A joke and a slap

Stand-up comedians speak their minds about the controversial slap incident at the 94th Academy Awards
Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscar awards ceremony
Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscar awards ceremony

This year's Oscars is not being spoken about for Jane Campion becoming the third woman filmmaker to win an Oscar, nor is it being remembered for an unlikely film, CODA, featuring a predominantly deaf cast, turning out to be the first streaming film to win the top award. Instead, all the memes, the commentary, and criticism are about what's being dubbed as slap-gate, the incident concerning Will Smith reacting violently to stand-up comedian Chris Rock's joke attempt on Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. The unconditional apology from Will Smith notwithstanding, social media is rife with opinions on how far a joke can go, on whether Smith's crude response is worthy of any sympathy.

For those living under a rock, pun unintended, comedian Chris Rock joked, “Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see you", in an obvious dig at Jada’s shaved head that Will Smith didn't take well to, given Jada's struggles with the medical condition, alopecia.

“I keep getting messages about how comedians shouldn’t cross the line. The line is constantly being negotiated. To me, the only line one shouldn’t cross is the personal boundary. So, if a person on the road abuses my father, do I have society's permission to kill that man?” asks actor-standup comic Karthik Kumar.

The Yaaradi Nee Mohini actor also questions why only comics are subjected to this debate time and again. “This debate doesn’t seem to occur about filmmakers or artists or musicians or even politicians. I don’t know if that makes us privileged or idiotic. You see, many of us got introduced to Will Smith through the sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We all enjoyed the irreverent comedy of the show. If everyone who is upset with the show resorts to slapping, Smith wouldn’t have been able to get the Oscar. The worst part of the whole incident is the hypocrisy of Will. He is an artist himself after all. Can he vouch that he hasn’t cracked such a joke ever?”

On the other hand, Jagan Krishnan believes that sympathy should be extended to both parties in the incident. “It is something that happened at the Oscars and I look at this as an isolated incident. Personally, I think one has to extend the same empathy to Smith as well. You will never know what kind of mental space Smith was in to do what he did. I don't think it would set a bad precedent and I don't believe this will inspire others to act in the same way towards comics. I think it is a one-off incident.”

About comedians and being asked to draw lines, he says, “There are two lines. One is what a comic has for himself and the other is what is laid down by society. Like it or not, a standup comedian should be aware of both the lines and act accordingly.”

Sharing his thoughts on the act, Hriday Ranjan says, "In the case of Chris Rock, it was a harmless joke. He compared Jada Pinkett-Smith to Demi Moore, who is a tough army officer in GI Jane. It is ridiculous, especially considering that Smith himself has cracked jokes of this nature, even on people with Alopecia back in the day. Moreover, it wasn't even that offensive in nature. Smith represents the same kind of people, who, in India, demand restrictions on stand-up comedy; it's the same kind of people who condone such acts. Smith isn't a random person who walked into a show and slapped the comic for angering him; he's at the Oscars and has been a part of the entertainment industry for over three decades. He also knows that the Oscars are hosted by a comic who roasts people sitting in the front row."

Speaking about the idea of imposing restrictions on the topics addressed by comics, Hriday adds, "In a larger context, I don't think there should be a cap on what subjects should be discussed and what shouldn't be. At the end of the day, even if it's the most offensive, silly, bad joke... it's just a joke. It doesn't hurt anyone physically. People telling these jokes are aiming only for laughs; it's not The Kashmir Files, where the intent is clearly something else."

Popular stand-up comic Aravind (SA) agreed that all jokes have a line. However, he points out the arbitrary nature of that boundary. “There’s no joke that’s made without a line. Some feel Chris Rock crossed a line with a joke. So, that is where they draw their line. That line is subjective. This only means every joke is up for debate. If the slap hadn’t happened, the joke would have been called out and we could have even conducted a Neeya Naana, debating who is on whose side. If you are offended by a joke, sure, no one is forcing you to laugh at it. I think the only point of debate around this incident should be whether or not the glorification of Will’s act in the name of defending his family is valid. I think It’s a slippery slope to defend the violence citing any reason...”

When asked if Jada’s honour can be used as a justification for Will’s action, stand-up comedian Syama Hairini CH, the runner-up of Comicstaan Tamil, says, “It's a tricky question because if he had kept quiet, then people would have blamed him for not standing up. Now, they are terming it as 'taking away her agency'. So, it's a very delicate space I feel. At the end of the day, as the adage goes, ‘your freedom ends where my nose begins'. I think there is a thin line that should never be crossed. I mean, after all, comedy is meant to make people happy not sad.”

Vishnu Pai, however, has a different take on the incident, "I feel it's a publicity stunt. I don't know why people are taking it so seriously. It could be scripted. It's such a big venue. As per my logic, Chris Rock is coming with his special and a controversy can turn everything into a special. He is coming out with a 1-hour special. It gives out the message that anyone can walk up and beat up a comedian who is saying what he wants to say. In India, there is no reason. If he is telling the truth and if you can't take it that's your problem.

He adds, "A comedian has no boundaries, they say, but you can do it in a subtler way. The GI Jane thing is not that insulting. I mean, people have said far worse and personally insulting stuff before and no one said anything. So why beat Chris for saying something smaller in comparison? He could've voiced his concern from where he is sitting. There are so many comedians out there trying to make their stuff work and we should be worried about the Oscars?"

“I am aware of the whole argument that ‘Will Smith did that because of his toxic masculinity and stuff.’ I don't agree with this. It is very natural for anyone to react to such an incident. Had Will Smith just talked back at Chris Rock, it would have been more like a heckler vs a comedian, and the majority would have sided with Chris Rock because holding a mic is a sign of power,” says Gurumurthy, a stand-up comedian.

He adds, “On any day, I would fight for the freedom of expression of an artist or any person in general, but the artist/person should also know that they are responsible and accountable for what they say. The bodies of Chris Rock and Jada are their personal space. Chris launched an attack on Jada's personal space verbally, while Will did that to Chris physically. It's a tale of two wrongs.”

Actor and comedian Mayakrishnan stands against violence of any type. “All violence is wrong. Chris’ joke was insensitive and yes, it was arrogant and irresponsible of him to joke about her health condition. There are alternatives that are more constructive than violence though. I am glad Will Smith apologised to Chris and I hope Chris does too. Having said that, I like how the violence was called out by the people unanimously. I feel somewhere that people chose humanity and kindness over violence even on social media. It's time to move on and not show hatred towards Will or Chris for whatever happened. It is over and it has been called out and apologies were made.”

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