Team Chris or Team Will?
In the belly of a packed Hollywood Improv on a rainy Monday evening, the day after the now-infamous slap at the Oscars, this was the line drawn in the comedy sand.
The sold-out crowd for the weekly residency, MonDeRays — typically hosted by comedian-actor DeRay Davis — was bubbling over with anticipation to hear jokes about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on live TV at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony for making a crack about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head (a result of her suffering from alopecia).
In the same way that comedy shows can be cathartic for audiences, Monday night’s show was likely the same for comedians — who feel their profession has taken a major slap to the face alongside one of their biggest heroes. One who, until Sunday night, was considered untouchable.
Hosting the show in Davis’ absence this week, Black comedian Lewis Belt started off by addressing the elephant in the room.
“Before I start the show, there’s just something on my heart… the comedy community just took an L [loss],” he said. “Chris Rock got his ass from him whooped. No, I’ve got slapped. That’s worse than getting your ass whooped. And to get slapped by Will Smith too. At least a comedian coulda got slapped by Denzel [Washington] or something.”
Throughout the night, the lineup of stand-ups, culminating with special guests Michael Blackson and rap-mogul-turned-comic TI, didn’t do much standing up for Rock. Most of the jokes were about his lack of return fire from him.
“I realized I’m not a comedian,” TI said after his 10-week stint in comedy. “I’m a superstar … comedians obviously get the s— slapped outta them.
“Did y’all hear Chris Rock tell us exactly what happened — ‘Oh, wow. Will Smith just slapped the s— outta me.’ We were right here. We understand exactly what the f— went on… don’t understand why you didn’t do anything, but…”
Rock and Smith’s movie role match-ups were also fodder for the comics.
“People asking why Chris Rock didn’t fight back,” Blackson said. “Did you see ‘Ali’? Or Mike Lowery in ‘Bad Boys’? ‘Hancock’? ‘Independence Day’? everymovie [Smith] plays a tough hero. Chris Rock had MC Gusto, Pookie and Pootie Tang.”
However, when asked whom they supported, those in the crowd were audibly split.
“Do y’all think he was right or wrong?” Belt asked early in the show. There were plenty of cheers for both answers.
A man sitting with his wife in the front row yelled, “That was some ho s—” in reference to Smith’s actions. Another person in the back shouted, “Defend your wife.”
In the last 48 hours, the Smith slap has become the catalyst for debate about the ability of comedians to say what they want onstage versus an audience member’s right to respond however he or she wants to. Jokes aside, many comics around LA say that Smith’s action sets a dangerous precedent.
“I’m actually very scared after what happened,” said comedian Jiaoying Summers, owner of the Hollywood Comedy and Pasadena Comedy clubs. “When Chris got punched in the face and Will Smith went back to his seat, nobody took him out, nothing happened. I think this is creating a very dangerous environment for comedians… Last night, I told my plastic surgeon he’s on my speed dial because maybe tomorrow night I’m getting punched. You better come and fix my nose fast.”
Outside the Hollywood Laugh Factory on Monday night, the club’s sign read: “Laugh Factory supports First Amendment Right for all comedians. The comedy community loves and supports you Chris.”
For some, Smith’s actions toward Rock, no matter how scathing or mild the joke, were the reactions of a bully who saw an easy target at the moment.
“If a bigger comedian were to do that, like Terry Crews, I don’t think Will would’ve done that,” said comedian Jack Jr. “I think Chris Rock handled it like a professional, but also he’s a little guy, he’s old, he was bullied his whole life.”
Smith apologized to the motion picture academy and condemned his actions. But questions about the way the situation was handled by Smith and Rock calls for deeper context and understanding of the history Smith and Rock had before Sunday’s incident.
Looking back at the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony, when Pinkett Smith was boycotting the show, championing the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, Rock — who was hosting that year — focused his monologue on the Smiths. “He said their names over and over again,” said comedian and actor Nate Jackson (no relation to the writer of this story). “It was full of jokes that are actually much more scathing, in my opinion. Something may have happened from that…. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a contingency for Will and Jada, saying, ‘We’ll be there. We want to sit in the front, and no jokes about us.’ For a comedian like Rock, who’s been unapologetic his whole career, it’s worth noting that he did buckle a bit after likening Pinkett Smith to [the title character in the 1997 film] ‘G.I. Jane.’
“After he said the joke, he goes, ‘Oh, that was a little one,’” Jackson said. “To me, it felt like there was more to it than just that joke. What’s the context? What are we missing?
Comedy veteran George Wallace, who is close friends with both Smith and Rock, described the moment as “embarrassing.”
“It destroyed so many moments of history being made, even for himself. [Smith’s] never received an Oscar before, and he ruined Questlove’s moment,” Wallace said of Amir “Questlove” Thompson, whose film, “Summer of Soul,” was announced by Rock as winner of the feature documentary award shortly after the slap. ”These were just some really big moments — and then along came Will… I love Will Smith. I’ve loved him all my life, and he’s a good friend of mine, but not today. I would’ve pressed charges, I would’ve seen a black robe in my future when I sued him and then visited him in jail to say, ‘Thank you,’ but you know I’m stupid right?”
On Monday, Smith apologized to Rock as well as the academy and the producers of the awards show for his actions.
“Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally,” he wrote. “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”
Though an apology has yet to come from Rock’s camp, comedian Aidan Park says Rock shouldn’t be under pressure to apologize for his joke.
“He should apologize if he feels like apologizing, if he feels like sticking by his word, he should stick by his word, but he shouldn’t have been publicly humiliated like he was. [Sunday] night,” Park said.
Regardless of the backstory, for better or worse, it was a major moment for both culture and comedy. “What happened was a moment that is historic and is going to be in so many comedians’ material,” Jackson said.
Of course, not just other comedians’ material.
Rock, who is launching his sold-out tour with Kevin Hart on Thursday in Boston, is certain to bring a whole new swath of material, not to mention even more ticket sales for shows not already sold out. Thanks to Smith.
“Will just slapped all those tickets out of the box office,” Jackson said, also noting that the incident, while humiliating, is also a major moment in the comedy legend’s career as he plans his third act.
“Old Chris Rock was untouchable. New Chris Rock is obviously touchable. Will Smith was able to slap him,” Jackson said. “But what he does with this moment is huge — it’s defining.”
Freelancer Ali Lerman contributed to this report.