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Slap-Smith Comedy 4 min read

Slap-Smith Comedy

By Cary Littlejohn

It’s been not quite a week since “the slap heard ‘round the world” at the 94th Academy Awards, when, in response to a joke from Chris Rock about Jada Pinkett Smith’s short hairstyle (styled that way as a result of alopecia), Will Smith strode up on stage during the middle of the telecast, open-hand slapped Rock in the face, and strode back to his seat, from which he yelled for Rock to keep his “wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”

It was a shocking moment. It was a surreal moment to try to piece together from the collective commentary of my Twitter feed. I was at a concert in Denver while this was going on, and all at once, my Twitter timeline was some form of the question, “What just happened?”

After it was determined not to be a bit which Rock was in on and acted his part to perfection, it became very clear what had just happened: Will Smith, perhaps the second-nicest man in Hollywood to Tom Hanks, had just assaulted someone in front of millions of viewers.

The what really wasn’t that hard to grasp, but the why, the how, and the how are we supposed to feel about it continues to boggle the minds of most everyone who thinks about it for more than two seconds.

It was immediately polarizing in the way all things are these days, at least in terms of online discourse. Some were supportive of Smith, as a defender of his wife’s virtue. Others condemned him, stating the pretty basic tenet that violence is never OK, especially in that setting.

I’ll say my take was fairly quotidian: I was really disappointed in Will Smith. I didn’t find it romantic or chivalrous or defensible in any way. Was it a cheap joke at the expense of Jada’s looks? Yes. Is a lazy, lame joke the same thing as an overly offensive joke? No, but of course, a joke can be both under the right circumstances. I don’t think a looks-based joke dependent on knowledge of an easily forgotten Demi Moore film from almost three decades ago is the epitome of ruthlessness. I just don’t think it warranted violence from Smith.

I do think there are mitigating factors here: a previous joke by Rock at Jada’s expense (a much better joke, for what it’s worth), the incredibly stressful ordeal of a nearly pitch-perfect Oscars campaign Smith has been on for almost a year now, the messiness of his private life, and more.

But then he got up and made a problematic acceptance speech, in which he didn’t apologize to Rock and tried to couch his actions in the language of love, that of a husband and that of a father, like he portrayed in the movie King Richard for which he’d just been awarded a Best Actor Oscar.

A description of that acceptance speech is what stood out to me in Wesley Morris’s essay in The New York Times about the slap and its fallout.

Will Smith’s Slap Wasn’t the Only Astonishing Thing About the Oscars | The New York Times

Watching Smith up there on Sunday, burying his behavior in the Williamses’ story, I’m not sure he was entirely back in his body. I’ve never experienced a victory that feels this much like defeat. I suspect he knew this, too. He wondered whether he’d ever be invited back. That feels right. He wasn’t accepting an Oscar so much as trying to turn himself in.

Roxanne Gay, in her guest essay in the Times, grappled with the event, as many of us did, and tried, as many of us did, to have it both ways.  The first words of her essay said she was not writing in defense of Will Smith but rather the concept of having thin skin. She wrote beautifully as she already does, but her differentiation was little more than semantics, for in defending thin skin, and especially the skin of Black women, she concluded her essay thusly: “When you are constantly a target — of jokes, insults, incivility and worse — as most Black women are, the skin we’ve spent a lifetime thickening can come apart. We’re only human, and so, too, are the people who love us.

I don’t see how that’s not to be read as a defense of Smith. Except for the graf in the middle of the essay where she explicitly says, “Violence is always wrong and solves very little. Mr. Smith could have made so many better choices that did not involve putting his hands on another person in front of the entire world.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Gay lost the thread of her argument; it’s not so much about being internally inconsistent as it is her essay serving the main function of essays since the form emerged: to be in argument with one’s self.

She was so many of us. “It was wrong; he shouldn’t have done it….BUT, and hear me out, I’m not saying I condone it, but I DO understand why he did it.” That’s how so many of us felt. Rock was wrong in his joke. Smith was arguably more wrong in his response.  “Rock had it coming, BUT Smith shouldn’t have done it.” These are the conflicting opinions of so many of us.

And then there’s the part in which I, too, am complicit: the take economy. I’m not forced to write about this massive cultural moment, yet here I sit, doing just that. I’m not required to think of it as some “massive cultural moment,” but, in reality, because of the players involved and the setting and so much more, it is a massive cultural moment. I’m not required to be bothered that Smith went on about his night as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but I am bothered deeply by it, by him, by the Academy, by all of it.

I very much respected the conversation between podcaster Dave Chen and writer Tirhakah Love on Chen’s podcast Culturally Relevant.

They grappled with the mess of feelings people had, and it was made all the more genuine that Chen had started with the premise that his take (Smith was clearly in the wrong) was going to be the only way people viewed the incident. To his surprise, many people didn’t quite see it that way, and Love happened to be one of them. They were never arguing with each other, but it was valuable to hear the discussion. It felt as if Chen was standing in as my proxy for the conversation, saying many of the things I felt, and Love brought a lot more context and depth to the issue than I’d ever considered. I’m the better for having listened to it.