Truth In Comedy; Or, The Myth of ‘Punching Up”

ajai raj

Ajai Raj is a writer and stand up comedian living in New York City. He grew up in Texas, the son of Indian immigrants. His name means “invincible” and he has a lot of strong opinions that he likes to express through various mediums. This is his first time writing for The Interrobang but you can also find his writing in places like Affect Magazine, Business Insider, and Popular Science among others. 

“Comedy is about truth.”

I’ve heard this sentiment expressed, in various forms, approximately infinity billion times since I started telling people I do comedy. And if I’m being honest, most of the time I have nodded solemnly in agreement. I’ve probably said or thought it in earnest on several occasions, but to tell you the truth, I only remember saying it once.

Let me set the scene. It was an open mic in the smoky, black box basement of Karma Lounge in the East Village. The comedian onstage dropped the following truth-bomb on the jaded comedic minds scattered sparsely throughout the room:

“Racism is bad.”

That was it. That was the set-up. That was the punch line. And that was his closer.

Did you laugh? Me neither. Nor did anyone in the room. On the grand scale of how funny everything is, that “joke” registered somewhere below a buttermilk biscuit and somewhere above the fact that racism even exists.

I went up after that comic. My opener:

“Racism is bad. Hey, comedy is about truth, right?”

That line killed. I can’t say the same for the rest of that set.

I bet at some point the comic before me had internalized the idea that comedy is about truth. I bet he’d also internalized one of the following truthy-sounding statements:

“Comedy should shed light on important social issues.”

“Comedy should always punch up, not down.”

The people who say these things most often are not standup comics. They are rarely comedians of any kind. They are people, often of a high-minded, socially liberal persuasion, who hold all of the “correct” opinions, and who are, almost universally, not very funny.

I think the argument that “comedy is about truth,” as commonly interpreted, is deeply related to the idea that, to be truly funny, a joke has to “punch up”— meaning that it’s funny to joke at the expense of a banker but not a homeless person; at the expense of a white man but not a black woman; or at the expense of a cisgender male but not a transgendered person (and may God of Blogdom have mercy on your sorry ass if you should ever use the word “tranny,” even though RuPaul, arguably the greatest living champion of LGBTQ rights, has publicly called out the overly sensitive souls who raise a stink about this, who are often not even members of the trans community. But I digress).

The problem is, as truthy-sounding as the idea that “punching up” is required of good comedy is, it simply isn’t true**. It is true that a lot of cheap and hacky standup punches down, and seems to come from a place of ignorance or fear. But a lot of hacky standup arises from punching up, too.

And it’s not universally true that all good comedy “punches up,” as badly as some people might want it to be. A joke can punch down and still be wickedly funny.

If you care at all about this argument, take a minute and watch this bit from the late, great Sam Kinison, because describing standup comedy in straight prose is the devil’s work:

In that bit, Kinison comedically “argued” that we’ll solve world hunger by not sending food to starving Africans, and that we should send U-Hauls and luggage instead. It is shocking, obscene, undeniably punching down— and still hilarious. Two and a half decades on, this bit remains a classic. It hits you like great satire, the way I imagine Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal hitting its readers when it was published. I don’t know if the Irish literati of the 1720s were significantly more gullible than are the Americans of the 2010s, but I doubt that many of them took at face value Swift’s proposal that the poor should kill and prepare their children as food for the rich, any more than a reasonable, sane person could see Kinison perform that bit and be scandalized that he would say that to those children. The fact is— and this is often ignored, sometimes deliberately, in this context-averse Internet age— Kinison was not saying that to any starving children; he was performing a bit for a particular audience.

In a preface to one of his books, Stephen King describes a fan letter that accused him of animal cruelty because of the way one of the author’s fictional character treated a equally fictional dog. In Kinison’s bit, a fictional person, Kinison’s outsize preacher persona punches down hard at some equally fictional starving Africans. The way some people react to standup comedy these days, you would think he had boarded a plane to tell them himself, like some perverse and inverted Jesus in the African desert.

Another example: when Dave Attell jokes about drinking, blacking out, and waking up to find yourself working at a McDonalds and being unable to quit “because you’re banging the slow girl who works the fry-o-later,” it’s absurdly funny.

It is also wrong—truly, deeply wrong— just like a million things people think about every day and would rather not admit to themselves. To my thinking, Attell’s bit is funny, in part, because it’s so wrong. It’s not “the truth,” as narrowly interpreted by white liberals of all races to be “the morally correct opinions and views that I hold.” But it is the truth in the sense that it reflects our crassness back at us in a highly entertaining way.

The fact that we often think things that are, morally speaking, utterly wrong— that’s a damned important truth. It’s the truth of our natures, the darkness we won’t admit to ourselves, the truth that we need comedians to show us in a way that we can process. That’s what a lot of laughter is about. Sometimes that laughter, as in the bits described above, can feel monstrous. But our shadows are monstrous too. And in the hands of a skilled comedian, that monstrosity can be a laugh riot.

Nowadays, when someone says “comedy is about truth,” what they typically mean is, “comedy is about what I believe is true.” When they say, “comedy is about punching up,” they mean “I only want comics to go after targets that I think should be targets.” Like Republicans, poor rural white people, or anyone that opposes or, as is increasingly the case, is perceived, even for one isolated moment in time, to stand against race and gender equality.

Race and gender equality are good things that I want to see happen. But here’s a truth that people are loath to admit: when you mix comedy and an overt political agenda, you get bad comedy; and you might even harm the political agenda in the process, by making people who support [insert righteous cause here] look like humorless buffoons.

There is a lot of comedy out there that expresses views that I disagree with. I find some of it funny as hell. But even if I don’t find some comedy funny, I don’t get to tell other people that they’re wrong to laugh, any more than I can tell them they’re wrong to fart twenty minutes after they eat a burrito.

The trade-off is that no one can tell me what I can or can’t laugh at, either. And to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I still think that comedy is about truth— just not in the way that a lot of people would like for it to be. Working comedians and their audiences are better served when comedians think of what’s funny first, and worry about the political ramifications later, if ever.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying comedians should go out of their way to be assholes, either. But if, in our fear of being labeled as such, we avoid taking risks, everyone loses.

**I have Joe Rogan, in his podcast interview with researcher Peter McGraw, to thank for this insight.

Follow Ajai Raj on twitter @saintajairaj

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