Posted on: April 1, 2022 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

By Emma Gomez, Arts & Entertainment Editor

“First of all, we’ve all wanted to slap Chris Rock,” jokes Krista Appelquist.

Appelquist, whose day job is speech professor at Moraine Valley, is an amateur stand-up comedian in her spare time. Like most people, she was stunned by the “slap heard ’round the world” that took place at the Academy Awards on March 27.

Comedian Chris Rock, who was presenting an award, made a joke about Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. The joke targeted her appearance and hair loss resulting from a condition called alopecia. Rock said, “Jada, I love ya, G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it, alright, that was a nice one.” He was referring to the movie “G.I. Jane,” for which actress Demi Moore had shaved her head.

Will Smith was seen laughing at the joke, but when he saw his wife’s reaction, he walked up onto the stage and slapped Rock across the face, leaving the audience and viewers at home speechless. Smith then returned to his seat and screamed, “Keep my wife’s name out your f-ing mouth.” Twice.

The incident raises questions about the nature of comedy: At what point does a joke become offensive? How important is it to protect comedians’ free speech? What roles do comedy and satire play in society? What kinds of power dynamic are at work in comedy? 

Many comedians have another question: Will others follow in Smith’s footsteps?

Comedian Sheryl Underwood, who is co-host of “The Talk,” says she is now afraid to get on stage. She now wonders if people have been drinking and they don’t like her jokes, will they now have the courage to get up and slap her?

Comedian Judy Gold told the AP that she understands how it feels to be on stage in front of a huge audience that doesn’t like her jokes, but she said physical assault takes things to another level.

The night of the Oscars, she said, it felt like “every comedian was smacked across the face.”

Appelquist, who often takes part in open mic nights and contests for fun, condemned Smith’s violence and said there was no need to escalate the situation.

Comedian Judy Gold

“I do not think we should tolerate or normalize slapping people because we don’t like what they said,” she said. “He could have used his words. I think it’s not justified ever; there’s nothing somebody says that you can’t retort to with words.” 

If comedians start censoring themselves too much because they are afraid of reactions from the audience, the implications could go beyond entertainment to affect society as a whole.

Communications professor Bill Hogan has taught classes around a theme of comedy and says it is a powerful tool “to change minds and shape the political discourse.”

In modern day, social media greatly influences calling out wrong and offensive behavior. This is commonly known as cancel culture.

Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars

“We are in the most sensitive age I’ve ever seen and I think it’s because social media gives everyone a voice to call it out,” Appelquist said. “So people who are offended by a certain type of humor can speak up now.” 

All people, especially comedians, have to self-censor and be cautious with what they say because of cancel culture. 

“All speech has consequences and the speaker has to be responsible for that,” Appelquist said.

People on the internet have been debating whether the joke was, in fact, offensive.

“I’m really torn,” said political science professor Kevin Navratil. “A lot of the comedians that I like are ones that don’t always use obscenity and don’t make fun of people.”

Comedians around the world express themselves using different types of humor. This doesn’t always sit right with people.

“I don’t like the mean-spirited comedy,” Navratil said. “But I do think part of comedy is that you can explore all aspects of society.”

Navratil and Dewitt Scott are leading a Difficult Conversations virtual event April 5 about cancel culture. The event’s main question will be, “Do college campuses have a problem with cancel culture, ‘wokeism,’ and free speech?” (You can click here to join the discussion, which will take place from 1-2 p.m.)

“I believe strongly in free speech. I think we have to err on the side of allowing almost any type of joke,” Navratil said. “But yet somebody of Chris Rock’s caliber doesn’t need to go to belittling or denigrating people in the audience. I think he’s more talented than that.”

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith on the red carpet at the Oscars

The power dynamic between the comedian and the subject of the joke makes a difference, Hogan says.

“Humor and comedy always involves power dynamics,” he said. “So absolutely audiences interpret a joke that’s punching down and we recognize that as bullying.

“If the object of a comedian’s joke is more of a powerful target then we would call it satire. This is a famous successful standup comedian making a joke about Jada Pinkett, who is also very famous, who is the wife of a famous successful actor. The power dynamic there is not as if Chris Rock is making fun of someone who is lesser.”

Smith’s actions have also raised questions about the power dynamic between men and women.

Appelquist believes if it would have been a woman comedian making the joke, Smith wouldn’t have acted physically. Some people are calling Smith’s actions a reflection of toxic masculinity, while others have applauded him for taking care of his wife.

“I think it was framed as an act of chivalry, but it was just violence plain and simple,” Appelquist said. “We don’t need men to protect us in that way.”

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried summed up the incident by raising a rhetorical question in an AP story: Which was worse, Rock’s joke or Smith’s assault?

“That’s it, pure and simple,” he said, answering his own question. “He made a joke.”

Will Smith’s apology

Since the slap, Smith has publicly apologized to Rock and the academy saying he regrets what he did. The Los Angeles Police Department asked Rock if he wanted to file a police report but he denied doing so. Smith has since resigned from the Academy.

On Wednesday night, Rock returned to the stage for a show in Boston. According to NPR, Rock claims he is still processing the slap.

This incident has put the world in a frenzy and has people forming hundreds of different opinions and viewpoints on what has happened. What do you think?