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A traditional Punch and Judy puppet show. (David Muscroft / Getty Images)

Are Punch and Judy Shows Finally Outdated?

For a wife-beating, baby-squashing scofflaw, Mr. Punch has done pretty well for himself

By the Victorian era, Joan had inexplicably become Judy and the show had more or less coalesced into what you see today—very broad, visual, whacks-to-the-groin comedy, with a dark underbelly.

A typical Punch and Judy show plays out as follows:

Mr. Punch is a “jolly good fellow” who likes to drink and chase girls; soon, however, he gives in to his comically gruesome homicidal tendencies. For example, in the 1827 Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy, the first published Punch and Judy script, he has a run-in with a dog, who bites his nose. When the dog’s owner comes along, Punch knocks his head clean off his shoulders with his “slapstick.” (The etymology of the word slapstick revealed!)

When Judy arrives, she goes to fetch their baby and leaves it alone with her husband. Mr. Punch proceeds to (your pick) knock the baby against the stage, throw it into the audience, toss it out the window, put it through his sausage-making machine(!), or even sit on it. Judy retruns and is outraged, so Mr. Punch beats her to death with the stick (!!).

When the Policeman, Doctor or some other authority figure comes to investigate, Mr. Punch whacks him with his stick. Should Joey the Clown show up, he too will be chased off or murdered by the stick-wielding Punch.

In some of the earlier versions, Mr. Punch was ultimately arrested and brought to the Hangman’s noose—but he manages to trick the Hangman into putting his own head in the noose, resulting in the end of the Hangman. Ultimately, Punch faces the Devil himself—and it’s usually Punch who wins, capping his murderous streak with the words, “That’s the way to do it!”

The violence, of course, has remained—and for that reason, Mr. Punch’s influence on children has understandably long been a source of worry. A New York Times article from February 11, 1896, describes children enjoying a Punch show on West 135th Street in Manhattan—and one “grave gentleman,” who resembled Punch “as if they were brothers,” grumbling at the policeman-beating scene and declaring, “It is a shame to show such things to children! How can you expect them to have any respect for the law?”

In 1947, the Middlesex County Council in England banned Punch and Judy from schools, prompting wide outcry from Punch fans and his eventual reinstatement. More than 50 years later, in 1999 and 2000, other councils in Britain considered banning Punch and Judy shows on the claim that they were too violent for children; they didn’t, but it was close.

This summer, Gold TV, a television station devoted to the old classics of British comedy, “rebooted” Punch and Judy. Punch was cast as a tracksuit-wearing benefits scrounger (welfare abuser) and Judy as a wannabe WAG (Oompa-Loompah-hued wife of a soccer player). Nick Clegg, Britain’s deputy prime minister, makes an appearance as “Cleggy the Clown”; Boris Johnson, London’s tow-headed mayor, is The Policeman; and Simon Cowell is, of course, the Judge. And, rather than sitting on the baby, Punch is caught trying to sell the child to an unnamed female pop star.

John Phelps and Gary Lawson were the writers behind the new script; Phelps defended his update as precisely what Punch needs to stay alive: “If they were first performing the same act from 350 years ago that they performed in Covent Garden, no one would be interested.”

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