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The Odd and Infamous History of Punch and Judy

A Dive into the Bizarre and Darkly Humorous History of "Punch & Judy," one of the world's oldest and most hilariously violent puppet shows

The Odd and Infamous History of Punch and Judy
Punch and Judy battling it out by the seaside.

Punch and Judy is one of the most famous puppet shows in the world; it has entertained audiences across the globe for centuries. The exploits of Mr. Punch and his wife, Judy, are usually performed in short scene sequences and generally culminate in one of the characters being comically beaten. Although the roots of the show were not started in England, “Punch and Judy” has become eternally linked with the English seaside culture due to the wild popularity of the shows performed in these locations.

“Punch and Judy” was first conceived in 16th century Italy (probably around the 1550s). Punch and Judy was originally part of the Italian theater form known as “commedia dell’arte” which describes comedic shows performed by actors in masks or other very elaborate costumes. The character of Punch was derived from a Neapolitan stock character called Punchinello and his wife was originally known as Joan. For many years the characters were performed by actors—not puppets—under these names.

The much-beloved and well-known puppet versions of “Punch and Judy” made their first documented appearance in England on May 9, 1662 (which is now considered to be Punch’s official birthdate). The British version of puppet Punch wears a colorful jester’s outfit including a hat with tassels. Punch has a hooked nose and a high pitched voice and he usually carries a stick. He frequently uses this stick as a weapon which is the focal point of much of the show's comedy (it might also be a reference to the origin of the term “slapstick” comedy).

“Punch and Judy” is a relatively easy puppet play to perform since it only requires a tent (sometimes referred to as a booth), a single puppeteer (generally called a “Punchman”) and a handful of puppets to put on a fully amusing show. A second stage worker (usually called a “Bottler”) corrals audiences, collects money, introduces the performance and occasionally plays music and/or sound effects for the show. Frequently, the audience is encouraged to interact with the puppets and shout out warnings of danger (like impending whacks with a blunt instrument) to them. Due to the ease of production, the show caught on quickly and appealed to audiences both rich and poor. For instance, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was popular in the backroom salons of the poorest parts of London and was also presented in royal courts. The show was on view in Dublin and became something of a craze in Paris, France. In the 1700s, American colonies also presented the show and even George Washington brought tickets to see it!

The character of Punch was (and still is) often depicted as an easily angered and quite violent individual; he regularly beats other characters with his stick and sometimes resorts to homicide. Despite this, he remains constantly gleeful and self-satisfied and views himself as the victim who was “pushed to do it” in all cases of misdeed. Since the very beginning of the English puppet version of the show, over 300 years ago, Punch squawked a set of catchphrases—some that he maintains until this day. For example, after he has given a foe a thorough trashing with his stick, Punch cheerfully declares: “That’s the way to do it!” Punch’s consistently chipper nature led to the popular figure of speech “Pleased as Punch.”

The comedy in Punch and Judy shows was initially quite violent. An 1850s version of the show (as described in the journalist book “London Labour and the London Poor” by Henry Mayhew) revolved around a plot where Punch murders his wife and infant child, goes to prison for doing so, is nearly hung, tricks and hangs the executer instead, escapes from prison, and even manages to kill the devil and thus end the show declaring that the devil is dead and so everyone is free to do as they please—a statement which essentially promotes moral anarchy. Despite these shockingly morbid themes, the show’s outrageous humor made it clear that it was a comedy, abet one intended to amuse adults rather than children.

There has been much speculation behind why a show that depended on such twisted—some would say sick—humor became such a roaring success that it has lasted hundreds of years and crossed many social and cultural borders. Generally, the humor of the show is aided by its very outlandishness which makes it clear that—despite the somewhat horrific circumstances—even the most violent episodes are meant to be silly, not grotesque. Furthermore, the puppets are usually made of wood and so their facial expressions never change or alter from their permanent states of impish glee. This adds a layer of surrealness to the performance as does Punch’s high-pitched voice and all the character’s general merriness despite the fact that they are repeatedly attacked and threatened. All of these elements work together to convey that the show is bizarrely funny rather than cruel.

