Punching Up or Punching Down

by aditimittal

My essay on “Power and Comedy” for the Power Issue of Verve Magazine, June 2015

We Indians have an iffy record when it comes to having a sense of humour. We

are accused of having none — the past few months have reminded us that we

will muzzle a joke while hate speech flows from the mouths of politicians. But

then again — if you watch our great democracy in action on the 9 o’clock news,

it’s hard to say that Indians don’t have a sense of humour. It’s like watching a

building crumble, one slow brick at a time, and yet we find the courage in us to

tune in the next day at 9 pm again. India has a confusing relationship with

comedy and humour. We will ban some comedians, and on the other hand we

will put some on prime-time television. In a country as full of idiosyncrasies and

idiocies, it is no surprise that the two things that we have in endless supply are

apathy and outrage. At the confluence of the two stands humour. The youngest

child of any family will recount how they are constantly teased and that’s how

they know they are loved. My chubbiness has been a punchline in my family for

generations. From being called ‘Adu-Kaddu’ by my elders, I have been moved

onto the loving epithet of ‘Kaddu Masi’ by my nieces and nephews. Even today at

almost every alternate stand-up comedy show there are requests from the

audience to make fun of their friend whose birthday it is. If the host of the show

obliges and time permits, it ends with the birthday boy/girl standing on stage

red with embarrassment and suppressed giggles, while the friends and the

members of the audience join in with good-natured laughter. Evidently, the

relationship between comedy and power is a complex one. To begin with, we all

know about the power of comedy. It’s replete in our adages like — ‘Laughter is

the best medicine’ — and the laughter clubs of people hahahah-ing seemingly

needlessly at city parks in coffee ads. We know that laughter is good for us, but

power and comedy in my opinion are both interchangeable. In that the power of

humour comes from both, being a weapon to attack as well as a weapon to

defend. In a way, power is comedy and comedy is power. You’ll often hear the

words ‘punching up’ and ‘punching down’ being bandied about in green rooms of

comedy clubs. This description of a joke is based on who the target of the joke is.

(I use words like ‘weapon’ and ‘target’ in humour but I have to reckon they are

too potent an analogy for jokes. Jokes, we often tend to forget are not physically

harmful; you’ll never hear of comedians rioting for their right to be ‘offensive’ to

audience but more than once audience members have gone overboard with their

right to be ‘offended’, even threatening and in some cases even killing comedians

in the process). When you are ‘punching up’, the target of your joke is higher

than your perceived and experienced status in the power structure of the society

you live in. That’s why it’s so easy to make fun of politicians and celebrities —

they are privileged, richer and more powerful than us and when you’re that rich

and famous, you should be too powerful to care about what people say. A joke on

Vijay Mallya never goes un-laughed at — Rahul Gandhi, Uday Chopra and

Tusshar Kapoor jokes are so common now, that they’re actually considered

hackneyed. It’s why the Internet exploded with memes when Alia Bhatt didn’t

know who the President of India is. It was too easy; she is a beautiful woman,

born into privilege, with a job description that includes the high life. We could

never be her. For the person cracking it, and for the person laughing at it — the

joke is a tool of survival, a defence mechanism. In the ninth standard, I had to

change boarding schools. As anyone can testify, it’s a traumatic experience. Kaho

Na… Pyaar Hai had just released in the theatres that week. On the first day of

school when the new kids are expected to be sitting in a corner and crying

because they miss their parents — I was doing my best impression of Ek Pal Ka

Jeena for my new friends. Hrithik Roshan will never know how he saved my life

that year. One of the earliest laughs laughed by the first primate may as well have

been a chuckle of relief when it had evaded its latest predator. Survival was

guaranteed for the time being. We are alive. Research conducted by Chaya

Ostrower (a gelatologist — that’s what they call scientists who study humour)

showed that humour was one of the primary defence mechanisms exhibited

during the Holocaust. Concentration camps would have stand-up comedy shows

where the prisoners would stand sometimes right in front of prison officials and

make jokes about them. One of the most poignant recorded jokes in this aspect:

Hitler to a fortune teller: “Tell me when I will die.” Fortune teller: “You will die on

a Jewish holiday.” Hitler: “But which Jewish holiday will I die on?” Fortune teller:

“Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.” The function of laughter in this case is

— if you can’t be them, laugh at them. With that simple action, you are taking

away the power they have over you from them and bolstering your own

confidence. When we ‘punch down’, the target of the joke is lower than your

perceived and experienced status in the power structure. That’s why we crack up

when people walk into doors, slip on banana peels or get hit by pies in the face.

It’s why movie villains don’t hahaha, they Muahahaha. The element of power in

this humour is derived from relief. Thank God I am not the one in trouble.

‘Punching down’ also serves the function of establishing hierarchy. That’s why

it’s hilarious to make fun of Rakhi Sawant when she says ‘chitting’ instead of

‘cheating’ or exclaims ‘Jejus’ instead of ‘Jesus’. What she is saying is lost in the

melee of quips about her mispronunciation. In speaking out, she has exposed the

fact that she is not one of us magazine reading public and we use her incongruity

to make humour. In this case it might as well be that one of the first laughs

laughed by the first primate was when he saw his prey struggling in his grip —

dinner was ready. Survival was guaranteed for the time being. We are alive.

‘Punching down’ is the trademark joke style of Comedy Nights With Kapil. The

poor wife is a permanent nag and therefore the butt of jokes about nagging.

Dadima and Buaji are always hitting on the guest of every show, and therefore a

butt of jokes for that desperation. By that same merit, Alia Bhatt jokes are a

classic example of ‘punching down’ as well. In our muddled middleclass morality,

actresses are literally lowest in the pecking order — even today, a young woman

expressing a desire to be an actress is met by fevered opposition. It’s very easy to

make fun of her. This, in my mind, establishes the fluidity of the power of comedy

and the comedy of power, because every single individual perceives and

experiences status in a different manner — so ‘punching up’ and ‘punching

down’ become subjective. What is funny to some may be horribly offensive

others. And that’s what makes comedy so potent. It is so easy to create. The

three most basic components of a joke — a clever thought in your head, a person

to tell it to and the ability to be objective about your own place in the power

structure of the world we exist in — all are free. It’s all dependent on how much

power you, as a creator and even as a consumer of comedy, give yourself. Event

organisers often are thrilled to have a stand-up comedy track on their line-ups

because there are rarely background dancers, flashing lights and backup

orchestras. It’s just a person telling a joke on the mike, hoping to evoke laughter.

That’s why, comedy, in all its forms, is simultaneously the most simple and

complicated thing to process. The punches perceived are only as hard as you let

them hit you — only as powerful or powerless as you let them be.

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