Punching up or simply punching “not racist”

Improv part 2

Improv classes have always been a place of possible precariousness to me. A bunch of strangers with differing understandings of the world, truth, and what is funny or not.

I will be the first to say that my brand of humor might not be for everyone. But I do try my best to punch up.

The concept of “punching up” is another highly debated idea — what is known as comedy that criticizes and critiques those who are higher in power structure than you and not below. For example, it might be funny when we make fun of Trump but perhaps not as much when Trump makes fun of homeless folks.

But punching up isn’t a sacred rule for everyone. In fact, punching down isn’t always cliché, and it isn’t always hacky. I can agree that in context, punching up or down aren’t hard and fast rules at all.

Last night’s improv class asked for scenes inspired by the word “gum”, and two non-POC students began to fake Asian accents — creating a world where two stereotypical Asian characters worked in a gum assembly line.

It’s an understatement to say that I thought it was an incredibly cringe-worthy, unfortunate scene. It’s perhaps something only a person of Asian ethnicity can understand — the perpetual casual racism that flows through media and society unchecked.

Perhaps the two students thought it was interesting character work, but I found it to be low brow “comedy” that lacked any sense of context or awareness.

Luckily, another student entered the scene as a boss figure and reprimanded the “assembly line workers” for their stereotypical fake accents. Suddenly, the world of the scene changed into one where these two characters were tactless employees who regularly get in trouble for racist impersonations.

It brought a reality check into the scene itself, breaking the fourth wall just enough. The tension breaks and audiences get swept with relief, and now they feel they can laugh at the collective ridiculousness. That’s punching up…and I think that’s pretty funny.