Donald Trump. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
By Jon Savitt
There’s one rule in comedy so universal that it connects comics of every background, genre, and skill level: Never punch down.
These three simple words can be the difference between being a headliner or being hated.
“Punching down” is more than being mean, rude, or vulgar. It’s the intentional act of attacking those in powerless positions. Going after the people who are most vulnerable. A specific type of cruelty and cowardice.
I’ve been a professional comedy writer for more than a decade, writing films, TV, standup, speeches, and more. I’ve performed in small towns and big cities, in countless rooms in front of every crowd. I’ve written jokes on behalf of celebrities and politicians alike. I’ve collaborated with hundreds of comedians and writers. For many years, I lived just steps away from The White House (an experience in its own right).
I’ve seen a lot of things throughout my comedy career. Still, I’ve never seen anyone master punching down quite like the GOP.
From banning abortion to dismissing the need for gun control to championing the wealthy to ignoring climate change to dehumanizing immigrants and every issue inbetween, ‘cruelty’ isn’t some side plot for Republicans — it’s the star of their act. It’s what keeps them booked each night. It’s what keeps their names on the marquee.
And while former President Trump may have been the opener (and a cruel one), there is no shortage of other performers involved.
Take the most recent example: Greg Abbott, Republican governor of Texas. In April, Abbott began sending migrants who arrived at the Texas-Mexico border to other sanctuary cities via bus as a way to antagonize the Biden administration.
This past Christmas Eve, right on cue, Abbott sent busloads of migrants from Texas to Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington, D.C., leaving them stranded on the road in freezing temperatures.
“Gov. Abbott abandoned children on the side of the road in below-freezing temperatures on Christmas Eve without coordinating with any federal or local authorities,” said White House spokesperson Abdullah Hasan, “This was a cruel, dangerous, and shameful stunt.”
It’s not the first time a Republican official has pulled this kind of humorless stunt.
Know your audience
To be fair: Comedians and politicians are not one in the same, but they do have similar jobs. Both need to understand their audience, develop fresh ideas, connect on an authentic level, build an enthusiastic base, get their message out, and now, make TikToks.
Like good comedy, good policy requires both empathy and awareness. Politicians can use their powers for good or for evil. With a captive audience and a built-in platform, they can either protect the powerful or hold them accountable. They can either speak truth or sell out. They can create a brighter world or create a bigger wallet.
In other words: We don’t like when our comedians punch down, so why should it be any different for our politicians?
I’m not naive. I’m not suggesting that the Democratic party is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But when I envision the people I want leading this country, it’s people who have a baseline for decency. People who don’t take cheap shots. People who want to serve others, not serve themselves. People who are compassionate, not cruel. Right now, one party is objectively more cruel than the other.
The question isn’t whether or not the GOP has a punching down problem, it’s whether their audience will continue to pay for the same old show or realize that there are candidates out there actually worth cheering for.
Until then, they will continue to treat their constituents more like punchlines than people. And as long as they keep getting elected, the joke will be on hard-working Americans.
Jon Savitt is a writer and comedian featured in places such as Funny or Die, College Humor, The Washington Post, TIME, NBC News, MPR, Star Tribune and more. This article first appeared in the Minnesota Reformer, a member, with the Phoenix, in the nonprofit States Newsroom network.
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