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  • Writer's pictureMichael Cundall Jr.

More About the Slap Heard Round the World

So let’s talk a bit about the Will Smith Chris Rock slap incident. While the meme game surrounding the incident is pretty strong, there have been quite a few social media posts, articles, responses, threads, tweets, tik-toks as well. Were I to link them all, I’d spend more time making hyperlinks than I would writing.

Like the title says, I am approaching this as someone who researches humor and comedy for a living. One of the first things we need to get clear about is whether the joke Rock made was an attempt at humor or an attempt at comedy. This is really an important first step in figuring out what response one might give. So much of what I’ve seen written on the issue seems to ignore this. People say things like “If that had been my wife he’d made the joke about, I’d have smacked him too.” Or “Rock shouldn’t be making fun of someone with a disease.” But both these responses assume that Rock was doing humor and not comedy. You may be wondering what the difference is.

Maybe one way to get at the difference is to note that comedy is a subset of humor, a subset of things we might call a humorous activity. Jokes with our friends, memes shared at the office, or simply laughing at something that strikes us as funny is humor, but not necessarily comedy. Comedy is something more like a performance. Comedians do comedy. Your office worker Nanette may be funny, may be the “office comedian” but she’s not doing comedy. Comedy is best thought of as humor done specifically as a form of formal entertainment. We go to the theater to see one of Shakespeare’s comedies. We watch a comedian perform on stage. We read comic novels, or watch sit-coms. These are all socially well-defined spaces. Humor can be done anywhere and can sometimes catch us off-guard. But comedy is not that way. We generally know when to expect comedy given the environment we’re in.

So you might be thinking that I think that Rock’s joke was comedy, because he’s a comedian. And you’re right, I do. But that’s not the only reason. Rock made the joke on the stage at the Oscars. He and Will Smith were at an entertainment event. Rock was doing a bit for sure. Was the bit in poor taste? Possibly, was it not funny? To some yes, to others no. But this wasn’t Rock telling the joke at the after-party to Smith when he was outside of work or off stage. Rock was invited to the Oscars because he’s a comedian. Many of the recent Oscar hosts have been comedians. This was entertainment. It was theater. Rock was doing what comedians do. He was making a joke.

If Rock was doing his job as a comic is Smith justified in hitting him? The answer is no. There is, obviously the whole issue of responding to words with slaps, and the general idea is that no one should hit someone for offensive language, but that’s a different issue. The reason Smith shouldn’t have hit Rock is because we don’t blame comedians for doing their job. Even if the job entails giving offense. Sometimes we even expect offense if we take in a show by an insult comic. Celebrity roasts are the same thing. But this wasn’t a roast of course.

If Rock is acting as an entertainer, as a comedian, he has pretty wide latitude to make the jokes he wants. Rock is also a comedian who does push boundaries, he wades into topics that are tendentious and taboo. And let’s not forget that that particular joke wasn’t just something he came up with on the spot. He’s a famous, practiced, and adept comedian. He writes his material. He works it out ahead of time. He didn’t just ad-lib that and drop an offensive joke. This was a scripted bit. Again, all the more reason to think Rock was doing comedy and not just trying to be funny.

Another way to think about this is to imagine what it would do to comedy in general if practicing comedians had to make sure their work didn’t offend an audience member enough that they took to slapping them. If I were an insult comic I would think twice about where or if I would do certain jokes if I had to worry that someone thought it was ok to hit me if they didn’t like the joke or were offended. Many performers have made this same sort of point. I think it’s a bit of a slippery slope to think that suddenly it’s open season on performers given what happened. However, there is a real worry that by failing to notice the difference between a person doing comedy and someone simply trying to do a joke, that some folks will think they have a right to express their offense by hitting a comedian who’s doing their job. As raunchy and foul-mouthed as an insult comic can get, people don’t hit them. And if you’ve never seen a roast, check them out. They are no holds barred.

In my opinion, Smith should have left in the same way that a person who doesn’t like a sit-com stops watching, or a person who finds the jokes in a particular book not to their liking and stops reading. He had no right to hit Rock. Rock wasn’t insulting his wife, he was making a joke, and indeed making fun of Jada Pinkett-Smith. But he was doing so as the Chris Rock the Comic, not Chris Rock the friend or acquaintance. Humor is humor and comedy is a special form of humor that plays an important social role in almost every society. Smith’s actions showed that the difference between the two is fragile and we would all do better to try and understand the issues.

As I end this, Smith has publicly apologized and I would wager personally apologized. I am not here to say that Smith is a bad person, I think that’s clearly false. He made a mistake. But with any act that has so much exposure, it has brought to the fore a host of issues that are important for us to be aware of. I can’t hope to cover them all, and there are ones I am not aware of that deserve attention. But as someone who thinks and worries about issues related to humor, this aspect of the situation deserved attention. I’ll leave the other issues to those who can write or speak more about them.

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