Posted by: judyweightman | August 30, 2012

Heck of a namesake: Meditating on Punch and Judy

Mrs. Punch may not be the most famous Judy, but she is the earliest.

The poster girl for abused wives dates can be traced back to the 16th century. Pulchinella, who became Punchinello, or Punch, was a stock character, a jester, in the commedia dell’arte. The hunchbacked trickster wears distinctive red motley. His conical hat (a style known as a sugarloaf) mirrors both his hooked nose and his exaggerated chin.

He is always accompanied by his wife, originally named Joan. She is a shrewish crone with similarly exaggerated features, usually clad in a mobcap and apron and carrying their nameless baby.

The characters were turned into marionettes by Neapolitan puppeteers. The unhappy pair migrated to England in 1662; Samuel Pepys caught one of the early shows there.

By the late 18th century, Joan had become Judy and the dysfunctional couple had changed from marionettes to hand puppets. This upped the violence level significantly — Punch’s cudgel, as big as he is and known as a slapstick (the source of the comedic term), is obviously easier for the puppeteer to wield because it is held directly. Punch uses the slapstick to whack everyone he encounters, cackling “That’s the way to do it!”

Throughout the 19th century, Punch and Judy shows were a popular form of family entertainment, increasingly associated with the British seaside. 

There is no single Punch and Judy story — instead, there are standard recurring incidents. The solo performer,  known as “The Professor,” presents these improvisationally, interspersing them with lots of jokes. The episodic nature of a Punch and Judy show is appropriate for a fluid audience of passersby of all ages.

The constants are the violence — the show usually starts by Punch killing the baby, whether deliberately or accidentally — and the lack of consequences. Punch is the ultimate trickster who always outsmarts his various adversaries, who traditionally include a constable, a doctor, and a crocodile. Other traditional characters that are seen less frequently now that someone is thinking of the children are the hangman and the devil, as well Punch’s mistress, Pretty Polly.

Actually, despite being a namesake, I’ve never seen a Punch and Judy show.

I guess that’s not too surprising, given that I grew up in the American suburbs of the ’50s and ’60s, when the grotesque hand puppets (from White Fang to Lamb Chop to Philly favorite Bertie the Bunyip) were generally nonviolent, and the “don’t try this at home” slapstick was provided by the Three Stooges shorts that Sally Star showed between Popeye cartoons.

Even if there had been a red-and-white striped puppet theater on every corner, though, I still probably wouldn’t have. My father was a Quaker (by conviction), and we kids were raised as Quakers. I grew up going to meeting with Dad every Sunday, reinforcing the message on the streets as I came of age during the era of Vietnam protests. Violence isn’t funny.

And what is and isn’t funny was a central issue in our family. I inherited Dad’s bone-dry sense of humor, which valued wordplay over slapstick. Between 1967 and 1970, when we were living in Society Hill and I was the only child at home full time, he and I used to go down to South Street to see movies at the Theater of the Living Arts — still an actual theater, with seats, at that point. They used to charge a buck to see great old black-and-white films. I especially remember the silents, with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and the ‘30s comedies my father loved, with W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Mae West.

There was not a single slapstick to be seen.



  1. […] reading my recent post on Punch and Judy, a friend asked if I was familiar with William Steig’s series of Punch and Judy […]

  2. The peculiar mixture of horror and humor that these ancient characters evoke is once again alive in American politics. Thanks for the article.

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