Lesson Plan: The Politics of Punching in American Comedy

Promotional image for mobile game Punch the Trump (Brutal Studio, 2016)

Ian here—

Hoo, boy.

Since November 9th, I’ve been coasting on lesson plan blog posts that I already had previously finished and scheduled. Now, here we are, with my first real “live” post since the 2016 election.

In the coming months, many peoples’ lives will be disrupted more than mine, and it is on me to make sure I contribute as much as possible to make those people feel welcome in this country, and to oppose the policies, appointment, and general behavior of our new president elect. I acknowledge that the disruption I will be facing is much lesser than the disruption many others will be facing. Nevertheless, my own life has been disrupted in its own small ways—as I’m sure many peoples’ has in this nation, even those who are not undocumented, or Latinx, or Muslim, or women, or disabled, or LGBTQIA, or, well, children (who, after all, will bare the brunt of Trump’s bullish climate denial). For me, the most immediate effects (as small as they may be, in the long run), were grappling with the syllabus I had created for my course “Comedy and the Moving Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The situation was this: on Monday, November 7th, class discussion had centered around select sketches from Chapelle’s Show, with selections from Bambi Haggins’ Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America assigned as course readings. I naively thought that the timing was perfect. I figured that the class session’s post-Halloween positioning would be a good time to talk about the racist legacy of minstrelsy and blackface in American comedic and musical theater, and the hazardous landscape of race relations Black comics such as Dave Chapelle have had to navigate in the wake of a long comic tradition devoted to denigrating Black Americans.


Given the stories that usually circulate after Halloween on social media, I figured that we would have a recent case study to discuss the legacy of blackface, and boy did Halloween 2016 offer up a doozy. And with Chapelle returning to public life after a decade, slated to host SNL on November 13, I was feeling that the week’s lesson was unusually resonant and relevant.

Not intentionally part of my lesson, but: I did get a shock when VLC and the vagaries of .H264 MPEG-4 encoding coughed up this image during the screening. Given the context, I was struck by how much it looks like Chapelle is wearing blackface here…

As I packed up my things on November 7th, I looked forward to the next class meeting. I thought I had a good “pivot” planned. We had spent the day discussing Dave Chapelle’s crisis of conscience about his show, and the idea that humor designed to make fun of racist stereotypes can be twisted into racist humor as it is received by racist audiences, no matter the intent of the creator. For next week, I was going to tackle the idea of “punching up,” a concept that has increasingly attached itself to discussions around comedy in the past few years. With a think piece by Ben Schwartz and Lindy West’s well-known Jezebel article “How to Make a Rape Joke” on the syllabus for reading, I was prepared to delve deep into questions about who should (and shouldn’t) be the target of comedic ridicule, about who gets to tell jokes about what, and about whether any material should be considered off-limits for comedy. Dovetailing with heated debates about trigger warnings on college campuses (including a now well-known statement by my own alma mater[i]), as well as dispiriting developments at Chicago’s own preeminent institution of comedy, it seemed like I was heading into an exciting, “of-the-moment” class.

And then the presidential election happened.

Overnight, it seemed like every assumption about US culture that had guided my syllabus had been overturned. On November 7th, I was operating in an America in which, however many disagreements take place around the margins of the issue, it was generally considered that wearing blackface was a racist insult, and that overt racism was not socially acceptable (as much as institutional racism still chugged away). When I woke up on November 9th, it was to an America in which the president elect is appointing a White nationalist as the Chief White House Strategist. On November 7th, I was operating in an American in which public conversations surrounding sexual assault were turning, however slowly and unevenly, in the direction of not attacking the accuser, and of fully understanding the responsibility the perpetrator had for their actions. When I woke up on November 9th, it was to an America whose citizens had elected a man who openly boasted about committing acts of sexual assault, only to turn around and call those who verified these reports liars, and disparage their physical appearance in the process. When I had designed this lesson, I had thought of it as being very plugged in to contemporary cultural discourse, but now these television episodes and think pieces—from 2012, from 2014, even from earlier in 2016—felt so very ancient, relics from a timeline we had since broken off from.

What to do? Where to go? What business does a Jezebel writer have instructing comedians on how to best tell jokes about sexual assault, when America is clearly a country in which sexual assault is, at best, no big deal, and, at worst, something actively cherished as a laudable demonstration of masculine power?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. The best I could do was to pose them to my students. I kept all of my original material on the syllabus, but added some new last-minute readings, including this heartbreaking in-depth piece by Peter Kim about the racist heckling he witnessed firsthand before departing from Second City, and this prescient interview with Norm Macdonald in which he openly questions comedy’s ability to have a positive political effect (and, specifically, to stop Trump).[ii] Class discussion, I knew now, would encompass not only the material I originally wanted to include, but also some more serious post-election discussion.

