As a longstanding comic Chris Rock knows what happens when a joke bombs. Sometimes it explodes across one’s face; in his case in the form of a tight, well-calibrated slap by Will Smith. I must admit to being ambivalent about the slap that reverberated across the world followed by Smith shouting twice, “Keep my wife’s name out of your effing mouth.”
I say I am ambivalent because Smith did clearly laugh when Rock first made a reference to “G.I. Jane 2” and his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith because of her shaven head. Usually, the first reaction, especially to humor, is the honest one. If outrage follows, as it did in Smith’s case, it is because somewhere along the line he felt guilty laughing at a joke which was funny, albeit utterly uncharitable to his wife. Humor is frequently uncharitable and at the expense of someone or something.
It was almost as if having initially found Rock’s joke funny, Smith felt compelled to overcompensate. So he walked onto the stage and delivered one of the cleanest slaps in human history. Even as it was being delivered, I knew that this was not scripted but a genuine one. I felt it on my face. There was something to Smith’s body language as well as that of Rock’s that clearly suggested real physical violence. Rock’s left cheek seemed to be rippling for a few moments as his brain processed the fact that it really happened.
What is important here is not what transpired between the two alpha males, but the way Jada handled it, first with an eyeroll and then with dignity. Her struggle with hair loss caused by a condition known as alopecia is well known. It was a transgression on the part of Rock to mock her condition. It is always a transgression when you mock someone’s medical condition. It is out of bounds unless the person being joked about is in on the joke. Even then, it is seriously problematic since medical conditions are usually not individual-specific. There is always a larger community beyond the individual.
Rock has had a bit of a history with Jada. In 2016 she boycotted the Oscars which were hosted by Rock because Smith did not get nominated for the movie ‘Concussion’ in which he was widely appreciated.
“Jada got mad, said she’s not coming,” said Rock. “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.
“You get mad. “It’s not fair that Will was this good and didn’t get nominated. It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20m for Wild Wild West,” the comedian said bringing the house down.
Rock had made a snide reference to the Smiths’ marriage a couple of years ago. The two have been candid about their other relationships even as their marriage has generally endured.
On balance though, everyone eventually seemed to win from this ugly altercation but it also served the purpose of normalizing violence. The incident prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to tweet, “The Academy does not condone violence of any form.”
Smith’s acceptance speech on receiving the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role was rather disjointed and even disingenuous since it talked about love in the aftermath of having slapped someone. And that too a comedian who is expected to cross the line because that is the whole model of comedy.