Why Is Everyone Throat Punching Everyone Else?

The successor to the football-to-the-groin is a comedy trope for the social-media era.
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On The Today Show, an appearance by Melissa McCarthy, who starred in the comedy Identity Thief, included this dubious assertion from the host: "You invented the throat punch," she said. "Can you tell me about this?"

That's tantalizingly close to a great question.

The throat punch, a concept somehow distinct from a punch to the throat, was defined by Urban Dictionary in 2004 as a "rapid, unexpected knucklethrust into larynx of douchebag who is pissing you off." What I would've asked the actress, who certainly didn't invent the throat punch but has done more than anyone else to mine it for laughs in a nationwide forum, is why this particular comedic trope got hot. 

I'd be fascinated to hear her theory of the throat punch, having just developed my own. Granted, there are maybe one or two more important subjects in the world. But if you're amenable to taking a break from drone strikes and mass surveillance, maybe you'll agree that the phenomenon tells us something about America. 

And if you disagree and get snarky ...

* * *

My introduction to the throat punch happened in 2009. 

A story was related to me about a coffee shop owner who, after feuding with a customer, posted a sign with the customer's photo warning that if he ever returned to the shop he would be met with a throat punch. The person who told me about this still cracks up when she thinks of it. "Watch out," I told her years after I first heard the story, "or you might get throat punched." She couldn't stop laughing. 

The anecdote made me laugh when I first heard it too. It's difficult to explain just why. It wouldn't be funny to see a literal punch to a throat delivered in anger. Quite the contrary. The humor was partly rooted in the unexpected (forgive me) punch line, the atypically ordered words, and of course the apparent hyperbole. How mad are you? So mad I could throat punch him! I can envision a throat punch that would be upsetting to see, or even deadly to the person receiving it, but what I envisioned when I first heard the term was more like this:

* * *
Laughing at the infliction of physical pain is nothing new.

The Three Stooges were subjected to eye-pokes and slaps. Wily Coyote was perpetually dropped from on high. Sylvester was pummeled by a housewife's broom. And "object to the groin" became such a trope that satirical takes on it are classic:

Homer is actually right that the shot to the groin works on several levels. Every man in the audience can empathize, having felt that singular pain at some point. Anything involving private parts is just funnier. And even women know that part of the anatomy is superlatively sensitive. No surprise that in a web era more coarse than the America's Funniest Home Videos era that preceded it, "penis punch" and "cockpunch" came into the lexicon, tapping the same vein of humor. Its darkest iteration: We laughed (even as half of us cringed) at Lorena Bobbitt jokes.

"Throat punch" is a less obvious trope. The throat is not a private part. Few of us have been struck there–who knows what it even feels like?

A throat punch on New Girl. (NBC)

Hollywood screenwriters doubtless chose it in part because it's fresher and less expected than the football to the groin or kick to the crotch. Still, how did it percolate up in the culture enough to be plucked for mass entertainment as the main gag in a Hollywood film? And to play a role in various television shows and YouTube gag videos as well?

I'll tell you my theory. 

Social media has brought about a world where it's never been easier or more popular to broadcast angst, mockery, and petty annoyances. See the rise of #fail and #FML.  And while people have always sought to vent their frustrations and signal superiority, the noise and volume of stuff on the web encourages everyone to do so in ever more comical, over-the-top, cartoonish ways.

Little wonder that the throat punch came along.

For pure humor, Homer is right: A football to the groin wins every time. But a deliberate kick to the balls? Too much. That's something reserved for an attacker or a cheating ex. As a trope, it isn't suited to the expression of fleeting, semi-ironic disdain. It is too raw. It betrays investment in the object of one's disdain. 

While less sensitive and thus less funny than the private parts, the throat is still a sensitive body part that is also reasonably neutral—that is, it's gender neutral, and it isn't freighted with sexual or cultural overtones. If what you're seeking is a cooly detached zing leavened by humor, invoking the throat punch is just the thing. There's no better vehicle for semi-ironic exclamations of faux-violence. To see what I mean, search "throat punch" on Twitter, where the prevalence of the trope helped spur me to write about it. Behold the variety of its uses!

As part of the zeitgeist:

As emphasis in a very pregnant woman's warning to avoid crossing her:

To signal annoyed disdain for a pop-culture phenomenon: 

As a way to express solidarity with an older code as a newer one emerges:

 To vent and commiserate about domestic frustrations:

As a new expression of the old complaints about work and coworkers: 

To express the degree of bottled up tension you're feeling: 

In place of "Don't you just hate it when [thing most people hate] ..." 

As a suggested response to people who rub pregnant bellies or facsimiles thereof:  

As jocular self-deprecation: 

To describe the feeling of wanting to perpetrate violence on someone for their poor fashion choices: 

To express disdain for New Age culture: 

To warn pranksters not to make you so fearful that you'll hurt them badly:

To commit to change with a personal incentive:

To express cultural loyalties:  

To highlight the extraordinary degree to which you like chips with cheese melted on top: 

There will always be comedic tropes that reside in the space where slapstick humor at pain meets the dark desire to inflict it. The throat punch is the iteration for this cultural moment. Of course, I've put myself in figurative jeopardy by writing this article, which can only end in a subset of readers Tweeting things like, "Trying to explain jokes: unfunny. Trying to explain throat punches? Throat punched."

And that's fine. I'd much prefer it to a swift kick in the balls.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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