And so, as we all got together for our November 11 class, this is how things went. Actually, I was surprised by the actual shape things took. Students engaged in a vigorous discussion about the election and its consequences for the first 80 minutes straight of a three-hour class block. After that, though, they decided that they wanted to drop the discussion, and turned to the planned course material. I was surprised: I thought there would be more integration of our discussion of the politics of the election, of the the politics of the comedy we were looking at. But students seemed to be exhausted, and in need of turning to the comfort of moving images, as a way of making sense of the world we lived in. Perhaps this segregation of the halves of class was a failure on my part, but in the moment it seemed like the most important thing to do was to give students a platform to voice their anxieties, and to let this take the shape that they needed it to take. Alright, then: on to what was left of the planned lesson.

Punch me up! Punch me down!

I began by pointing out that contemporary US culture is politically divided on just about everything, and theories of humor are no exception to this trend.


On the American political Right, theories of the social purpose of humor have long hewn close to libertarian ideals. Comedy, according to this line of thought, serves as an ideal testbed for free speech. Nothing should be off-limits: instead, the comedy should be the realm in which we laugh at the thought of anything being off-limits, in the first place. This particular conception of comedy often holds up George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” standup routine as as a vaulted example. You’ll often see this conception of the role of comedy circulating among those who hold that “no one has the right to not be offended,” that our culture is trending toward over-sensitivity, and that political correctness has gone too far. In 2015, the internet was all abuzz with comedians announcing their allegiance to this strain of thought.

For a long time, the American political Left didn’t really have its own competing theory on the social purpose of humor. This, however, has begun to change in recent years. Beginning around Lindy West’s exhortation in 2012 “DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE,” up through Gary Trudeau’s pronouncement in the wake of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings that “Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful,” the American Left has generally circled around a theory of comedy based on the idea of humor as a leveler, as something that can present a voice for the powerless against the powerful. This idea is not without precedent—we see snippets of it, for instance, in Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “carnivalesque,” in which the world goes topsy-turvy and those in power find themselves on the bottom, but the specific language of “punching up” has only appeared in the past few years. (And, as Ben Schwartz points out, it is not a practice that has been particularly robust in the history of American comedy.)[iii]

The division between these two philosophies of humor cleaves largely around the answers to two questions: Who gets to make jokes? And at targets should comics aim their ridicule?

The libertarian position is clean and simple: anyone should be able to make jokes, at anyone else’s expense. There are more gradations in the Left’s current favored philosophy of comedy. The Left, for instance, is far more likely to point out that when even Dave Chapelle, a Black comic, finds himself conceding that his attempts at anti-racist humor backfired, then we should perhaps be wary of non-Black comedians making Black Americans the target of comic ridicule (especially in a country with a history of White supremacy in general, and minstrelsy in particular). We should be well aware of the fact that humor plays a social function, making visible otherwise unacknowledged structures of power, and tracing (and also stretching) the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. It follows, then, that we should pay attention to what we laugh at, and try to use humor for socially-equitable ends.

With that laid out, I turned to some clips. Between the weeks I’ve laid out, students watched a ton of stuff, including selected Chappelle’s Show sketches, selected Inside Amy Schumer sketches, Rick and Morty S01E05 “Meeseeks and Destroy” (Brian Newton, 2014), Louie S04E10 “Pamela Part 1” (Louis C.K, 2014), and the entirety of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006). Below, I will focus on one Amy Schumer sketch and the Louie episode.

“I’m Sorry”

Amy Schumer’s sketch “I’m Sorry,” from a 2015 episode of Inside Amy Schumer of the same name (season 3, episode 4, to be precise), gives us a panel of top women innovators: a leading geneticist, a Nobel prize-winning chemist, a Pulitzer Prize-wining journalist, and a human rights activist. Despite their collective accomplishments, however, these women have problems shedding one distinct verbal tick: needlessly apologizing for themselves.

After showing this sketch, I ask: Who, or what, is being ridiculed? And is this an example of “punching up”? “Punching down”? Or perhaps … “punching sideways,” or something like that?

After making the basic point that the sketch is ridiculing the way in which women constantly downplay their accomplishments, hesitate in their speech, and in general feel a need to apologize for existing, students moved on to the meatier question of what “direction” this sketch is “punching” in. They generally agreed that the sketch just wouldn’t have worked as well if it wasn’t written and performed as part of a sketch comedy show headlined by a woman: If it hadn’t come out of a woman’s sketch comedy show, it would have seemed as if it was ridiculing women outright, instead of poking fun at a very particular form of behavior, as a way of calling attention to it, and hopefully changing it.

