterested layperson. Some smarmy guy who watched half an episode of Louie three years ago looks up from the thinkpiece he's skimming on his iPad to rattle it off like holy writ. That doesn’t sit well with me. Of course it’s true, but it’s not the whole ball game.

I’m resistant to received wisdom. Pat platitudes set off my finely calibrated bullshit detector. If comedy just becomes another vehicle for shouting bromides over the chasm of our cultural deadlock, it’s lost its fundamental power to surprise, to force people to view the world from a different perspective.

The great thing about comedy is that it always finds a way to worm out of the boxes we try to shove it in. For example, listen to Shane Torres’s bit about Guy Fieri excerpted from his new album, which comes out next month.

In it, Torres takes perhaps the most contrarian position possible: he defends the loud-shirted, frosted-tip, low-budget food connoisseur. So many comics have shat on Guy Fieri so fiercely for so long that it’s become hack; he’s the Food Network version of Nickelback. And yet here is Torres staking out the seemingly indefensible—championing Fieri as a good dude we all should like—and winning his battle against an insurmountable cliché. (Sidenote: Fieri loved the bit.)

Last night at an open mic I asked local comic Derek Sheen (catch him at Laughs this Saturday!) to explain which way Torres is punching in this bit. Sheen broke it down like this: “Shane is punching sideways at people punching down on Guy Fieri which, in turn, means he's actually punching up, because Fieri gets ridiculed by people who think they're punching up because they think they're better than him, which is actually punching down.”

Ultimately, Torres's bit renders this whole idea of punching in a specified direction absurd; he’s just being funny. It's deliberately frivolous. He’s dissenting from the kind of trite, lazy thinking that reduced Fieri to a hack signifier and raised hipster jerk Anthony Bourdain to a counterculture icon in the first place. It’s contrarianism at its warmest, funniest and most benign. It embraces rather than attacks.

I want to see more comedy like this. I despise Trump and his minions as much as the next guy, and the damage they're doing to our world is very grave and very real. But I don’t want this brutal era to diminish the stupid, silly, totally nonpartisan shit that makes us laugh despite all the horrifying political realities and intractable cultural disputes. We all want comedy to stand up for truth and justice, and it should. But we also need it to celebrate the meaningless, the mundane and the fun. There’s been a lot of talk about punching lately: up, down, whether you should do it to Nazis. These days, I’m looking to comedy to do something other than assault me. 

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