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Comedy: The (Not So) Hidden Victim of SlapGate

Humor is already under attack, and the Will Smith slap only made things worse

It was the slap seen ‘round the world, and the ramifications from it aren’t over.

Will Smith apologized, a day late, for slapping Oscars presenter Chris Rock during the March 27 Academy Awards telecast.

Will Smith SLAPS Chris Rock at Oscars 2022

The Academy is meeting to determine an official punishment for Smith’s actions, although the likelihood of him losing an Oscar hovers between slim and none.

Would a body that inspired the #OscarsSoWhite campaign seven years ago swipe a statuette from a black superstar? Not likely.

What’s key to remember is the why … why did Smith erase decades of goodwill with one awful, immature act?

Smith didn’t appreciate a wisecrack Rock made about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, regarding her hair. Rock likely didn’t know she shaves her head due to alopecia, a skin condition which causes hair loss.

The “Saturday Night Live” alum looked into the crowd, saw the bald actress, and connected her dome to that of Demi Moore in the 1997 film “G.I. Jane.”

GI Jane Official Trailer | LionsgatePlay

The irony?

Moore’s clean-shaven look was seen as a symbol of strength at the time. Variety said the film packed “feminist underpinnings.” Moore reportedly called the role her proudest professional achievement.

Pinkett Smith didn’t see it that way, and the look she gave her husband sparked his actions.

We all know what happened next.

RELATED: A Sudden, Shocking Burst of Violence Interrupts Woke Oscars

Several comedians recoiled at the slap, understanding what it means to their profession. What if a front-row club attendee took a stand-up’s ribbing the wrong way? Would he or she confront the comic mid-show?

It’s a horrible precedent, something Kathy Griffin and others acknowledged.

Griffin is correct, but that’s not all.

Even if something like The SlapTM never happens again, it will remain in the back of every comic’s mind. And, as a result, how many will censor themselves rather than go for an edgy joke?

The trouble doesn’t end there.

Some Oscar viewers blasted Amy Schumer for insulting Oscar nominee Kirsten Dunst during the telecast. The bit, and it was a bit, found the comic host mistaking Dunst for a seat filler. The “Power of the Dog” star’s husband, Jesse Plemons, joined in by feigning disgust at Schumer’s insult.

Comedically speaking, it’s hardly memorable. Plus, we’ve been watching Dunst on the big screen for roughly two decades. Mistaking her for an anonymous seat filler is, well, a stretch.

Still, some raced to Twitter to share their outrage.

That’s a non-story, especially compared to SlapGate, but it’s a cultural marker that can’t be ignored.

To paraphrase a 2015 documentary, “Can We Take a Joke?” The answer, increasingly, is “no.”

The Pinkett Smith barb also sparked several op-eds further discouraging comic impulses. Forbes.com wondered why black women are so often the target of comic insults, an absurd premise but part of the growing woke sentiment in comedy circles.

None of this went down in a vacuum.

We already endured three Oscar ceremonies without a host because the vetting needed to hire a comedian proved too burdensome. Regina Hall’s selection as one of three co-hosts this year seemed odd because it was odd. She’s a sharp comic actress when given the right material, but there’s little on her resume that screams, “Oscar Host!”

The same is true for Sykes and Schumer, Sunday’s co-hosts whose careers peaked several years ago.

Imagine the comedians who respectfully declined the gig or, more importantly, who the Oscars feared would do too good a job.

Comedians were under fire before the first Oscar got handed out Sunday.

Comedians like Joe Rogan and Dave Chappelle have endured vicious Cancel Culture attacks for their material. These aren’t ham-and-eggers who work the local Yuk Yuk club. They’re the biggest podcaster and stand-up in the country, respectively.

If they’re worried about the next joke they tell, or what information they share, what do their less successful peers think when they’re writing their material?

There’s even worse news.

A new poll suggests many Americans sided with Smith, not Rock, over the slapping incident. That means they approved of physically assault a comedian who told a mild barb. 

It doesn’t matter what punishment, if any, Smith receives moving forward. Stand-up comics will have an even harder time thriving in that environment.

The Oscar slap, and the public’s reaction to it, made the problem is even worse.

UPDATE: Bill Maher weighed in on the matter with this sobering thought.

“I could make a case that we’ve all be under a lot of pressure and a lot of emotion — and I understand a lot of emotion running through him, but that was just out of line and it re-enforced the idea that jokes are the enemy.”

More real-world consequences from Comedy, Inc.

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