It happened today - May 9, 2016

This one is more weird than inspiring. Apparently May 9 is the first recorded appearance in England of the guy who would become “Mr. Punch” in the Punch and Judy show. Samuel Pepys recorded it in his diary, a marionette show by an Italian. It’s a pity they didn’t deport him. Mr. Punch, I mean.

In case you aren’t familiar with Punch and Judy… neither am I. I gather it’s a violent puppet show where Mr. Punch hits a lot of people while mistreating a baby. You just can’t buy that kind of entertainment. Or rather, you can but you shouldn’t want to. Basically what happens is Mr. Punch clowns around on stage and hurts people, provoking shocked laughter by people who already know what’s coming and don’t know what’s funny.

Somehow Punch became an emblem of Britain, “a subversive maverick who defies authority” according to one performer. If so Britain has a hunchback, bad clothes sense, a big hook nose and an even bigger stick. Oh, and he talks through a sort of a kazoo thing to the point that enthusiasts debate whether it’s a real Punch and Judy show if the main character’s voice is “non-swazzled”. There must be something better to worry about in life.

Maybe I will now get angry letters from aficionados of this traditional entertainment derived from 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte, a term I gather means comedy of art despite, at least in this derivation, containing neither. Yet it is elaborate, long-standing, formalized and thus has to have fans and even the sort of hobbyists who pore over the details and discuss the canon.

Yes, the canon. You see Punch and Judy does have a kind of set format within which there’s considerable fluidity. Apparently Punch no longer hits his wife or the baby, though he still sits on it. And you still have the crocodile, clown, policeman and string of sausages and the audience shouts warnings like “Look out there’s a crocodile.” Hilarious. The devil is apparently optional though for my money he can take the whole show.

The good news is that television apparently didn’t make us stupid or debase popular entertainment. The bad news is it didn’t need to.

Incidentally Russell Hoban’s 1980 novel Riddley Walker features a post-nuclear culture some 2,000 years in the future based on fragmentary remembrance of Saint Eustace and Punch and Judy which have somehow been combined in a way that makes no sense.

Sort of like how Punch came to England, was allowed to stay and became wildly popular in the first place.