From The Archive
Ben Schwartz
No. 31  June 2016

Knock Yourselves Out

 “Punching up” in American comedy 

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From 2012 to 2015, one of our most reliable national punch lines was Bruce Jenner. Husband, then ex-husband, of Kardashian reality-show matriarch Kris Jenner, Bruce Jenner had not yet come out as a trans woman, meaning our only real hint of the change ahead came from distant paparazzi photos. The public could only guess: A plastic-surgery addiction? A cross-dressing reality show stunt? A gender transition in the making?

That last guess, of course, was the right one, as Jenner would explain when she announced she was transitioning into the female identity of Caitlyn. But prior to that revelation, comedians generally treated Jenner’s mercurial appearance as part of the profit-driven celebutainment machine that Kris Jenner has built around her family. In 2012, Jimmy Fallon mocked the Keeping Up with the Kardashians dad’s malleable features, saying, “His face is 100 percent recyclable goods.” On SNL’s “Weekend Update,” Cecily Strong reported, “Bruce and Kris Jenner confirmed this week that they’re getting divorced,” and then deadpanned: “‘It’s sad, but I’m excited to start my new life as a single, middle-aged woman’—said Bruce.” Amid rumors in 2014 that Jenner would compete on Dancing with the Stars, Conan O’Brien said, “They’ll assign Bruce Jenner a dance partner as soon as he assigns himself a gender.”

To mock Jenner at that point was still to “punch up”—to target a person who is privileged or entitled or, in one obnoxious way or another, just asking for it. In February 2015, Jenner was involved in an auto accident; he rear-ended a car, and the driver died. Investigators recommended that manslaughter charges be brought against Jenner (although ultimately none were), and comedians saw no reason to lay off. The logic of punching up, indeed, seemed to dictate it: yes, Jenner was once an Olympian who earned our respect in a more traditional way, but now the former decathlete and Wheaties spokesman came across as a vain and arrogant celebrity, one desperate to stay in the spotlight.

Then, on the April 24, 2015, episode of the ABC newsmagazine show 20/20, Jenner came out, announcing, “I’m a woman.” In a brilliantly executed two-hour biography and interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner’s six decades of living a gender lie came to an end. Sawyer’s viewers now came to see how Jenner had struggled through three unhappy marriages. They also saw clips of trans people, without the protection afforded by Jenner’s wealth and fame, jeered at, insulted, beaten on a subway car, and dragged out of a McDonald’s bathroom by the hair.

Overnight, Jenner went from a cheesy C-list celebrity to the best-known member of a trod-on minority. And just as suddenly, the comics who had “punched up” at Jenner came across as smug and intolerant. When Diane Sawyer reran their jokes, the comedians transitioned along with Jenner, from flippant wiseacres offering a reality check to an unlikable fame whore, to callous anti-trans bigots. Viewed through the lens of trans oppression, the comics were now “punching down.”

Problematic for the People

“Punching up” and “punching down” are relatively new pop-political terms, often found not far from words like “mansplaining,” “problematic,” and “trolling.” So it should come as no surprise that they have become entangled with our current national panic over political correctness, which, apparently, not only has created a “humor crisis,” but also is why we can’t properly fight terrorism, control immigration, or make unruly college students read Alison Bechdel and eat faux bánh mì. Western democracy itself hangs in the balance, depending on who happens to be lecturing you at the moment.

Our contemporary clowning class is split on the punching-up rule. “Comedy should always punch up, not down,” writes comedian Ajai Raj (sarcastically). “The people who say these things most often are not standup comics. They are rarely comedians of any kind. They are people, often of a high-minded, socially liberal persuasion, who hold all of the ‘correct’ opinions, and who are, almost universally, not very funny.” “Punching up, punching down!” says comedian Colin Quinn. “Once again, these terms were not created by humorous people.”

