I think the world has mostly moved on from the whole ‘punching up/punching down’ debate on comedy with the firm conclusion that ‘punching down’ – or making fun of people with less power than you – isn’t funny. Some of the Solute commentariat have discussed this principle, and I think Ruck Cohlchez summed it up best with the idea that comedy is based on truth, and that what looks like ‘punching down’ is someone presenting an untruth from a position of power (his specific example was jokes about black people that don’t capture what they’re actually like because they’re based on racist stereotypes). I’ve always understood a joke as something that sets up an expectation and then subverts it, and the understanding of truth as an essential element of the process* really clarified that for me. I’m repeating myself here, so I’ll be brief: a good joke either sets up a falsehood and then shows reality crashing in, or sets up the truth only to suddenly fly off into unreality. From this point of view, meanness is a perfectly acceptable topic of comedy, whether it’s a character beat or the universe randomly shitting on someone for no reason, and it doesn’t actually reflect on what the author thinks people do or do not ‘deserve’. The purest example of mean comedy I’ve ever seen is in Seinfeld, when characters are talking about the ‘bubble boy’, crying over the tragedy of his life, and one of them wipes their eyes with a napkin and passes one to Jerry, who wipes food off his mouth. It’s not that Jerry Seinfeld (comedian) or Larry David or anyone thinks that you shouldn’t care about people with debilitating autoimmune diseases, it’s that they set up an expectation that a character would care and then subverted it with an absurd image. The joke isn’t on the bubble boy and it’s not even on Jerry, it’s just about them.
(*God, I hate how hopelessly, deliriously unfunny I sound when I’m talking about comedy)
Thinking about this got me thinking about mean comedy I love in general. My all-time favourite is 8 Bit Theater, where the two central jokes are a) optimism that’s horrifically unfounded and b) no monster the heroes faced could do as much damage to them as they did to each other. The former is best summed up by this strip, in which a character announces “Everything is good and it will be that way forever!” seconds before being hit by a tidal wave, though the funniest joke along these lines is in this strip (“I have made a grave miscalculation here.”). The latter is based largely on ownage – on watching people not just insult, humiliate, and degrade each other, but do stupid or awful things that set up that ownage in the first place. Its cruelty is baked into its very sense of humour, and it’s a lot of fun to read. One of my other favourites is Blackadder, where the premise is that a man with a 20th century mindset is living in the past, gifted what we only have in hindsight, and allowing us to feel superior to the past through him. He exists as a perpetual expression of exasperation with the thinking of others, and it’s fun to watch him insult everyone around him and usually get away with it.
What are your favourite examples of mean comedy?