When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock over an Oscars ceremony punchline, other comedians felt the sting.
“I know Chris and I know what it’s like to be on a stage in front of an audience that doesn’t like your material,” said stand-up comedian Judy Gold. “But to be physically assaulted, that’s a whole other thing. It felt like every comedian was smacked across the face. It really felt like that.”
Smith's act comes during a stressful time for comedy. While boundaries for humor constantly shift — think George Carlin’s 1972 monologue on seven so-called "dirty words" banned by TV — comics say they have felt increased pushback from audiences and society. Comedy great Dave Chappelle drew sharp criticism last year for what some deemed anti-transgender humor in his Netflix special “The Closer." Kathy Griffin's career was derailed in 2017 when she was photographed holding a mock-up of former President Donald Trump's head.
Some comedians expressed concern that Smith's behavior might embolden other displeased audience members.
“No one went up to Chris Rock and said, ‘Are you OK?’" Sheryl Underwood, co-host of “The Talk,” said on the show Tuesday. “I’m going to say this as a comic, I am afraid now to get on a stage, because in my third show, when everyone’s been drinking, if you don’t like my joke, do you now believe that you can get up and slap me? There’s got to be accountability quicker.”
Griffin tweeted that “now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters.”
“Which is the worst crime here?” veteran comedian Gilbert Gottfried said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Chris Rock being physically assaulted? Or Chris Rock making a joke? That's it, pure and simple. He made a joke.”
Dean Obeidallah, a lawyer and stand-up comic who hosts a show on the SiriusXM Progress channel, said there is never “a place for a violent response to a joke” but doubted there would be copycat behavior. In his time in comedy clubs, he’s seen yelling, screaming and, once, a glass thrown at somebody. But he's never seen a punch thrown, nor a comedian slapped.
“If someone were to strike a comedian, they’re going to be prosecuted criminally. They don’t have the privilege that Will Smith has,” Obeidallah said.
The Los Angeles Police Department said Sunday that it was aware of the incident, but Rock had declined to file a police report. Smith stayed through the rest of the ceremony Sunday and received the best-actor Oscar.
Gold said she’s been confronted but never struck, and she knows other female comedians have faced difficult circumstances. “People have been getting on stage, people have thrown things,” she said.
Comedian-actor Yamaneika Saunders calls Smith’s behavior upsetting and Sunday a sad day for ”two beloved Black men in entertainment.” She also views what happened through the lens of a "Black woman in comedy.''
“I'm constantly being threatened....by some man who doesn’t like some (expletive) I said about being a woman, some white guy who doesn’t like some (expletive) I said about being Black,” she said.
Insult humor isn't new to high-profile ceremonies, which call on comics to liven up what can be tedious events. Ricky Gervais made a meal of celebrities at successive Golden Globe ceremonies, and they grin — or grimace — and bear it. The most famous bad sport: Trump at the 2011 White House correspondents' dinner, where he sat stone-faced during then-President Barack Obama's extended ribbing of him.
Rock wasn't the first to tweak Smith or wife Jada Pinkett Smith at Sunday's Oscars. Ceremony co-host Regina Hall made what appeared to be a veiled joke about their marriage in trying, unsuccessfully, to draw Smith into a comedy bit.
Rock’s wisecrack was targeted at Pinkett Smith. “Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” the comedian said to Pinkett Smith, whose close-shaven head looked similar to Demi Moore's in the 1997 movie. Whether Rock was aware that she has a hair-loss condition, alopecia, is unknown, but Smith reacted with the smack and an angry warning to “keep my wife’s name out your (expletive) mouth!”
A tearful Smith later accepted the top acting award for “King Richard," his somewhat remorseful speech eliciting a standing ovation from the Dolby Theatre crowd. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has since condemned Smith's attack and said it's reviewing the matter.
Whatever the result, his actions indelibly marred the ceremony and ignited discussions about violence, toxic masculinity and the advantages of fame. Smith, who'd conspicuously left Rock out of his remarks Sunday, apologized to the comic and decried “violence in all of its forms” in a statement the next day issued by his publicist and posted on Instagram.
Pinkett Smith's first public comment came in an Instagram post in which she said, “This is a season for healing and I’m here for it." Rock referred briefly to the slap at a comedy show Wednesday in Boston, saying he was “still kind of processing what happened.” He appeared to become emotional as the audience gave him several standing ovations.
Whatever pushback comedians may encounter on stage, verbal or physical, they have to guard against censoring themselves to avoid it — and they will, said Obeidallah: "They shouldn’t change, and there’s nothing about this that tells me that they will change.”
They can't because their role goes beyond providing laughs, as comedians see it.
“We are the truth tellers. We speak truth to power,” said Gold, author of the 2020 book, “Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble.”
Gottfried cites a favorite Carlin quote — “It's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately" — and can't resist serving up a punchline.
“If Will Smith is reading this, dear God, please don’t come to my shows,” he said.
AP Television Writer Lynn Elber reported from Los Angeles, AP Media Writer David Bauder from New York.