From here, things got quite rich, due to the interplay of discussion between a few of my students. One of my students pointed out that the Left too frequently backs itself into a corner by making pronouncements about which types of comedians are “allowed” to make which types of jokes. It’s easy for libertarian philosophies of comedy to gain ground against the left when they use this type of language, because no one likes to be told they are “not allowed” to do something. There’s something inherently pushy about that language.

Perhaps a better way of framing things, my students pointed out, was to simply say that some comedians are more “qualified” to make certain types of jokes than others. This loses the dictatorial edge of saying what is or isn’t “allowed” in comedy. In its place, it acknowledges that perhaps someone like Amy Schumer is simply better positioned to make jokes about internalized sexist behavior. She has lived as a woman, and she’s in a better position to observe her own and other women’s behavior than a man might be. And this pays off—simply put, she can make the joke in a funnier, more knowing way than someone ignorant of the details of the situation could. If the Left is going to get anywhere in its arguments about comedy, perhaps it needs to give up on dictating what is “allowed,” and instead point out that some comedians are just better equipped to poke fun at things than others.

(One thing I didn’t get into here was Schumer’s “Milk Milk Lemonade” sketch, and the critiques of her made from the perspective of intersectional feminist. It is certainly a rich area, but in the wake of the election, it felt too much like in-fighting for me to have the heart to get into it.)

“Pamela Part 1”

Season 4 Episode 10 of Louie, “Pamela Part 1,” caused something of a firestorm when it first aired in 2014. It took Louis C.K.’s eponymous character that so many viewers had grown to love—so flummoxed by the world, so endlessly self-aware, loving father and flawed feminist—and brought him terrifyingly close to committing an act of sexual assault. The episode is shocking and deeply thought-provoking, bringing up all sorts of questions about the relationship between the beliefs of Louis C.K. as a creator and the actions of his onscreen character. Returning to it in 2016, I felt there was still plenty to say. But, again, my perspective on the episode and its reception has been turned all askew in the wake of the Trump election. What once seemed, within my bubble, to be a fascinating cultural conversation on depictions of sexual assault in art, now seems like a tempest in a teapot, one that drew the interest only of those powerless to stop larger cultural forces at work. Now that we have a president elect who has boasted of grabbing women by the pussy, it’s difficult to return to the deep emotional shock that could come from Louis C.K. violently stealing a kiss.

But it is still important to talk about art, and about culture. And it is even more important to refuse to allow certain types of behavior to be normalized. I would like to think that my students appreciated being able to discuss the wide range of forms sexual assault can take, and our constant need to be vigilant of the types of thinking that excuse it.

Our discussion of “Pamela Part 1” centered on one particular scene, but some background is necessary to fully understand it. On the show, Louie (Louis C.K.) has, for years, made his affections for his friend Pamela (Pamela Adlon, the show’s co-producer) known. Pamela has insisted that these feelings aren’t reciprocated, but she also toys with Louie, sometimes giving him brief windows in which she would be up to “do something with him,” which Louie invariably misses. Earlier in the season, she made one of these announcements. Earlier in the episode, Louie asked her if the offer was still on the table, and she said that the moment had passed. Then she insulted his masculinity, and his inability to act.

Later in the episode, Pamela helps Louie out by babysitting his children. When Louie returns home, his awkwardness around her is readily apparent. He fumbles, attempting to hand her some cash, a gesture she rejects in embarrassment. For a moment, we are in the comfortable realm of classic Louie humor: Louie is awkward, but it’s a hyper-self conscious type of awkward, far removed from typical “cringe” humor. (One of my students pointed out this distinction, and I think it’s a useful one.)

Then, the tone suddenly shifts. Louie lurches in, and grabs Pamela’s arm. It is, perhaps, a fumbled attempt to express some physical affection for her, but Pamela’s aversion to physical intimacy kicks in, and she flinches. Here, Louie makes the absolute wrong choice: instead of reading her physical signs and letting up, he tightens his grip, and leans in for a kiss.

In a beat, the scene has suddenly grown tense. The tone, though, is complex. In some ways, it seems like the joke is still perhaps Louie’s awkwardness, his inability to assert desire without fumbling. Since we’re primed for comedy, we read what happens in this vein. But the body language on display quickly becomes more alarming.

By this point in the class, we had extensively discussed the bodily performance styles of figures such as Chaplin and Keaton, and I tried to pull class attention to the intricacies of C.K.’s and Adlon’s performance in this scene. Louie’s self-consciousness about his weight is a constant theme throughout the show—there are many jokes, for instance, about him being embarrassed to have his shirt off during sex. But there is a sudden turn here. Suddenly, viewers are forced to confront the weight of this man’s body not as a joke, but as a possible danger. The way C.K.’s hulking, black-clad figure looms in the frame, especially compared to Adlon’s slight physique, makes Louie into a credible threat. There are certain bursts in the performers’ interplay that highlight this, especially the urgent and terrified face that Adlon momentarily displays as she holds onto the apartment’s door frame.

