The Real Winner of the Oscars Slap: Stand-Up Comedy

When we look back on the fiasco of last week’s Academy Awards, there will be no heroes. No human ones, anyway.

The inciting incident, in which Best Actor nominee (and eventual winner) Will Smith climbed onto the stage and open-hand slapped comedian Chris Rock after the latter joked about Smith’s wife’s bald head, was ugly. It was childish and driven by some combination of fragile ego and noble defense. 

Chris Rock, who has ascended to the status of entertainment icon over an illustrious career, missed the mark in a moment of consequence. In the lead up to his presentation of the award for Outstanding Documentary Feature, Rock performed an abbreviated stand-up routine, a common task for comedians at awards shows. After a stale yet well received quip directed at Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, Rock turned his attention to a prominent table housing Will Smith and his wife, the actress Jada Pinkett Smith. 

“Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane II,’ can’t wait to see it,” Rock said, in a reference to Demi Moore’s shaved head in the 1997 “G.I. Jane” film. Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, a medical condition which causes hair loss. Of this, Rock has denied prior knowledge. 

The crowd emitted a tense chuckle. After a second or two, presumably to lighten the mood, Rock sheepishly added, “Come on! That was a nice one.”

A camera panned to capture the couple’s reaction: on TV, Smith was seen laughing mildly, but Pinkett Smith was not amused, evident by her rolling her eyes and shaking her head. Then the camera shifted back to the stage. Viewers never witnessed that glance between husband and wife, the spark that plunged Will Smith from a cushioned chair into immortal infamy. 

What followed needs no further recounting, but for those who are unaware, Will Smith went on stage and proceeded to slap Chris Rock across the face. I likely speak for many when I say that this incident was one of the oddest and most shocking occurrences I’ve ever seen on live TV. Chris Rock, facing a stunned audience with his cheek still stinging, said it best: “This is the greatest night in the history of television!”

As stated, no human heroes will come from the Oscars Slap. Instead, the hero I present is stand-up comedy. Allow me to explain. 

When examining live comedy through a holistic lens, I find there are three types of jokes: ones that fail to elicit laughs, ones that are amusing yet shallow and ones that linger. For a few seconds, Rock’s joke seemed like the second sort. The events it inspired, however, proved its status as the third. 

I should first establish what cannot be debated: Chris Rock’s joke was in poor taste. Whether or not he was aware of Pinkett Smith’s alopecia makes little difference – he deliberately attacked her appearance, which is petty and impolite. He is capable of better. However, Will Smith’s violent response was reprehensible. Smith entered the night as the odds-on favorite to capture his first Academy Award, and in caving to such reckless fury, he upstaged his fellow award recipients and nominees. It was their night, too. 

In our age of social media, Smith’s conduct will never be contained within the moment. In addition to its mass circulation (an uncensored YouTube video posted by British newspaper The Guardian accumulated over 86 million views in four days), the slap reveals much about the state of American entertainment culture. With a single act, the unification of celebrity entitlement and toxic masculinity was exposed to the masses. It was Rock’s irreverence, flawed though it was, that directly catalyzed Smith’s monumental reaction. As a result, society is now forced to face a series of uncomfortable questions: Is it necessary for a man to defend his wife’s honor with violence? Do wives even require such defense? If not, whose honor was Will Smith really defending?

I’m inclined to follow the train of thought the last question poses, such that Rock damaged Smith’s ego, and the actor’s sudden and primal urge to lash out was validated by Pinkett Smith’s sunken expression. Smith chose to climb the stage for a singular reason: to prove he was man enough to defend his own honor. Pinkett Smith’s discomfort was the surface-level excuse, not the root motivation. 

At its best, the institution of stand-up comedy does for society what it did on Oscar Sunday. It provokes inflammatory reactions, which lead to indictments of normalized continuities. In this case, our nation’s normalization of public violence and insecurity-driven male dominance took center stage. Smith, after assaulting Rock, walked calmly back to his front row seat. A number of reports conflict as to whether he was asked by an Academy representative to leave the auditorium, as well as whether or not he refused to do so. About twenty minutes later, Smith accepted the Oscar for his performance in “King Richard,” to a standing ovation. In his speech, Smith did not apologize to Rock, but he did offer a bit of irony. 

“I want to be a vessel for love,” Smith said through tears. “Love will make you do crazy things.” 

I won’t pretend that stand-up comedy, or Chris Rock, are perfect. But last Sunday, they were brave enough to expose far worse. We all should thank them for their service.