One of the main reasons they were asked to update the show had to do with Punch’s homicidal habits. Gold TV surveyed 2,000 British parents of children between the ages of 5 and 12 and found that 40 percent of them thought the traditional Punch and Judy was too violent. “I think the violence, wife-beating and throwing the baby down the stairs isn’t really acceptable these days. And it shouldn’t be,” said Phelps.
Punch defenders claim that’s just modern oversensitivity. “Although adults get very upset about the violence, the bashing the baby, it’s no more real to a child than watching a cartoon, like ‘Tom and Jerry,’” says Cathy Haill, curator of popular entertainment for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. “Ninety-nine percent of children will roar with laughter [at ‘Tom and Jerry’] and not think ‘Oh, I’ve got to write to the society for prevention of cruelty to cats’…Nowadays, people are far more— and I hate this term—politically correct and get ridiculously worried about things like this, in my view.”
“He’s one of those tricksters, imp of mischief figures,” explains Edwards, who was one of many professors (as the Punch and Judy performers are called) angered by the Gold TV reboot. There’s only so much updating you can do before it’s no longer Punch and Judy, claim the traditionalists.
“The tradition lifts him above being just a weird little man,” says Edwards; part of the point of the show is that this clown “kind of wreaks havoc” and is “flouting society’s conventions so that society can laugh at the absurdities that are revealed.”
One of the reasons the show is still around at all—showing remarkable resiliency through the advent of movies (some of the very first films depicted the puppets), video games and personal technology—comes down to nostalgia, Edwards says. “It’s been always a kind of retro entertainment, it’s always been reminding its audience of a slightly mythical golden era.”
It’s also an incredibly malleable show; over the years, Mr. Punch has beaten up everyone from Hitler to Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair.
Britain may be where Mr. Punch found fame, but he’s beaten his wife in every country the British ever colonized. There’s a grand American tradition of Punch and Judy: One of the first puppet shows performed in America was A merry dialogue between Punch and Joan, his wife, in Philadelphia in 1742; George Washington, according to his accounting books, purchased tickets to see a Punch show; and Harry Houdini even did a Punch show during his early years as a magician with a traveling circus.
The show was adapted to suit American humor, says Ryan Howard, professor emeritus of art history at Morehead State University and author of Punch and Judy in 19th Century America. “In the American [versions], there were a lot of Germans and Jews and black people, I think reflecting the racial and ethnic diversity of our country,” says Howard, acknowledging that the laughs were often at the expense of the minority characters.
Mr. Punch has managed to survive several moral panics so far and his fans seem to think he can go on doing so. “As long as there are people who can make a living out of doing it, I think Punch will survive,” says Haill. “He’s got to 350 already and I see him making at least another 100 years.”