Some may have crafted a comedy-driven tweet around the joke-related slap that occurred during the televised broadcast of the Oscars, but few if any comedians are calling Will Smith’s aggression toward Chris Rock a laughing matter. The 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre drew 16.6 million viewers with an estimated 17.4 million viewers present during Smith’s screen time. That’s quite a reach and not the exposure anyone wants when it comes to bad behavior.
Prior to the actor’s acceptance speech for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in King Richard, Smith took to the stage and struck Rock in response to a joke the comedian told that focused on Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock’s joke referenced Pinkett Smith’s close-cropped hair. Pinkett Smith has alopecia.
“Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive. My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable,” said Smith in a lengthier apology posted on Instagram Monday.
But the comedy-related aggression has many comedy professionals talking. “As Rock got hit, I got hit. We comedians, we felt the pain,” said George Wallace in an interview with The Wall Street Journal addressing comedian reaction to the incident.
“Why couldn’t he have just heckled?” quipped Brian Kiley. The comedian and longtime Conan comedy writer, now a writer for The Ellen Degeneres Show captured what so many thought as they tried to process what happened.
While Tiffany Haddish responded in support of Smith’s action during an interview with People following the ceremony saying “…maybe the world might not like how it went down, but for me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives,” others were quick to call out the fact that physical assault in response to words is not justifiable.
“When I first saw the incident, it was hurtful to see Will and Chris in this situation. One of the things that struck me was that we come from a history of not protecting women enough—and so in that way it was admirable, but I wish this hadn’t been addressed physically and publicly,” said comedian and actor Terry Jones.
Trailblazing comedian Judy Gold responded viscerally when she saw Smith strike Rock. “I got a stomach ache. Comedians are naked out there. There’s no band, no song to hide behind. It’s so shocking when you tell a joke and your only goal is to make the audience laugh and you’re assaulted. And watching Chris not being able to recover. How do you recover from that?”
The Emmy Award-winning writer and author of Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble is an expert on the impact of audience reaction and censorship on comedy content. “When the audience decides that whatever way they take the joke is the only way, even when it’s not what the comedian intended, that’s when comedy dies,” explained Gold.
Smith’s Oscar night behavior also highlighted how dangerous things can get for joke tellers.
“I was stunned,” said Emmy Award-winning comedy writer and comedian Monica Piper. And then everything froze so you couldn’t see it play out. On the one hand I got that he was defending his wife, but moreover I was thinking—What? These are words. This is comedy. Nothing excuses punching or slapping somebody because of words. Because of a joke.”
Comedy or the real world, it seems like negative impulsive behavior has increased. Says comedian and actor Orny Adams, “It’s happening onstage and off-stage. This is going on everywhere. And everyone is so quick to react—we used to take time to deliberate and then act. We’ve become a Tantrum Nation.”
And it’s not just people in comedy clubs. “We’re not reading the room anymore. We’re very quick to anger,” says comedian and podcaster Leighann Lord about human behavior in general.
Comics are no stranger to audience retaliation although some of have witnessed more than others and most will admit it’s usually unpredictable.
“I’ve been assaulted a few times on stage. I’ve had an unpitted olive thrown at me. I’ve had a woman come up on stage in Canada and push me after I did a joke about someone at her table—everyone else at the table was laughing. I don’t think seeing aggression on a bigger platform, like the Oscar incident, though will make any difference. Comedians have been dealing with this kind of aggressive behavior for a long time,” said Jones.
“I would hope that this does not have that effect, said Lord when asked about whether Smith’s behavior might fuel others to lash out at comedians that target something they find offensive. “I’d like to think the good people outnumber the bad. And if there is someone coming toward the stage will ill intent, the good people would intercede. And if they don’t, I have a mic stand and a stool and will protect myself accordingly. But I didn’t sign up for this job to have to do that. Maybe this is the thing that will get me back to the gym and dust off my black belt,” joked Lord whose comedy is featured in Showtime’s recent special Even More Funny Women of A Certain Age.
But Gold and Piper aren’t so sure other disgruntled audience members won’t take a page from Smith’s playbook. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabar, also voiced concerns about the legacy of Smith’s violence in a post on his blog.
Said Gold, “How many times do we see copycat crimes? You’re also talking about a beloved, respected, accomplished man behaving like this. How many people will say, ‘Well, Will Smith did it.’ It’s already happening. Do I have to wear a fencing outfit on stage now?”
“I thought, ‘That one irresponsible impulsive action just empowered some drunk in the comedy club audience who feels like they have to defend themselves or someone else from the ‘big bad’ defenseless comedian,’” explained Piper. “As a comic, the big picture is someone punched a comedian because of a joke. And it’s unacceptable. It’s open season on free speech.”
Free Speech Versus Sensitivity
Words can hurt. And comedy doesn’t always strike the right chord. But what happens when society tells comics what they can and can’t say?
“You do have to be sensitive to people in the audience. And if anyone in the audience is too close to a certain topic, they won’t find it funny. But what has to show through is your intention,” notes Lord.
Adams who has been performing for nearly three decades says he’s felt a shift in comedy tolerance. “The majority of the time, it’s been a comedy-safe environment. You could get away with saying things on stage that you couldn’t say off stage. But lately, there’s a bounty on comedians. And whether you like it or not, comedians are a vital part of creating discussions that advance progress…what’s going on right now, the suppression of comedians saying things is dangerous. If it starts here, it will migrate into other forms of free speech.”
“If you take out the intent, the context and the nuance, you have no comedy left,” says Gold.
Gold was giving this example about the treatment of comedians long before the Oscar slap—“If you murder someone and you go on trial for homicide, your sentence is determined by your intent. What were you thinking? Was it premeditated? That is what your sentence is based on. And yet a comedian doesn’t get the same consideration.”
“I went into comedy because I wanted to avoid the big issues, I talk about Ziploc bags and the things that drive us nuts every day, said Adams. “I like to point out how humans are more similar than dissimilar.”
But Adams also believes comedians, like everyone else, should be given an opportunity to correct their missteps. “It’s okay to say something wrong and realize it later and correct. But there’s no time for people in the public to correct anymore. I would like to live in a world that if I said something unintentionally offensive, I would be given the opportunity to apologize and correct myself.”
Is there a positive effect this Oscar incident could have moving forward? Make people more tolerant? More sensitive? Says Lord, “I’m looking at the bigger picture. I’m hoping that we all have a takeaway about how we all are with each other. How we use our words. And how we physically interact with each other. I’m saddened that this happened. I don’t want to judge anyone without knowing the situation. The last few years have taken a toll. I’m not sure anyone here on earth is at our best.”