When Punching Up Feels Like Getting Punched 8


Let’s say I, a Black Female, am in an improv set and my White Male teammate initiates a scene with me and two other white teammates and says:

“Mom, Dad, I want you to meet my Black girlfriend.”

And the rest of the scene they all play these characters who are ignorant, insensitive monster-people and I am relegated to play this woman who is the voice of reason, to play myself and show through improv how this is awful. Now not always, but often things like this example is part of the reason why so many diverse voices quit comedy, or feel pushed to the sides of this community.

This comedic generation will be known as the generation for inclusion. Right now the underground comedy scene is becoming more and more of a melting pot, ya know, like America should be. Several theaters have enacted diversity and inclusion initiatives through Chicago, New York, and LA. There are more and more improv and sketch shows that are POC focused, Queer focused, Women focused, and inclusion focused. Visibility is at an all time high! More voices are being heard and being honored on stage than ever before, and with that comes it’s own special set of hurdles we must clear. Namely that a lot of white people, mostly (Not always) straight white men, do not know how to work within these new diversity initiatives.

Politically Correct

Conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.

Emotional Correctness

Pressure on an individual to be seen to feel the same emotion as others.
i.e. to be seen as person with feelings like everyone else.

Full Definition of Satire

A literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.

There is a difference between being politically correct and emotionally correct. You can be politically correct and emotionally callous. (Like when politicians are just trying to say the right thing without actual regard to the emotions of others.) This is something that we need to take note of. People confuse being politically correct with what is really a call for emotional correctness. If we as a comedy community want to have lasting change in terms of inclusion then we as comedians need to be aware that there is a difference between being satirically sound and emotionally correct. And to know that you can and should have both. In other words, there needs to be an awareness that people can be satirical but do it in a way that leaves everyone feeling like hot garbage. You can say or do something that holds up human follies up to ridicule, and absolutely “Punches Up” and STILL participate in excluding the people you are trying to lift up.

counterpoint 1

Rebuttal:

First off, do not speak at me in comic sans. Second, you can absolutely be satirical and showcase how something is weak and bad without alienating your castmates or your audience. And the way you do that is to speak to YOUR truth (specifics that are true to your life experiences), not someone else’s.

Let’s go back to that example:

I, a Black Female, am in an improv set and my White Male teammate initiates a scene with me and two other white teammates and says: “Mom, Dad, I want you to meet my Black girlfriend.” And the rest of the scene all of my white teammates play these characters who are ignorant, insensitive monsters.

Okay, Imma break this down. For someone like me being the only Lesbian, the only Woman of Color, the only Woman, or the only anyone on a team is already very “One of these things is not like the other.” When this teammate starts a scene with “Mom, Dad, I want you to meet my Black girlfriend.” He is alienating me, he stopped looking at me as a teammate and person and only saw me as skin-deep, literally. He then USED my perspective for his own personal gain. This scene has triggered me into a panic state of “Oh shit! Now I gotta deal with this burden, while being the only representative of Black Women on stage, AND I somehow gotta make this dumb shit funny?!” He made me the educator of this scene, the mouthpiece. A perspective he could USE and not a person whose point of view he honors and respects. Not to mention the PTSD that happens when you are suddenly forced to relive something shitty that may have actually happened to you.

counterpoint 2

Rebuttal:

No. Not “We”, ME. I get to talk about it, not you. This is MY truth. Why try to make a statement about something you do not know about, or have personally experienced? Anyone can say “Homophobia is bad” and (most) people will agree. But if you are a straight person you have no right to initiate a scene with a queer person where you are playing a homophobic monster. If you are a man why initiate a scene where you are aggressively sexist and mean to the women on your team? That puts your castmate in a triggering situation. Which will more than likely put them in their head and take them out of the moment and out of the fun. I honestly do not know what makes anyone feel so entitled that they have no problem using their castmates to make these grandiose statements about issues they do have ZERO stakes in, but their castmates do? Please stop using Comic Sans, you sound like a twelve year old.

Another Example:

Let’s say a dude on your team comes out and initiates a scene with a woman on your team and he says:

“Babe, you need to lose weight. I’m not into big girls.”

The rest of the scene he plays sexist douchebag while she jumps through hoops pointing out how he is terrible. At the end of the scene she dumps him. This is great example of when punching up goes wrong. In this, the message is on point. The message is that he is a sexist prick. The satirical message is sound, in that she is holding his misogyny up to ridicule, but emotionally incorrect in that this is triggering and a shitty thing to do.

One more:

This is a real thing I have seen more than once at different venues. Two men walk out on stage, (sometimes one is playing a woman, sometimes not) one of them is a rapist and rapes the other one on stage. Graphically. Violently. In front of a crowd. At the end of the horrific rape we all watched, the rape victim kills or injures the rapist.

Y’all.

You cannot subject everyone to rape and then think that because the rapist got murdered at the end of the scene or the show that it was good art or funny at all.

What was done was not art, or funny, it was hot poopy garbage fire. This mentality of giving the bad guys what is coming to them, is a lazy last resort in my eyes. And it really only kind of works in improv. If you have no stakes in something like this and script, then rehearse and perform it, you may as well take a dead rat and present it to each audience member individually, name it Craigory, throw it at a wall, and proclaim “Ooopsies!” and poop your pants. Because that’s how you look right now.

And no matter the come uppance, no matter how much you punch up, you still subjected everyone to a live rape.