But as the late political satirist, and quite humorous, Molly Ivins once put it, “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel—it’s vulgar.” Or as cartoonist Garry Trudeau wrote in the wake of last year’s Charlie Hebdo shootings, “Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. . . . Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.”

The term “punching up” may be new, but the sentiment itself is as old as the republic. It runs deep in our pop culture, to the very core of how we see ourselves as Americans. Here, in the land of unbridled speech and plucky self-reliance, even the lowliest among us is free to snark upon the high and mighty—and playing the scrappy David to our entitled Goliaths is, arguably, more important to us than actually being funny.

Fanfare for the Common Clown

“Out of the travail of the Revolution,” wrote Constance Rourke in her still vital 1931 study American Humor, “by a sudden, still agreement, the unformed American nation pictured itself as homely and comic.” Later cultural historians like Walter Blair, Hamlin Hill, and Robert C. Toll agreed: they all contended that by the 1810s a “common man’s culture” took hold here, one that rudely supplanted the intellectual culture that British colonials like Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams esteemed. By then, Franklin, “the first American,” had become mythologized as a national role model, a humble man who rose up through hard work, common sense, and Christian living to realize great worldly success as a retired gentleman at age forty-two.

But prior to the Revolution, Franklin’s fortunes came in no small way from his career as the colonies’ most popular humorist, and one who punched down, hard. An Enlightenment thinker in the wilderness of the New World, a devoted fan of Swift, he enjoyed playing hoaxes on the yokels. In the various newspapers and publications he and his brother James put out, Franklin authored fake witch trial reporting (he especially loathed his childhood pastor, Cotton Mather) and composed phony letters to the editor as the ironically pious Silence Dogood—and then there was his comic masterpiece, Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Playing the scrappy David to our entitled Goliaths is more important to us than actually being funny.

Debuting in 1732, Poor Richard’s Almanac is remembered today for common-sense proverbs, such as “There are no gains, without pains.” Almanacs at the time published calendars, rates of exchange, folk wisdom, and farming tips, but Franklin made his funny too. His was a snarky, prank-ridden, mean-spirited swipe at a local almanacker, Titan Leeds—publisher of the astrology-laden American Almanac. To ridicule Leeds, Franklin wrote in character as Poor Richard; in that voice, he announced that his astrological forecasts predicted that Titan Leeds would die on October 17, 1733, at 3:29 p.m. If not for that sad news, Richard assures us, he would never have ventured to compete with the great man. (Richard also lets us know that his wife had threatened to throw out his telescopes and astrology books if he didn’t make more money.) In later editions, Richard grumbles about the bad deal he signed with Franklin (his printer) and admits that many of his “wise-sayings” are stolen (which they were). Richard is not a model citizen; he is a greedy oaf, which is exactly what Franklin thought of almanackers like Leeds.

When Franklin saw that his wise-sayings stuck in the popular memory, he rebooted them without irony in The Way to Wealth (1758) as the sage advice of a new character, the pious Father Abraham. By 1790, Franklin was dead, his old jokes forgotten. But his sayings lived on as lessons for school children and copy for throw pillows. As newly wealthy Americans like Thomas Mellon (of the Mellon Bank) and James Harper (of Harper publishing) found inspiration in them, and in Franklin’s autobiography, he was recast as a puritan workhorse. Franklin was no longer “funny,” but an icon of the common man’s culture he once mocked—our first Tony Robbins.

Common Clay, or Just Mud?

According to Rourke and company, three “homely, comic” characters emerged around this same time: the Yankee, who outwitted upper-class, educated elites; the backwoodsman, a braggart pioneer who told fantastic, improbably violent tales of survival on the frontier; and the minstrel, a white man in blackface makeup who appropriated African American culture. They were regional variations on one national comic character, which Toll describes as “rustic, proud, independent, morally strong, brave, and nationalistic.”

