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What the Will Smith Oscars slap tells us about modern comedy


“Jada, can’t wait for G.I. Jane 2,” Chris Rock quipped onstage at the 94th Academy Awards, sparking a chain of events that would quickly go down in the history of pop culture as Will Smith took to the stage to defend his wife’s honour by slapping the presenter in the face. Whilst criticism has been aimed at both Smith and Rock following the event, the larger question that is emerging is one that comedy has long-struggled with in an era that both celebrates and carefully monitors ‘free speech’. 

Having long been in the search of a ‘viral moment’ that would bring their self-congratulatory ceremony back into the pop-culture limelight, the 94th Academy Awards finally got their slice of internet popularity on Sunday, March 27th, in the slap that was heard around Hollywood. Though, whilst the physical assault was the focus of the media’s attention, it is the impact of the moment on the nature of comedy performance that will feel the most considerable effect in the near future. 

Though they desperately try, award shows have never been particularly funny, filling in the blanks of an overlong ceremony with terrible industry quips and eye-rolling prods at the unfortunate front row of guests. Comedian Rickey Gervais changed the nature of award show hosting back in 2010, however, when he hosted the Golden Globes and delivered a hilarious and critical analysis of the state of the contemporary industry, treating the event with a dose of much-needed levity.

Oddly, however, whilst Gervais’ routines were infamously venomous, you feel as though even he wouldn’t have stooped to the depths of Chris Rock’s G.I. Jane 2 ‘joke’, prodding fun at someone’s physical appearance, and (intentionally or unintentionally) their autoimmune disorder. In fact, as Gervais recently said at a recent performance in north London, “I would not have made a joke about his wife’s hair. I would have made a joke about her boyfriend”.

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Though, regardless of whether Chris Rock’s joke was funny or not, disagreeing with someone’s comments should never result in physical assault, particularly when it’s made in a performative setting where statements have to be appreciated in the context of ‘comedy’. What the event has demonstrated, however, is that perhaps these parameters of what is considered ‘comedy’ must be altered to suit modern social change. 

This has been demonstrated in the backlash against Chris Rock for making a joke about someone’s medical condition, though was also witnessed when Jimmy Carr made a joke about the holocaust in his Netflix special His Dark Material earlier this year, as well as countless other instances in the past decade. 

However, to restrict comedy and put theoretical red tape across certain subjects is to defeat the whole structure of the performative art, with the regulation of one topic causing a domino effect leading to a point when comedians may soon have to tip-toe around their own creativity. So, what’s the solution to this contemporary social quandary?

Even if the fact wasn’t commonly known, the tribulations of Jada Pinkett Smith’s struggle with alopecia go back to 2018 when she went public with the news, making it somewhat unlikely that Rock didn’t know about her condition. Though, even if he didn’t, if a comedian is intending to poke fun at individual people and ‘roast’ their personality and appearance, they should also have the shrewdness to research such people and recognise what might be too personal to attack. 

Chris Rock’s limp provocation of Jada Pinkett Smith was thrown out with carelessness, with little content to the brittle ‘joke’ that felt more like a barbed comment than a hilarious one-liner. 

Whilst comedians can be criticised for such lazy jokes, audiences should also learn to appreciate that material should be enjoyed in the context of a performance and all comments should be taken with a large grain of salt. Will Smith’s not the only one, with an Amy Schumer joke to Jesse Plemons also doing the rounds on Twitter, showing the actor’s awkward reaction to the performer’s joke. 

As with many contemporary issues, the solution to the quandary of modern comedy is for comedians and audiences to simply learn to disagree better. It’s OK for someone to disagree with a joke, but it certainly isn’t OK to change the context of a situation and assault someone for the material of their performance.

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