What the Oscar night slap says about comedy and free speech

The 'Slap Heard ’Round Tinseltown' could end up being the final nail in the coffin for televised awards ceremonies

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Michael TaubeThe 94th Academy Awards ceremony will always be known for one stunning incident that overshadowed the entire evening – the Slap Heard ’Round Tinseltown.

Comedian Chris Rock came on stage to present the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. He’s well known for his sarcastic wit and biting humour. He briefly focused attention on actor Javier Bardem and his wife, actor Penelope Cruz. He joked that Bardem was “praying” fellow nominee Will Smith would end up winning the award.

Rock then referenced Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. He said, “Jada, I’m looking forward to seeing GI Jane 2.” This elicited a groan and eye roll from the actress/musician since her buzzcut hairstyle is largely the result of alopecia or hair loss.

It was a lousy joke but relatively harmless. Rock tried to slough it off in a puckish manner, which the crowd appreciated. Even Will Smith was visibly laughing.

The camera panned back on Rock, who was amused and slightly surprised when Smith unexpectedly started to walk right up to him. The actor, nominated for the film King Richard, hit the comic with an open-faced slap and walked back to his seat.

“Wow,” Rock said, “Will Smith just smacked the s**t out of me.” The audience kept laughing, thinking it was part of a planned routine. But it wasn’t an act.

“Keep my wife’s name out of your f**king mouth!” Smith said in front of a shocked audience. “Wow dude,” Rock said off-camera, “it was a GI Jane joke.” Smith then repeated, “Keep my wife’s name out of your f**king mouth!” even louder.

Stunned silence. You could hear a pin drop in the room. Rock was clearly flummoxed. He finally responded, “I’m going to, okay? That was … the greatest night in the history of television.” He regained his composure, handed out the Oscar and fulfilled his duties.

The awards ceremony continued without incident. Smith wasn’t ejected and won his first Best Actor award. He made a long, rambling and tearful speech where he apologized to the Academy and fellow nominees – but not Rock.

Smith went to after-parties with his Oscar and family in tow. Rock didn’t file a police report. The Academy put out a flimsy throwaway line, “The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” but has since decided to launch a “formal review.”

Smith’s open-handed slap may have looked and sounded fake at first glance, but it wasn’t. Slow-motion video clearly shows him hitting Rock’s face. While it wasn’t the most devastating punch thrown in history, it definitely connected.

There’s a litany of suggestions why this altercation occurred:

  • Rock’s jokes and critical comments against the Smiths when he served as Oscars host in 2016 were mentioned as a possibility.
  • Smith grew up in an abusive home, and that was suggested as a root cause.
  • There are rumours and scandals involving Smith and his family related to traumatic experiences, sexual dalliances, et al.
  • Several people claimed race and racism played roles.
  • Celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell and Howard Stern bizarrely suggested former U.S. President Donald Trump should be blamed for helping create this atmosphere.

But ultimately, Smith completely overreacted to a bad joke about his wife by a comedian who makes these types of jokes for a living. There was no need to physically and verbally assault Rock in one of TV’s most awkward moments. It could have been handled in private.

Imagine what could have happened if Rock’s joke had been made by a more in-your-face comedian like Ricky Gervais or Dave Chappelle. Would Smith have reacted in the same way? Would these comedians have followed Rock’s gentlemanly demeanour and tried to defuse the situation instead of punching or slapping back?

Free speech in comedy has also been affected. The MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter have played significant roles in watering down comedy routines. Comedians, who tend to be free-speech supporters, now think twice before bringing up certain subjects. And since they can be punched on stage for making a good, bad or indifferent joke, they’ll do everything in their power to avoid it.

Moreover, the door is wide open for others to recreate Smith’s slap in everything from awards presentations to comedy clubs. It’s going to be difficult to convince comedians to go on stage and hand out Oscars after the Smith-Rock altercation. If free speech can’t properly protect them, nothing really can.

Can Smith and Rock patch things up?

While that remains to be seen, Smith certainly owes Rock an apology. There’s even a case to be made that Smith’s Oscar should be taken away or stricken from the record, and he should be banned from attending future Academy Award ceremonies.

One thing that will never disappear is this moment in Oscars history. Viewership has gone way down in recent years due to negative perceptions of Hollywood celebrities. Who knows? The Smith-Rock altercation could end up being the final nail in the coffin of televised awards ceremonies in general.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. For interview requests, click here.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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