Rustic, homely—in appearance, yes; but this comic character was the favorite conceit of the more sophisticated satirical minds in the country. In 1809, twenty-six-year-old Washington Irving assumed the persona of Diedrich Knickerbocker and published A History of New York, in which Irving sent up Thomas Jefferson as one Wilhelmus Kieft—a.k.a. William the Testy—a figure who mimicked Jefferson’s lecturing and pontificating manner toward the public. If Franklin mocked Titan Leeds for his ignorance, Irving mocked Jefferson for his intelligence. As a youth, Knickerbocker explains, Testy was nearly smothered by a flood of “unintelligible learning—a fearful peril, from the effects of which he never perfectly recovered.” His celebrated inventions included “Dutch ovens that roasted meat without fire; carts that went before the horses”; and as for his philosophical leanings, he was a man who knew just enough metaphysics to “confound.”

Like Franklin, Irving was the most popular humorist of his day, as well as a journalist, wit, diplomat (in the Jackson and Tyler administrations), and scholar (he later authored a biography of Muhammad). But unlike Franklin, he chose to punch up. Irving exploited the central comic trope of the new nation: that simple folk, like his yarn-spinning alter ego Diedrich Knickerbocker, had more sense than intellectuals like Jefferson. In 1820, Irving published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a classic in the annals of slobs vs. snobs comedy. It features Ichabod Crane, a supercilious schoolmaster courting the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Crane is full of book-learning, but his “rustic” rival, local bro Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, wins the girl in the end, scaring Crane off by pretending to be a ghostly headless horseman.

Henry Adams cited Irving’s History as a work that “stood alone,” declaring that “Diedrich Knickerbocker owed nothing to any living original.” And indeed, America’s humor was so new that it baffled visitors. In 1831, when Alexis de Tocqueville arrived from France to observe us in our natural habitat (the same year Darwin set sail for the Galapagos to poke the blue-footed booby), he deemed Americans decidedly unfunny. In Democracy in America, he wrote of our nation of thrifty, puritan wannabe Franklins: “People who spend every day in the week in making money, and the Sunday in going to church, have nothing to invite the muse of Comedy.”

Tocqueville was no doubt steeped in Molière’s satires, staged for the courts of Louis XIV. Often, Molière’s targets were wealthy burghers and merchants (Jourdain in The Bourgeois Gentleman, Orgon in Tartuffe, Harpagon in The Miser), the kind of men aristocrats sneered at for having more money than learning and worldliness. In the American setting, however, Molière’s self-made buffoons were our sages—the font of our national wisdom—and upward social mobility (or climbing) was seen as proof of one’s character, not a lack of it. Small wonder Tocqueville did not get our national joke.

In the country that invented the minstrel show, hipster irony is a thin defense for racist jokes.

To reinforce their regular-guy standing, popular American comic figures of the nineteenth century, such as Major Jack Downing, Sut Lovingood, Simon Suggs, and Jim Crow, spoke in malaprop English. They had no airs of knowing anything but what they picked up in the academy of common sense—and they all punched up. Jim Crow, a persona adopted by minstrel actor Thomas D. Rice, made anti-slavery politics part of his show. Sut Lovingood, a literary creation of George Washington Harris, was a pro-slavery Tennessee farmer who mocked the Lincoln administration. (Harris himself owned three slaves.) They channeled two different sides of the slavery issue—yet both purported to speak for the common man, punching up at, respectively, slave owners and big-government abolitionists. What they reveal is that to punch up, you only have to convince your audience that you are the little guy, while your satirical targets represent the powerful, the elite. In other words, to own the moral high ground, you have to play to the cultural low ground.

