Commentary: Do comics have to worry about punches now after delivering punchlines? | Opinion

About a decade ago, a drunken heckler who was verbally abusive from the start of Bob Saget’s set stood up and walked toward the stage. Fortunately, the disruptive member of the audience was immediately corralled by security and ejected from the suburban Philadelphia venue.

“That was really scary,” Saget told me after the show. “The guy seemed to just want to be the center of attention at first, and then he got mad, and who knew what he was going to do? He looked like he was going to attack me for making some jokes.”

The late comic escaped unscathed, but the same can’t be said for Chris Rock. After cracking a joke about Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, the soon-after Oscar-winning actor slapped Rock across the face in front of the film industry and an international audience.

Smith followed by screaming an obscene demand to Rock to not mention his wife’s name. Smith resigned Friday from the motion picture academy and said he would accept any further punishment the organization imposed.

Smith’s action was disturbing on many levels. One of the most significant issues is the ability for comics to be able to deliver jokes — in other words, to do their job — without fear of verbal and/or physical attack.

Will a comic think twice now about joking about a woman’s appearance since her significant other might jump onstage and punch him out? If only Saget or the late George Carlin were around to witness the black eye Smith gave the Academy Awards show. The irreverent atheist would have been angry since he believed that the stage was sacrosanct, and if folks weren’t into a comic, they should leave.

“When I’m performing, it’s about me,” Carlin said. “Don’t bother me.” After spending considerable time during many interviews with Carlin, I can only imagine what the brilliant humorist would have said if he witnessed “The Slap.” “Would Will Smith have had the audacity to strike the host of the Oscars if it were the Rock as opposed to Chris Rock” is something Carlin might have said.

A number of local comic voices declined to comment on the Oscar debacle. “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole” and “Who cares what I think?” were some of the responses.

So, I decided to go to Rock, albeit from an interview I did with the iconic entertainer for the Seattle Times in 2008. At the time, Rock was named by Comedy Central as the fifth greatest comic of all time behind Richard Pryor, the aforementioned Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.

I told Rock that much of what emanates from his mouth is funny, and I asked about his approach. “It’s a mild form of Tourette’s,” Rock said. “I remember about a year and a half ago, I went to a Mets game. I was talking to (then Mets manager) Willie Randolph. The lineup is being made. I look at the lineup. I see Moises Alou and Shawn Green, I say, ‘What is this, the ’89 All-Star game?’

I asked what Randolph said. “I laughed,” Rock said. “But it’s comedic Tourette’s. Sometimes it might be better if I keep my mouth shut.” Perhaps but perhaps not. Comics should be allowed to misfire without fear of reprisal.

Rock didn’t become a legendary comic by watching what he says. Rock takes chances and experiments. One of my favorite comedy experiences was witnessing Rock work out material at a friend’s 300-capacity club in New Brunswick, NJ

There is no one like the celebrated standup, who somehow escaped the badlands of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. To emerge from a hardscrabble neighborhood to host the Oscars is an amazing accomplishment.

Some may forget, but it’s not the first time Rock ticked off someone at the Academy Awards. In 2005, Rock joked about Jude Law being ubiquitous and a second-rate Tom Cruise. Sean Penn took a verbal shot at Rock, but that’s as far as it went.

However, that upset Burt Reynolds, who co-starred in the remake of “The Longest Yard” with Rock. Reynolds called the diminutive jester his best friend during the production. I wrote a feature on Reynolds for Stuff Magazine in June 2005 and asked him about Penn’s dig at Rock after I praised his ability to roll with the punches, so to speak.

“God bless you for saying that because it’s so true,” Reynolds said. “Chris was fabulous. Hosting the Oscars is the most thankless job in the world. I love Sean Penn, but hello?! Chris was very hurt by that.”

If Rock was upset by that, who knows how he feels about Smith’s overreaction? Will Rock ever present at or host the Oscars again? Who will accept the gig now? But the biggest question is what will happen to comedians? Comics are operating in a world in which they are already hamstrung by unrelenting political correctness.

Americans and iconoclasts such as Will Smith and Sean Penn need to lighten up. Comedians shouldn’t have to worry about a punch after delivering a punchline.

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