Despite the nature and themes of the show, it was often performed in public and therefore always attracted many young viewers. By the 1880s the show was becoming more child-friendly and was often directly targeted at younger audiences. Hence, some long-played characters like the Devil and “Pretty Polly” (Punch’s mistress) were removed from the shows that were intended for younger audiences. The themes of Punch murdering anyone (least of all his wife and child) were removed as were references to the prison and the hangman and the gallows. Rather, Punch himself was increasingly portrayed as more of a victim, a pitiful hen-pecked husband instead of a temperamental tyrant.

Presently, Punch and Judy can be performed in a number of ways. Some puppeteers will still perform the historical version of the show, including the controversial characters of the minstrel servant, the blind man (who Punch beats mercilessly), and the classic plot involving the murdered family and the hanging of the executioner. However, the vast majority of Punch and Judy shows are now far more docile; Punch still smacks people and things but he murders no one and the baby is rarely ever included in the action. Most Punch and Judy shows differ depending on the performer; the characters remain the same but the episodes and adventures are always different. Some plots involve Punch being chased by an alligator while others concern him being smacked by his angry wife, Judy. However, all routines inevitably include several characters getting plummeted with Punch’s stick.

Needless to say, “Punch and Judy” has attracted a lot of negative attention over the years due to its content. As early as the 1800s there is evidence to suggest that numerous people were outraged by Punch’s killing of the baby—a scene that was played for laughs. Furthermore, as the Woman’s Suffrage Movement became more popular, many feminist denounced the show and cited Punch’s abuse of Judy (again, played for laughs) to be supportive of the violation of women’s basic human rights. Later, some would view Judy’s abuse of Punch and Punch’s subsequent abuse of Judy to be a sad commentary of a hopeless dysfunctional marriage; something to be viewed as a tragedy instead of a comedy. Even more, people attributed Punch’s rash behavior and absolute lack of remorse to suggest that he was a sociopathic and a dangerous personality type, far from funny material. Until this day some people still boycott the "Punch and Judy” show altogether citing the principle that laughing at a character hitting other characters with a stick promotes violence.

Although all of the criticism has some merit, proponents of Punch and Judy claim that the show is outrageous and runs off of pure shock value. Hence, even the most deplorable productions are meant to be taken as humorous and not the slightest bit seriously. Much like today’s TV shows “Family Guy” and the Adult Swim lineup, “Punch and Judy” aims to get attention via its very outlandishness. Hence, even the most controversial of the versions can still be seen—or scripts of such episodes read—even though nearly all public beach and carnival performances will be far more family-friendly (although still cartoonishly violent) than the mid-19th century showcases. Despite its many controversies and long history of attacks from political correctness censors, Punch and Judy is still a beloved form of entertainment for many people. In 2001 the United Kingdom’s post office even released a set of stamps commemorating the characters.

Despite one’s feelings about the show and its content, “Punch and Judy” is a centuries-old marvel of the entrainment world that will likely be popular for eons to come. It is also an excellent example of how societal norms can change the public’s perception of comedy and acceptability standards over the course of changing decades and centuries. Thus, anyone who is interested in history and/or entertainment should absolutely delve into the complicated and fascinating history of “Punch and Judy.”

To read the original (and most violently controversial) version of “Punch and Judy,” as it was performed on the streets of the poor side of London for labors and the working-to-lower-classes in the mid-1800s, see the excerpt from “London Labour and the London Poor” here:

Meagan J. Meehan
Meagan J. Meehan
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Meagan J. Meehan

Meagan J. Meehan is an artist, curator, author, poet, cartoonist, and produced playwright. She is the founder of the “Conscious Perceptionalism” art movement. Meagan holds a B.A., an M.A., and is currently pursuing a Ph.D.

See all posts by Meagan J. Meehan