Not everyone heeded our national credo of rube über alles. Herman Melville punctured our national taste for exceptionalist myth-making with his novel Israel Potter (1855), which relates the picaresque adventures of its titular hero. A New England farm boy who fights in the Revolutionary War, Potter meets Ethan Allen and John Paul Jones (“savage” and “barbaric,” as Melville sees them) and Franklin (our “household Plato,” a boorish “homely sage”) before being captured by the British as a prisoner of war. Potter outwits no one and shows up no elites. This average American is exceedingly average, a loser in Melville’s deflation of the Revolution. Melville was not tarred and feathered for punching down; he was ignored. Israel Potter sold badly, although its basic premise—history viewed through the eyes of a dope—has since been adapted in popular novels and movies like Little Big Man and Forrest Gump.

If Melville struggled throughout his career, no one mastered America’s homespun comic tradition like Mark Twain. The Innocents Abroad (1869), which can be read as an answer to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (and its imitators), is a tour of Europe and the Middle East by a “common-sense” American who finds the Old World backward and crude. Of his visit to Paris, he writes, “Occasionally, merely for the pleasure of being cruel, we put unoffending Frenchmen on the rack with questions framed in the incomprehensible jargon of their native language, and while they writhed, we impaled them, we peppered them, we scarified them, with their own vile verbs and participles.”

Today, Twain’s book, like many of the entries in the old Constance Rourke canon, can fairly be accused of crude ethnic stereotyping. But at the time, Twain could claim a moral high ground as he cut Old World empires and monarchies down to size and reckoned with America’s own flawed first century. His most famous avatar of our punching-up sensibility—indeed, the best-known figure in all of American nineteenth-century literature—remains Huckleberry Finn: a barefoot, ignorant country boy whose moral compass allows him to see through all the delusions of a civilization that allowed slavery.

Devil with the Blue Jeans On

As Twain’s career wound down, comedian Will Rogers entered vaudeville as a novelty act, using rope tricks, a trained horse that could count, and eventually, a unicycle. He used folksy, unpretentious humor that made him an icon of punching up: “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts”; “I am not a member of any organized party—I am a Democrat.” It’s true that Rogers was a Democrat, and his support of FDR in 1932 is often heartening to liberals who think he punched up at the same powers FDR did. But Rogers was a Southern Democrat during the Jim Crow era—meaning that his ideas about just who was the little guy and who was the problem were quite different from ours.

In They Had to See Paris, a comedy in which a suddenly oil-rich Rogers is nagged by his wife into taking his family on a culturally edifying trip to Europe, Rogers finds Paris to be a town full of almost nothing but pretentious Eurotrash and “artist model” hussies. But when he sees two masked fencers in all-white gear, Will lights up and says to his wife, “Ooh, Idy, look! The Ku Klux is way over here!” It’s as if the homesick hayseed has spotted his first Coca-Cola since leaving the states, and he’s thrilled. That line puts his frequent film costars Stepin Fetchit and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and the demeaning roles they played in his movies, in a Jim Crow light that makes it clear which little guys Rogers spoke for and which he did not. In Ambassador Bill, Rogers plays a self-made Oklahoma millionaire sent as a U.S. ambassador to a small European kingdom to strike a trade deal with a boy king. After Rogers wows the kid with his rope tricks, the little king says, “You’re the smartest man in the world.” “You ever hear of Mussolini?” Rogers asks him. “Bright too.”

Ira Katznelson’s 2013 revisionist history of the New Deal, Fear Itself, makes it clear that FDR’s moral compromises with Southern Democratic white supremacists were necessary to push the New Deal through. Yet the cost of that alliance was steep—especially in prolonging Jim Crow. There’s no reason to place Rogers’s career beyond the reckoning of that cost. Film critic David Thomson describes Rogers harshly, but accurately:

He is the marketable noble savage, the casual raconteur who slips neatly between cracker-barrel and fascism. . . . Rogers’ philosophy was reactionary, dispiriting, and provincial, despite every affectation of bonhomie and tolerance. It scorned ideas and people who held them. . . . The films are period pieces, but to deny their impact would be to conceal the basic hostility to enlightenment in America.

