Comedian, writer & Filmmaker

Punching Upwards

Punching upwards.

In an issue about ethnic comedy, starting an article with the word “punching” might not be a good idea…

But it’s an important concept, and one that doesn’t just apply to ethnic comedy.  Punching upwards is the idea that people like to see you “sticking it to the man”, but don’t like to see the little guy get beat up (or girl, because some comics are girls).

I don’t want this to be a tirade about how tough it is to be an ethnic in this industry.  I’ve found the opposite to be true.  I’ve got many opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, it’s allowed me to find my voice quicker, be more memorable on lineups, and it’s allowed me to say things I wouldn’t have been able to say otherwise.

And this certainly isn’t a statement on diversity in comedy.  I’ve found that it’s very rare that those who would like to try stand up comedy are denied an opportunity – if you want to get on stage, you’ll find a way.  Perhaps the male-dominated, predominantly Caucasian Australian comedy industry more as a reflection of who wants to give it a go in the first place than an effect of the industry only giving further opportunities to certain archetypes.

But punching upwards.

(Hehe, “butt-punching”.)

Every society has a pecking order.  And punching up is the idea that you’re allowed to have a go at those above you.  If you pick on someone below you, then it’s bullying, which nobody likes.  Unfortunately that leaves the majority of the comedy fraternity at the top of the food chain, and sometimes confused as to how they got there.

Ironically, it is one of the few things that disadvantages the White, middle-class male comedian (hereto referred to as “a Dave”) and therefore the one thing that (deliciously) makes him understand what it’s like to be on the outer.  Whether it’s on stage as part of a lineup of 6 other Daves and an ethnic, off stage, in the comments section of news.com articles or someone on a street corner wearing Ugg boots and shorts declaring “political correctness gone bloody bonkers”, there’s a common argument of “why can’t I make fun of them?  I make fun of everyone the same”.  And then they tell some heinous joke about Muslims and wonder why people are leaving the room.

When it’s not going bloody bonkers, political correctness is a concept that those who are advantaged within a society acknowledge that they find themselves in a privileged position, and give consideration to those who don’t enjoy that position.  It is about an equalitarian society being cultivated by those with the power to make it so.

But why CAN’T a Dave talk about Muslims without feeling the rooms’ butthole tighten?  Jon Stewart did a great piece on it in relation to White entitlement in regards to the racial tensions in Ferguson that’s definitely worth checking out.

There is a difference between racial and racist.  And it’s all to do with the question “does this come from a place of understanding?” It’s fine to be critical of an ethnicity or minority if it comes from a genuine place of knowledge, but if it comes from generalisations and popularly held half-truths, that’s the definition of stereotyping.  The people that most understand a culture are the people within that culture.  And very seldom a White middle-class male telling you about his encounter with a group of Bangladeshi women on the tram, now with added accents.

Whenever I hear a Dave start a bit about race or “all women”, I get nervous.  For them.  It’s really hard to pull off.  Although when it’s done well, it’s a thing of beauty.  Often when it works, a Dave puts themselves in the position to be the fall guy. It’s the instant assumption about the situation or culture that is the punchline.  This lets the audience – in all probability a bunch of Daves themselves – champion the underdog and stick it to the man at the same time.

Russell Peters is an example of someone who does it well.  He seems to have a genuine understanding of the groups he picks on.  The best way I can explain that is that it was my Dad (an immigrant from Singapore) who introduced me to him, forwarding me a clip of Russell’s Asian accent, that had already been shared around all his friends, with comments like “this is spot on”.  My dad and his friends introduced me to one of the biggest comedians in the world.  I’m a little ashamed of that.  Worse still, it was a quicktime movie attached to an email, because my dad and his friends hadn’t heard of YouTube yet.

But in the hands of a less masterful Dave, more often than not the bit will lie heavily on stereotypes, and the moment it does, it loses credibility, and consequently (whether fairly or unfairly) the perceived “truth” of the bit.

I’ve often heard improv people say “don’t play for the laugh, play for the truth”.  And although bewildering at the time, it totally makes sense now.  Audiences don’t want to hear an uninformed opinion on some else’s culture.  That will make them want to put a wall (both emotional and brick) between themselves and you.  They want a perspective that has a certain truth to it.  It might be something they can identify with, or something that confronts them, but it has to have an honesty to it.

Think of it as McDonald’s versus your local souvlaki place. If McDonald started criticising them, that’s not cool, but it’s fine other way around.  It’s Aristos vs Goliath.

So why then can a Dave can talk a bunch of smack about his girlfriends and it’s fine?  Because it’s a specific person, not a generalisation.  The audience assumes, regardless of the things he’s saying about her, he has spent enough time with her that it comes from a place of understanding.

Of course, this is all one person’s opinion.  And for every argument I’ve made, there will be an example of someone purposely doing the opposite to great success.  But the more opinions you seek out, the better placed you’ll be to make an informed decision and become the best Dave you can be.

Punching up has been there since the beginning of comedy.  There’s a reason why it’s a man slipping on a banana peel and not an orphaned African girl.  People want to root for the underdog and they want to see them succeed.  Especially in this country.  So when you think about it, Ethnics verbally bashing White People is one of the most Australian things there is.

By Jason Chong, age 34

Fun Game!

I’ve put together a quick list of groups in Australia and the hierarchy I think they might form.  Do you agree?  Disagree?  Cut them out and have fun reordering them while Ethnics take all of your women and jobs!

  1. The 1% (Rich people)
  2. Christians
  3. Nickelback
  4. Daves
  5. Students
  6. Hipsters
  7. Nerds
  8. Environmentalists
  9. The Elderly
  10. Bogans
  11. Greeks and Italians
  12. White Women
  13. Asians
  14. Sub-continental Asians
  15. Muslims
  16. Physically disabled
  17. Mentally disabled

This article originally appeared in YAWP Magazine‘s “Race, Culture and Humour” Issue #28

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.