And yet, the scene never stops cutting the horror of this moment with comedy. Below, you see perhaps the two most tense and unnerving moments of the scene, when Louie lifts up Pamela’s shirt during their struggle, and when he forcibly uses the weight of his body to keep her from escaping his apartment. But in between these two alarming images, Pamela offers some quips, which simultaneously acknowledge the severity of the situation while playing it for laughs. “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid,” Pamela announces. “God! You can’t even rape well.”

Adlon’s performance is the real wild card in this scene. Her reactions give us the feelings of rising terror, but her reactions also diffuse that terror. When both Louie and Pamela reach the door, and Louie actually starts talking to Pamela about his intention to kiss her, rather than just grabbing her, the scene shifts back toward comedy. C.K. slurs his words. Adlon, meanwhile, seems to channel the childlike composure of Giulietta Masina. But whereas Masina’s version of “childlike” was all innocence and naïveté, Adlon’s version is all petulance and shrinking from physical intimacy. She pouts and protests, like a kid who doesn’t want to be seen receiving a kiss from their mom when being dropped off at school.


However, if we leave this scene chuckling at Louie and Pamela’s dysfunctional courtship, we should also recognize that there is something poisonous in that laughter. If the show encourages us to laugh in this moment, I think it also encourages us to reflect on that laughter, and the dangerous ideas it presupposes.

Adlon’s and C.K.’s silliness in the scene’s final moments cements a narrative: Pamela delights in being cruel to Louie. She dangles the possibility of a relationship, only to rescind her offer, and insult his masculinity along the way. Adlon’s performance, though, encourages us to read this cruel behavior as part of Pamela’s deep-seated aversions to intimacy. It’s not that she doesn’t like him: she does. She does “want to do something” with Louie. But her intimacy issues make her alternate between emotional abusiveness and childlike petulance.

Arguably, all of this is true, within the characters’ arcs on the show. But if we examine it, it also leads us down a path of dangerous logic. Because if we accept that Pamela “really wants it,” then we also accept that Louie is in some ways entitled to physically restrain Pamela to pursue his kiss. If we understand Pamela’s constant rescinding of her offers as a type of petty toying with Louie, then we grant Louie permission to pursue something she clearly has not given him permission to. Our knowledge of the characters’ dynamic writ large, and our ability to chuckle at the way their demeanors interact, distracts us from the fact that this line of thought is deeply flawed. We’re encouraged, momentarily, to pursue a line of thought often used to defend rapists. I think, though, that we’re supposed to recoil upon realizing this. I don’t think that Louis C.K. wants us to see Louie as merely awkward in this scene. I think he wants us to recognize Louie as dangerous.

From here, student discussion segued into comparative comments. Contrasting this scene to the attempted rape scene in the Rick and Morty episode “Meeseeks and Destroy,” students pointed out how that show’s (appropriately?) cartoonish depiction of the horrors of sexual assault pales in comparison to this moment of Louie, which succeeds in being unsettling precisely because it actually proceeds in a way that many sexual assaults proceed. The horror of the former show drifts into pure “shock value” territory, whereas the horror of the latter is more unsettling, because it has deeper ramifications for our understanding of these characters.

It was a good discussion. My students were insightful. And, slowly, I am attempting to regain my confidence in the idea that analyzing moving images is important—even if there’s much more work that needs, urgently, to be done.

[i]. Just to head off speculation: Unlike the official policy of the University of Chicago, I do in fact provide content warnings to my students before certain types of material. I provided them a content warning for the material included in this very lesson, in fact.

[ii]. H/T to Hannah Frank for calling my attention to this interview as we wallowed together in post-election misery.

[iii]. 2014–2015 proved to be a very interesting couple of years for watching discussions on the politics of both comedy and videogames unfolding on social media and in popular journalism. Both were really dealing with the same issues: they were both deep boy’s clubs, finally penetrated by outsiders, and both lashed out at perceived “political correctness” and “social justice warrior” behavior in response. As someone who was writing on comedic games at precisely this moment, this was an interesting conversation to watch play out. However, the fact is that, across these debates, there is no denying that the reactionary forces won. Gamergate, for instance, had strong ties to the alt-right and to Breitbart, and now Stephen Bannon, noted White nationalist and Breitbart executive, is poised to be the next White House Chief Strategist. Gamergate won, beyond our wildest imaginations. All of us who cheered at little things such as Intel’s initiative failed utterly to see the true stakes that the internet trolls were playing for.

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