That was Will Rogers’s kind of punching up. Fortunately, there was a growing audience for a more enlightenment-friendly brand of wit at the time, an alternative to the common man’s bromance with himself. “In the days when Mark Twain was writing, it was considered good form to spoof not only the classics but surplus learning of any kind,” wrote Robert Benchley in 1920. “Can it be said that the American people are not so low-brow as they like to pretend? There is a great deal of affectation in this homespun frame of mind.” In 1922, Sinclair Lewis published Babbitt, his novel about a small-town, middle-class, bigoted, intellectually dull real estate agent, George Babbitt. If Israel Potter failed with readers, Lewis’s popular book made the name “Babbitt” a permanent label for a whole class of homely, comic, everyday Americans, who were, finally, the butt of our jokes. (Lewis’s chief booster and fellow everyman-basher, H. L. Mencken, called them “the booboisie.”) In other words, eighty-seven years later, Tocqueville might finally have gotten an American joke.

When modern liberals argue about punching up, they rarely consider liberal models of punching down, like Babbitt—or that conservatives, for that matter, can punch up too. Conservative humor hit a modern high note in the 1980s and ’90s in a series of comedies starring Bill Murray and authored by collaborators like Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, Stripes, Groundhog Day). In Ghostbusters, Murray was cast as a lazy grad student studying parapsychology who, booted off campus by a budget-cutting dean, joins with Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson to start a small ghostbusting business. The villain here is a pesky big-government EPA inspector whose endless red tape forces the boys to release all the spooks they’ve caught, creating a massive ghost problem in New York City. A goldbricker kicked off a welfare roll who then becomes a small businessman and quickly gets hamstrung by big-government bureaucracy as society falls apart at the seams—there is no better comic articulation of the Reagan era than Ghostbusters. No wonder it made $238 million in 1984.

When Ivan Reitman was told that National Review had in 2009 declared Ghostbusters one of the best conservative films of the past quarter century, he replied, “I’ve always been something of a conservative-slash-libertarian. The first movie deals with going into business for yourself, and it’s anti-EPA—too much government regulation. It does have a very interesting point of view that really resonates.”

Cookie Monsters

Our comedy DNA still wants us to side with humble, lovable clowns—a yearning filmmaker Christopher Guest has thwarted repeatedly. Guest excels at cutting down common people with delusions of grandeur: doting pet owners on the competitive dog-show circuit (Best in Show), folk-era musicians well past their prime (A Mighty Wind), and desperate Oscar hopefuls (For Your Consideration). Perhaps it comes naturally; in England, Guest is the 5th Baron Haden-Guest. Brilliantly funny as Christopher Guest’s films can be, they leave viewers wondering: Why do these nobodies need to be mocked? What did they do to deserve it?

Brilliantly funny as Christopher Guest’s films can be, they leave viewers wondering: Why do these nobodies need to be mocked? What did they do to deserve it?

Google “Christopher Guest” along with “mean-spirited” or “cruel,” and you’ll see the question spans his career. Jonathan Rosenbaum called 1997’s Waiting for Guffman, a send-up of a small-town theater group, “amusing if you feel a pressing need to feel superior to somebody.” Variety’s Daniel Kimmel complained: “Where This Is Spinal Tap took rock music and the media as its focus—fat, juicy targets just asking to be lampooned—Guest’s target here is small-town provincials.” No one would worry about Guest’s alleged cruelty if he mocked rich people, politicians, or celebrities. But his lordship has chosen the middling classes, and that gets us antsy. Is it OK to laugh at Guffman’s provincials for foolishly believing their terrible show could make it to Broadway? Aren’t underdog comedies supposed to reassure us that anything is possible in America? That anyone can grow up to be president? Guest doesn’t reassure us, so we question his morality.

And then there is Chris Rock, who became a star by punching down during 1996’s “Bring the Pain” tour, most memorably with his monologue “Niggas vs. Black People.” In that bit, he excoriated African Americans he felt had low moral standards, suggesting they held the whole community back: “Niggas always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do . . . ‘I ain’t never been to jail.’ What you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker.”

