On Punching Up

girl in black top looking surprised

It’s Not Rocket Science, Although Given My Utter Ignorance of Rocket Science, Maybe Part of It Is

But I doubt it. I recently tweeted something on the Twitter machine – a silly, mildly amusing tweet that said, “I have never been in any way harassed or demeaned by Scott Rudin; this isn’t meant to condone his behavior in any way; it just shows how far down the ladder I am in my career.” Now, it’s ok-ish as jokes go; it got a handful of likes. But it also got some finger wagging responses questioning whether this tweet was “moral.”

I’m now undergoing physical therapy to rehabilitate my eye muscles after the severity of the reflexive eye-rolling it induced.

Now, like the joke, don’t like it, whether or not you enjoy the joke on its admittedly modest merits doesn’t matter. The point is that the person who is the target of this joke is 1) Me, 2) Me, and, arguably, 3) Both me and Scott Rudin (with whom I’m OK mocking).

And I’m ok mocking Rudin because he was apparently a terrible, terrible person to work for. In fact, downright abusive. It should go without saying, but it clearly doesn’t, that I was in no way mocking the people who were repeatedly yelled out, called demeaning names, and occasionally had actual heavy office supplies hurled at them.

I’m Not Sure I Follow Your Thinking, or Lack Thereof

I’ll go further: there is no way that tweet can be interpreted as such.

Unless, of course, you really, really want to. There is a pretty well-worn axiom about comedy; namely, that it should always “punch up.” In other word, the targets of jokes should be those with power, and those who clearly deserve ridicule (there’s often a healthy overlap on that Venn diagram). Punching down, therefore, is a joke that makes fun of people who are not in any way responsible for the topic at hand because they lack the agency to control the situation.

I’ll give you a current example. I found the movie Licorice Pizza, problematic in a lot ways, both aesthetically and ethically, which I assume is keeping Paul Thomas Anderson up nights. But there has been a bit of a, and this a word I don’t use lightly, hullabaloo, about a minor character: A white man who weds two Japanese wives. The joke Anderson writes is that neither wife speaks English very well (and spoiler alert, the man doesn’t speak Japanese, a punchline we saw coming from the opening moments), and so, when he talks to them, he adopts a cringe-worthy, caricature of a white person’s insensitive impersonation of how Asian people talk.

And yes, it’s super cringe-worthy. But also, if you can get past the cringing, pretty funny. Because we’re not laughing at the Asian women, nor are we chuckling at the imitation. The man himself is the object of derision: the joke is about his utter stupidity and cluelessness that this is either acceptable or effective. Anderson is mocking – and mocking pretty scathingly – the character’s white, male cluelessness.

Several groups have protested the movie because of this (the public seems largely is the central plot of a 25-28 year old woman in a complicated and ultimately romantic relationship with a 15-year-old boy. And man, let’s just take a moment to not only wonder what PTA is up to with this, but the hypocrisy of the viewing public. Would people be OK with it if the genders were reversed?) bit.

And I respect the argument that if said joke offends a portion of the Asian community, who am I to tell them they’re wrong? I’m not. I just want be clear that if they are protesting that this bit makes fun of Asians, then I respectfully submit they’ve really misread that joke.

But, but, BUT

Should that matter? Especially given the atmosphere in America and the increase of racial verbal and physical violence the Asian-American community has experienced? And aren’t there going to be some people too stupid and hateful not to understand it’s satirizing the patronizing, racist attitudes of some white male Americans?

To the first point, I say…maybe. I certainly take the point. To the second, I say, absolutely not. This is what I believe: We should never refrain from making something, from a joke to a painting to a cathedral, because someone, somewhere, might misinterpret it. That’s known as playing to the lowest common denominator.

When Did People Become Convinced They’ve A Right Not To Be Offended?

I have seldom set out to deliberately offend anyone, and when I have, I’ve always tried to make sure, I was punching up. If someone approaches me in an open-minded and hearted way and says what I said/did/didn’t say/didn’t do caused them to be offended, I would invariably apologize and explain as best I could why I had meant no offense. I’m no saint, sometimes I speak without thinking, and I’m, despite my best efforts, occasionally insensitive. I try to assume the fault is mine (thanks, Mom and Catholicism) until I am persuaded otherwise.

But being offended isn’t a sign of moral superiority. At least not a lot of the time. Someone tweeted at me that I was mocking the Trans community with that tweet. Perhaps Rudin was transphobic? Certainly wouldn’t say it was beneath him. But in what world is that Tweet an attack on anyone (other than Rudin), let alone on a marginalized community?

I’m No Authority on These Matters (And Yet I’m Blogging About It)

I’m just saying, before I should post a joke, I should reasonably (Ah there’s the rub. What’s the definition of “reasonable”? Not literally, I mean, I majored in English) assume might be gravely misinterpreted or offend people? Absolutely, and I’m the first to admit – the people who tweeted at me would rightly point out I’m NOT the first – that I don’t always get it right. But perhaps, before you publicly question someone’s morality over a joke, maybe that person should understand the joke. We already miscommunicate enough as it is.

Let’s try, if even only as a thought experiment, not assuming the worst about each other. And maybe find the differences in ourselves between being offended and fetishizing that feeling.

I’m Not Joking When I Say This:

Some of you may disagree, in which case I welcome a healthy and civilized discussion. But it’s how I feel. I hope that doesn’t offend you, but I don’t think it should.

Published by Jack Canfora

I'm an award winning and losing playwright and screenwriter; I'm a dad of two great kids, an aggressive spoiler of dogs, and hopelessly addicted to baseball and The Beatles. I have no recollection of ever having worn a mullet, yet photos in the 80's say otherwise.

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