In 2007, Britney Spears endured a very public downfall and quickly became a punching bag for the national comedy circuit. Skewering Spears for public gaffes—shaving her head, accidentally exposing herself while climbing out of a limo, marrying the backup dancer Kevin Federline in a shotgun wedding—became the kind of comedic layup that made late night show hosts salivate.
America’s gleeful schadenfreude is recounted in Framing Britney Spears, a new New York Times documentary about the pop-star, currently streaming on Hulu and HBO Max. The documentary’s crux is a focus on the conservatorship of Spears’ $60 million estate, which her father, Jamie Spears, controls with sole authority. The movie also recalls the news cycle of public humiliation directed at Spears, who at the time was a 25-year-old mother of two who knew nothing beyond a life of performance.
With the country remembering the frenzy that followed Spears’ every waking moment, it’s worth discussing how one talk show host, Craig Ferguson, decided not to direct any barbs or zingers towards the singer out of respect for the state of emotional and psychological drudgery she was living through.
Putting humanity before cheap and pandering jokes, Ferguson refused to make fun of the megastar, despite most of us who found it pretty fair to “punch up” at the rich, popular, and successful. Ferguson’s monologue resurfaced for good, instructional reason: You, too, can recognize when it’s inappropriate to revel in another person’s despair, regardless of whether it’s a public figure or someone you know personally.
What is “punching up”?
In comedy parlance, to “punch up” means to skewer or mock someone who has a larger platform and public profile than you. Typically, punching up is kosher while punching down is gauche, though the circuses inspired by Spears—and later on, Tiger Woods—demonstrate how identifying which is which can be more art that science.
Personally speaking, everyday people tend to punch up towards similar figures: Maybe directing ire at a multi-millionaire performer who enjoyed worldwide adoration only to crumble beneath the spotlight, or cracking jokes at a sporting icon after their fall. There’s a psychological impulse to delight in the misfortunes of those more prominent and successful than us. It’s something of a cultural kink.
In a 2018 article in the Guardian, Tiffany Watt Smith distilled the cross cultural significance of schadenfreude—a German word that means delight in the misfortunes of others:
The Japanese have a saying: “The misfortune of others tastes like honey.” The French speak of joie maligne, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering. In Danish it is skadefryd; in Hebrew, simcha la-ed; in Mandarin, xìng-zāi-lè-huò; in Russian, zloradstvo; and for the Melanesians who live on the remote Nissan Atoll in Papua New Guinea, it is banbanam.
Understand the nuance of the situation
There’s a psychological impulse to find solace in the tribulations of others. It’s only when you don’t understand the true situation behind someone’s erratic behavior that the joke goes from seemingly harmless to vindictive. People don’t spiral without reason, so before we crack jokes at another’s expense, it’s worth asking ourselves if we adequately understand why someone might be behaving strangely.
To take the obvious example, Spears was molded from the earliest stages of her life to become an empire, deprived of agency and thrust into megastardom. She was, in the words of Craig Ferguson, “a baby” in her own right, even when she seemingly had the world at her feet.
Ask who the person is hurting
Of course, our opinions can change if the person in question has done something terrible. But in the case of someone like Britney Spears, her meltdown came at the expense of herself and the people closest to her. It can be fun to luxuriate in the pain of someone who makes music you loathe, but it only makes us a bullies when we fail to see what’s causing someone to lose their grip, and the real-life effects that follow.
How to decide who’s worthy of ridicule
There are plenty of instances when punching up can be good, clean fun, and it includes lambasting people for their screw ups—especially when they’re unabashed assholes about it. This works particularly well when it comes to political figures who aren’t always very becoming about their motivations and sometimes use words incorrectly. Know a celebrity who’s been blacklisted for doing something outrageous, only to double down on justifications for their behavior? Disparaging people and situations like those are a bit different than reveling in someone’s meltdown, celebrity or not. There are plenty of villains who aren’t grappling with a toxic family or marauding paparazzi outside their door. It takes a little bit of effort to separate those worthy of playful ridicule from those who aren’t, but it’s worth it.