Since that career-making moment, which arrived in the wake of the 1994 Clinton crime bill and alongside Hillary Clinton’s 1996 “super-predators” comment, Rock’s performance has been cited as an example of black respectability politics—a culturally conservative posture most controversially identified in comedy with Bill Cosby. (It’s also the posture behind some of Cosby’s current legal problems, since a judge cited his public moralizing as a reason to unseal documents from one of his many rape accusers. No, sanctimony does not sit well with all of us.) In an essay titled “Chris Rock’s Poisonous Legacy,” Salon’s Mychal Denzel Smith wrote, “What bothers me just as much, if not more, than the profitability of this line of thinking, is that anyone who engages in it (Barkley, Lemon, Riley or whoever) positions him- or herself as some sort of exalted truth teller, revealing the secrets black America is too afraid to face.”

Rock eventually stopped doing the bit because some white people felt his use of the word “nigger” was a license for them to use it to punch down at black people too. An episode of The Office was built around this appropriation, in which Steve Carrell’s middle-management Babbitt, Michael Scott, tries to use Rock’s jokes, resulting in sensitivity training classes for the whole staff. By 2005, Rock was telling 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley, “I’ve never done that joke again, ever, and I probably never will, because some people that were racist thought they had license to say ‘nigger.’ So I’m done with that routine.”

Stripped of that word, though, the respectability politics of his joke still connect. President Obama quoted Rock’s line in a Father’s Day speech in 2008: “Chris Rock had a routine. He said some—too many of our men, they’re proud, they brag about doing the things they’re supposed to do. They say, ‘Well, I’m not in jail.’ Well, you’re not supposed to be in jail!”

It’s the same joke from Rock to Michael Scott to President Obama, but the question it raises—Who has the moral authority to punch down?—is a messy one, and one rarely asked of those who appear to punch up.

Up with People

In 2015, no one embodied the cultural politics of punching up and punching down like Amy Schumer. Leading up to her film debut in Trainwreck, Schumer’s sketch comedy show Inside Amy Schumer produced one viral video clip after the next as she answered and destroyed sexist trolls, rape culture, and in her brilliant parody of Twelve Angry Men, attacks from men who complained she isn’t hot enough (to them) to be on TV. Schumer broke out as pop-culture feminism peaked, from Beyoncé performing in front of a floor-to-ceiling light projection of the word “FEMINIST,” to Ronda Rousey hosting SNL, to Mad Max: Fury Road making Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa its true hero.

Schumer punched up—hilariously so. Until, that is, Schumer’s outlook seemed to shift from feminism to a narrower, more privileged white feminism. It began last June, when Bill Maher went off on Anthony Berteaux, a college student columnist (and first-rate “little shit,” according to Maher) who had criticized comics like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock for saying that universities are too PC to play these days. Noting that Berteaux had cited Amy Schumer as a social critic who does not offend, Maher countered by quoting what has now become Schumer’s most famous one-liner: “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.”

It’s been assumed that hypersensitive PC activists outed Schumer for her joke, but true to the tangled cultural politics of comedic punching, it was Maher. His agenda—since obscured by the joke’s social-media uproar—was to confront the ostensible liberal double standard that granted Schumer a pass on her Hispanic rape joke, while he, Chris Rock, and others get skewered for joking about race.

As far back as Schumer’s “Milk Milk Lemonade” video, writer Feminista Jones had criticized Schumer’s white feminism for putting down twerking, which comes from black culture, as trash culture. Grantland had quoted the rape joke in 2014—but it provoked no Twitter rage mobs, and Schumer’s white feminist fan base, for the most part, looked the other way. By the time the Guardian’s Monica Heisey followed Maher’s lead and paid attention to the joke, writing a column late last June calling Schumer out for her “blind spot around race,” the timing could not have been worse. That week, Donald Trump attacked Hispanic immigrants, accusing Hispanic men of being rapists. For a progressive pop culture icon such as Schumer, a few weeks away from her first movie release, no association could be worse than punching down alongside Trump.