Which brings us back to making statement we have no stakes in.
Fucking don’t.

counterpoint 3

Rebuttal

This new font makes me want to die, but yes, true. Statements have to be made and people are going to be upset no matter what.

In this art form we honor the truth. So, what is your truth? What do you have to bring to the table? Bring that. Don’t bring other people’s truths, it makes your work inauthentic and trite while also losing the trust of your ensemble and your audience.

counterpoint 4

Rebuttal

Sounds like a lot of work, right? Because it is. Nobody can make you work hard, or get you woke to everything that is going on in the world, nobody can make you be better or make better choices. That’s up to you. Just know that I do go through all of these steps in my comedy. And so do so many other people. We have all made mistakes, I certainly have, and I’m sure I have excluded people in comedy, and for that I am sorry. You are supposed to fuck up and make mistakes, that’s just a part of it and life. But it is no longer a mistake when you are consciously repeating those mistakes. The point is to learn and grow and acknowledge your own bullshit in the name of being the best you that you can be. I challenge you to grow with this inclusivity instead of against it.

We can say and do what we want in the name of comedy. I just think that we need to examine what we say, why we say it, and how we say it. I also believe that following this mentality absolutely leads to better, more creative choices. And maybe instead of using diverse voices to make a point about things you have no stakes in, you use your voice in a way it is diverse for you.

All in all:
Let’s take the extra steps to be better.

Lol jk this will never happen, I am very gay. This is actually us:

“To me there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you’re gonna write a sonnet, it’s 14 lines, so it’s solving the problem within the container.”
-Lorne Michaels


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8 thoughts on “When Punching Up Feels Like Getting Punched

  • John Michalski

    Almost everything in your examples has to do with players playing povs that they think are appropriate to the characatures they are bringing to the scene instead of bringing characters who share povs that come from a real space. Your rant would be great dialogue if you shared it in a scene as your characters pov. What is that scene really about? Not racism as much as unfulfilled expectation. One example: the boyfriend’s introduction of your character … without labeling it share your feelings:”I can’t believe you introduced me as your black girlfriend. I thought you saw me as more than an icon or as more than your trophy girlfriend of color or as more than a weapon to use against your parents. Point is these are all different scenes. You have the power to turn any scene. In conversation with Del many years ago we cane to a point of agreement that a scene is never about what you think it’s about … it’s about what it is about. You can always change a context without denying another actors choice. Choose to make the racist parents victims of behavioral expectation triggered by the boyfriends uae of ‘black girlfriend’. Just because your cast mates to do reprov doesn’t stop you from saying an unexpected character pov statement that they were not expecting. Final thought: reread your rant looking at it as the potentially great dialogue that it is and bring it to a scene.

    • Kevin Mullaney

      If I’m punching you in the face, and you say that you don’t want me to punch you in the face. I should stop, or at least not be surprised when you stop coming by our weekly rehearsal where I punch you in the face.

      That sounded aggressive, but the point is, that’s what she is expressing, that it feels lousy to be put in these scenes over and over. It feels like being punched emotionally. We could have a conversation about how to deal with these initiations or we can make different initiations, ones our scene partners would actually want to participate in.

    • Rico Pagliuca

      Wow, John!

      As a guy who loves teaching people things, I tend to hate the word mansplaining. This might be some textbook WhiteMansplaining right here.

      “You have the power to turn any scene.”

      You came here to share this point… really?

      Do you think the author doesn’t know that?

      The author is aware of that. The author, likely having been thrust into shitty scenes by unaware or inconsiderate people, may have all kinds of ways to cope with insensitive initiations.

      Did you consider any of what she wrote before replying?

      Whether one “can” do something is different entirely from whether they should fucking have to.

  • Adam Domo

    these are all awful, terrible scene initiations!! haha I mean your point makes total sense and this was a fun, informative read, but man oh man i got sick reading those scene initiations

  • Chuck

    Sometimes scenes go very wrong. The “black girlfriend” scene is a good example. One wishes you could just sweep the scene after the first line and move on to the next. But you, as the “black girlfriend” must have felt completely trapped. Maybe pushing the boundaries is OK in comedy if you are David Chappelle or Spike Lee, but you should never put your scene partner in this kind of situation. Don’t ever put your scene partner in an uncomfortable situation involving race or sex. I’ve been in a scene where I was the victim of a gang rape. I was new to improv and I felt completely trapped. Didn’t like it. Wasn’t funny. I’ve seen other scenes where women are lured into rape that were supposed to be funny, but were merely offensive. People are coming to our shows to have a good time, not to watch a clumsy attempt at pushing boundaries or teaching them a lesson. Often it’s pushing boundaries just to get an easy laugh. As adults, we say “fuck.” As children, we said “poop.” So when we push the boundaries, to what extent are we just telling poop jokes while thinking it’s high art? It’s a good practice to keep all our shows above the waist and to avoid bad language, racist, and sexual themes. If you do that, you can perform anywhere without having to edit yourself. And there’s an infinite supply of perfectly good ideas without having to go there. To what extent is a poop joke just a lack of creativity?

  • Angus

    Have you ever had a moment where you witness something, and instinctively look around to see where the candid cameras are? Like, when I read an article written by a queer black woman sharing her own truth and then read a comment from a white guy correcting her, and then another white guy correcting the first white guy?

    Like, is this happening? It’s a joke, right?

    Thank you for sharing this. Love.