In A Nutshell
The term “pleased as punch” has long been used to mean someone’s very, very happy with themselves. It comes from a bizarre and disturbing place: the Punch and Judy shows that have been popular in Italy and England since the 17th century. For those of us not familiar with the shows performed by the beautifully crafted puppets, Punch is a psychotic lunatic who kills his infant child, beats his wife, and murders or beats everyone else that asks him questions about his suspicious activity.
The Whole Bushel
If you’re as pleased as punch, that means you’re as happy as a man who’s just killed his baby, beaten his wife, and gone on a rather successful murder spree. It might make a little more sense to think that the phrase has something to do with the fruity drink, but it doesn’t.
The first use of the phrase comes from a William Gifford satire written in 1797 in which he refers to his desperate need to hit someone, and how it would make him feel as pleased as Punch. Charles Dickens also picks up on the phrase, alternately making it “as proud as Punch” in David Copperfield; when he uses it, the element of violence is gone and he’s simply expressing happiness at being associated with another person.
Punch and Judy shows are still performed, but in many places, they’ve undergone a change. Some schools have banned them, citing the child-murdering wife-beater to be a bad influence on their students. Others say that it’s no worse than what they see in many cartoons, and there’s no need to get rid of this centuries-old icon. (In case you think that the idea of arguing over whether or not violent video games cause maladjusted children is a new thing, it’s not.)
Originally an Italian convention, Punch and Judy shows—then called “Polichinello” shows by those who first saw them in England—were once acted out by actual actors. By the time they took Covent Garden by storm in the 1660s, most of them used marionettes, much to the delight of commoners and members of the royal family alike.
Even in these earliest incarnations, his trademark was a stick that he would use to beat or behead those that gave him any grief. (This is also where we get the term “slapstick,” from the literal stick that was Punch’s weapon of choice.) Judy did undergo something of a change, though, originally called Joan until sometime in the Victorian era. In early versions, Punch also had a girlfriend named Pretty Polly.
Judy’s role remains largely the same, though. She first leaves their baby alone with Punch and then returns, devastated, to find that he’s thrown it down the stairs or hurled it into the audience. Not about to take any abuse over it, Punch usually beats her to death and then sets out on his own.
That’s where creative license sets in, and it’s an interesting look into the different cultures that perform the show to see who Punch’s next victims are. In Britain, they’re oftentimes police officers or doctors. In the United States, the target of Punch’s rage was often racially based, targeting whatever minority was the most popular subject of ethnic slurs at the time.
Targets also change with what’s going on in the world at the time. Hitler was a common target during World War II, and even Margaret Thatcher took her turn as a popular outlet for Punch’s anger.
Always the same, though, is Punch’s absolute delight at what he manages to get away with, the havoc he causes, and the people he kills. It’s that cackling delight that has long made audiences roar with laughter, and gives a whole new depth to the phrase “pleased as punch.”