Schumer at first did not back off, tweeting: “Put down your torches before reading this so you don’t catch on fire”:

I am a comic. . . . I go in and out of playing an irreverent idiot. That includes making dumb jokes involving race. I enjoy playing the girl who time to time says the dumbest thing possible and playing with race is a thing we are not supposed to do. . . . It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it. . . . Trust me. I am not racist. I am a devout feminist and lover of all people.

When Schumer’s initial riposte didn’t silence anyone, she offered a comment seemingly ripped off from the smuggest, blondest footage of Fox & Friends. “When you read the word ‘racist’ who did you assume it was against? uh oh, maybe you need to take a look at yourself.”

If that sounds jarringly wrongheaded, remember that Schumer’s large liberal-feminist audience came along only after she had made her name in the more bro-centric New York comedy scene. Collaborators on her show have included right-leaning comics like Nick DiPaolo, and she also works with Kurt Metzger, who loathes comedian apologies and who has left behind a trail of ugly online encounters with feminist critics like Lindy West and Sady Doyle.

Another collaborator and longtime supporter is Jim Norton. In his stand-up special Contextually Inadequate (2015), Norton devoted a large chunk of time to an absurd defense of his friend, radio comedy icon Anthony Cumia, who lost his job following a racist meltdown on Twitter in which he ranted about a physical altercation he had with a black woman in Times Square and called African Americans “dogs” and “animals.” (“They aren’t people,” he wrote.) While Norton did not endorse the tweets, he commended Cumia for exercising restraint—because, according to Norton, Cumia always carries a gun with him, and he chose not to shoot the woman. Yes, we should all be grateful Cumia did not shoot her. But not murdering a woman is a pretty low bar for gratitude. To paraphrase Chris Rock: What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to shoot women in Times Square, you low-expectation-having motherfucker.

In this crowd, explanations weaken jokes, apologies ruin them, and even Cumia is worth defending. Schumer’s initial characterization of her joke—that it was spoken ironically, from the mouth of a dumb character she has portrayed for years—is certainly true. Hers is the satirical irony of Franklin, Melville, Lewis, and Guest—historically, for us, an uncomfortable irony. But in the country that invented the minstrel show, hipster irony is a thin defense for racist jokes, particularly with several centuries of unironic, blatantly racist humor in America preceding them. Last year, comic Heben Nigatu summed up this threadbare line of thought in a cogent tweet: “‘It’s satire’—ancient white people proverb.”

Schumer’s defenders dismissed her critics, typically, as oversensitive, politically correct whiners who can’t take a joke. A Bill Maher can afford to anger PC campus columnists and influential Twitter voices like Feminista Jones, but Schumer can’t. Oversensitive, politically correct whiners—that’s Amy Schumer’s base. Jones is one of the few critics that Schumer answered directly, and unlike Maher, she did not attack. Quite the opposite; in early July, Schumer backed off from the joke. “I used to do a lot of short dumb jokes like this,” she wrote. “I played a dumb white girl character on stage. I still do sometimes. Once I realized I had more eyes and ears on me and had an influence I stopped telling jokes like that on stage. I am evolving as any artist. I am taking responsibility and hope I haven’t hurt anyone.”

And that, too, is true—Schumer has been moving on from New York’s bro-comedy scene for a while, a scene not famous for her kind of feminism or introspection. And today, the bros work for her. The comics telling Caitlyn Jenner jokes had nowhere to go, but Schumer did. She’s aligned herself with the safer side for now, the liberal comfort comedy you rarely have to explain to Americans—punching up.

Ben Schwartz is currently working on a history of American humor between the two world wars and can be followed on Twitter at @benschwartzy.

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