Advice from Saint Stephen: Don’t Punch Down

Longtime readers will recall my struggles with tone. I honestly am trying to keep this blog positive, forward-looking, and helpful. A beacon of fairness and integrity. And yet… one of my most popular posts refers to a famous novelist as a Horse’s Ass. And then there’s the series of posts referring to a prominent reviewer as Madame Slushpile.

How to reconcile these warring impulses?

Splitsider has a great summary of a recent panel discussion with Stephen Colbert and the members of his writing team. Before we get to the point, let me say I found this fascinating:

Executive producer Tom Purcell: “There’s proof that he’s different [when he’s in character as the right-wing charlatan he plays as host of the show], because we allow people to have their dogs at the office, and on the third floor for whatever reason, there’s a pack of dogs there. When Stephen is in character walking down that hallway, the dogs go crazy. They hate him. And when he’s in gentle, nice, regular Stephen-mode, they like him fine.”

Hilarious (and a little creepy). Hopefully the animals aren’t sensing evil within or anything other than good acting. (And can someone please turn this into a novel?)

Back to the point of the post! The interview also includes this advice:

Writer Rob Dubbin: “The thing that I’ve learned most from him is, don’t punch down. That’s the biggest. It’s not a big comedy theory workshop on a technical level, but I know that Stephen is really interested in high status people and low status people and the dynamics between them. And I feel like one of the common denominators in things that don’t work for the character, and therefore don’t work for the show, is just things where the victim is the punchline. That does not work. And I also think that’s a common denominator for the easy jokes that, when something that sometimes makes a room full of people laugh and they don’t really know why they’re laughing, they’re just laughing because everyone else is laughing. A lot of times, you’ve messed up.”

Colbert adds a vivid metaphor:

Colbert: “You’ve punched down. That laugh, I call the mouthful of blood. Like, the sound the audience makes, sometimes you didn’t even realize you did it, you’re like, “Oh shit, I made the wrong person the target of that joke.” Because you’ll hear the audience, “Eh heh heh.” I always picture a very nice audience, but when they laugh, just blood goes [spilling out their mouth]. Oh, I’ve got a mouthful of blood laugh.”

Aha! That’s exactly it! Warring impulses fully reconciled!

So keep your snobbery and condescension in check, Madame Slushpile! Keep your general horse’s assitude to yourself, Horse’s Ass! Jacke will do his best to stay positive with readers, fellow bloggers, indie authors… BUT he’ll punch up every once in awhile, when the madness at the top leaves him no choice.

And while we’re on the subject, remember that in fiction this works the same way. Humor works best when it’s not directed at your characters – or perhaps it’s better to say when your characters are strong enough to absorb it. Readers know when you’re getting lazy, when you’ve generated a barrel of fish just to shoot them with your funny-stick. Remember you’re creating these characters – you can make them weak, you can make them strong. You can make them buffoons and give your wisecracking protagonist or your narrator all the best lines. It’s easy to do! But can you deliver empathy as well?

Just remember: nobody has ever set down a work of fiction and thought, “Oh, how satisfying. I just spent time with a bully, who asked me to laugh at the weak, over and over. And I sort of did. I feel really good about myself now.”

Okay, speechifying over. Onward and upward!

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