Origin of "Punching Up/Punching Down"
January 8, 2015 6:05 PM   Subscribe

When did "Punching up/Punching down" become terms to describe satirical comedy?

A friend recently asked this - his research led him to Ricky Gervais on Talking Funny. I think the phrases have been used much longer than this. My comedy friends also feel like those are older phrase, but we've not been able to turn up any decent information via Google or quizzing older comedians.

Any ideas?
posted by Joey Michaels to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Specifically referring to comedy, I don't know, but I agree with this NYT column from 2009 that the phrase goes back further than that:
People who work in political communications have pointed out that it is a principle of power dynamics to "punch up" — that is, to take on bigger foes, not smaller ones.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:54 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

It may be linked to the notion of "studying up" vs. "studying 'down'" which has been a phrase heard within anthropology for the last few decades. Ethnography of stock brokers or biotech professionals would be an example of studying up, as opposed to doing work within small-scale societies with individuals that most often have less institutional and economic power than the researcher.
posted by umbú at 9:22 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've assumed it goes back to humorist/muckraker Finley Peter Dunne's line (originally written in character): comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Then later someone punched it up to "punch up not down."
posted by JackBurden at 2:17 AM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Possibly relevant: about 15 years ago, I wondered aloud to a friend why a mutual acquaintance was perfectly lovely to me and yet could be absolutely horrid to others. She said, "Oh, that's easy. She thinks you can help her. Barbara networks up."
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:15 AM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a term called Punching above your weight (or weight class) which is a boxing reference of fighting someone bigger then you. This is just an extension of that for comedy but references social or class instead of fighting weight.

I doubt you'll find a single reference point where this stems from since the term is relatively commonly (more so with British folks) used in a lot of situations where someone's reach exceeds their perceived ability. When a few pints in I've got a British friend who uses the term when he sees someone at a bar who's date is much better looking than them ("he's punching above his weight")
posted by bitdamaged at 9:44 AM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Of no real help, but possibly enlightening: Google ngram view for both "punching up" and "punching down" - note: there are a lot of references that don't point the general notion that you're looking for in this case.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:14 AM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

> "Oh, that's easy. She thinks you can help her. Barbara networks up."

This made me think of a description I've heard about similar persons that they "lick (or kiss) up and kick (or punch) down". This phrase is something I've heard long before the punching up/punching down phrase and I've always assumed the latter was based on the former and that "punching up" just sounded better than "kicking up".
posted by bjrn at 2:23 PM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

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