“P” is for “Punching Up”

“…the wit and effect of the parody goes down as the target goes down […] your parody form must be worthy because you are, perforce, reducing it anyway.”

Bernard Sahlins, Days and Nights at the Second City. A Memoir, with Notes on Staging Review Theatre. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. p.125-126


The notion of Punching Up in our improv work undeniably utilizes a moving target that is highly subjective and situational in nature. The gist of this approach is that richer journeys await when we aim our collective comedic barb at the powerful or privileged rather than the powerless or marginalized. (This is not to be confused with crafting scenes where potentially marginalized groups are given agency as subjects rather than suffer ridicule as comedic objects.) As Sahlins observes, there is an issue of effectiveness when as performers we seek to pull down to size a comedic object, but the import of choosing our material consciously and with an appropriately developed social conscience should also loom large. Our choices on the improv stage, after all, have the innate ability to uphold or question societal norms. Punching up reflects an understanding of this power and responsibility while its antithesis, punching down, tends to perpetuate problematic stereotypes and social inequities.


A group of New Zealand improvisers, on their home turf, riff on dominant perceptions of what it means to be a kiwi in front of an audience who wrestle with these tropes in their own day-to-day lives.

As opposed to…

A North American troupe of improvisers, on their home turf, riff on dominant perceptions of what it means to be a kiwi in front of an audience that does not include any self-identifying New Zealanders.

Choosing Our Comedic Target

The spirit of punching up is challenging in that such an improvisational stance or attitude will not look or function the same from venue to venue, performer to performer, or culture to culture. Rather than a “one size fits all” litmus test, a commitment to punching up is more about a willingness to interrogate our choices (particularly on the comedic stage) and learn from our past attempts and stumbles. Here are some provocative questions to keep in mind when aiming our shots on the improv stage…

1.) Whose voice or story are you representing? It is important as artists for us to consider whose stories we are telling. If we routinely have protagonists with unexamined privilege leading our journeys we increase the likelihood that other characters in the mix may become little more than stage dressing or the butt of the joke. In such instances, there may be few opportunities to punch up in any meaningful fashion as, literally, there may not be anything “up” for our protagonist to punch at! On the other hand, if we actively seek a variety of perspectives and stories (hopefully coming from an equally varied ensemble of players) then our stages will become populated with a polyphony of potent agency.

2.) Is your subject part of the establishment or usually disempowered? The “establishment” may look a little different from location to location although historically it often has a depressingly monolithic appearance similar to that on my own driver’s license. If our work upholds these institutions of power then our improv may well be serving the status quo or conserve (in the Moreno sense of the word.) When our art champions the under-served or under-represented and elevates these stories and experiences then we are more likely functioning as empathetic or satiric agents of social change even if this is on a micro level. Even the most gimmicky short-form game can blindly reinforce or playfully critique the world around us. When we relegate the disempowered to the margins of our work (as objects rather than subjects) then the likelihood of punching down increases exponentially.

3.) Are you questioning or reifying stereotypes? Building from above, when we typically see difference in our scenes as brief or supporting encounters there is significantly less time to offer portrayals of substance. Short-form modes struggle with this reality just by the very nature of their reliance on a rapid-fire succession of disconnected scenes that rarely allow for characters to reappear and deepen. Subsequently, such appearances can often feel slight or resemble punchlines rather than fully-fleshed characters in their own right. Punching up would invite us to center a wide range of voices so that we can experience the world through their eyes rather than merely catch clichéd glimpses of these “others” in the shadows.

4.) How do your company and audience demographics frame your intent? In my opening example above little has changed in terms of content but the performance parameters that frame the event clearly make all the difference. In the first example, the scene may feel like a communal act of bonding over a shared experience between the improvisers and their audience; in the second (unlikely as it might be) the same exact choices could easily appear mean-spirited or tone deaf. This is also the difference between affinity improv where an otherwise marginalized group wields the tools of performance together often for a like-minded audience, and mainstream homogeneous troupes that primarily consist of a metaphoric Mount Rushmore of privilege. While the first experience lifts up those who may have been voiceless, the second is much less likely to do so. Punching up recognizes that we all don’t have an equal right to make fun of the same things in the same ways.

5.) What kind of laughter are you seeking and achieving? Ultimately, the final test of whether we are punching up or down often resides in the laughter of our audience. This can prove problematic in and of itself if we view any and all laughter as desirable and equal. However, there is a marked difference between a group laughing from recognition as they commiserate or empathetically acknowledge a shared experience, and a powerful privileged majority uncritically laughing at tropes or portrayals of those often not in attendance or without a staged voice in the conversation. Improv certainly can and has enabled both of these forms of laughter, and so many other kinds as well, as it is a tool in the service of the producers’ and players’ whims and goals. Punching up asks us to unequivocally examine these goals and course correct when we fall short of the intended mark.

Final Thought

Punching up reflects the nuances of our ever-shifting reality and demands of us as players a heightened awareness and honed sensitivity. Improvising with this lens in mind can reveal personal and company norms and assumptions that are ill-informed, problematic or just plain bigoted. When we have the benefit of revision and rehearsal, as is the case in a sketch or scripted environment, walking this delicate line can feel less daunting. On the improv stage it’s likely that most of us have had moments (probably many) where with the benefit of hindsight we know that our target was poorly chosen or our comedic punches were clumsily executed.

When I improvise I tend to take a larger degree of comedic latitude when embodying characters with whom I clearly share commonalities and experiences. Only embodying our narrow perspective, however, has its own set of problems and will limit how we present the wealth of human experience. But when our intent is to assume roles and stances that are further from our own lived realities there is a greater risk that we might slip into unnuanced or even harmful over-simplifications. Here a commitment to empathetic portrayal (and an openness to feedback and personal growth) is a must.

Self-deprecation can almost feel like a national obsession as a New Zealander, but if in doubt this attitude can prove helpful in instances when you’re unsure if you’re punching up or down. Assuming an almost “punching sideways” or “at yourself” approach – making fun of our own identities and hyphenates – minimizes the risk of causing harm rather than crafting humor. Admittedly, this isn’t always a clear path especially for those facets of ourselves that are complex or contested: for example, as an immigrant who has called the United States my home now for over 30 years, I am very aware that my foreign-sounding speaking voice can frame any critique of my new home nation in unintended ways for a local audience. However, in general I’ve found punching sideways provides at least a good starting point when another path isn’t readily available. Also, if in doubt, consider why you have chosen your target. If it’s easy, commonplace or in vogue, that’s perhaps a good signal to reconsider your strategy: as Sahlins contends, our target “must be worthy.”

This is my last improv “P” – here’s a quick link to the others in the series.

Related Entries: Archetype, Comedy, Inclusiveness, Material Antonyms: Punching Down Synonyms: Awareness, Responsibility

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Inappropriate Behavior

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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