Why Comedians Can't Keep 'The Slap' Out of Their Mouths
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In the run-up to Oscars weekend, Jimmy Kimmel, like the rest of us, was thinking a lot about The Slap. “I think it’s going to be on everybody’s mind and everybody’s going to be waiting for that moment,” this year’s Oscars host told Good Morning America in an interview that aired on Thursday.
We didn’t have to wait long. Right off the bat–and without naming names–in his opening monologue at Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony, Kimmel referenced the much meme’d moment when last year’s Best Actor nominee (and, an hour later, Best Actor winner) Will Smith rushed the stage at the Dolby Theater and slapped presenter Chris Rock in response to a joke he cracked about Smith’s wife’s bald hairstyle. “If anyone in this theater commits an act of violence at any point during the show, you will be awarded the Oscar for Best Actor and be permitted to give an 19-minute long speech,” Kimmel said. He brought up the altercation a second time before the award for Best Documentary, the category that Rock was presenting last year when Smith interrupted the proceedings: “Hopefully it goes off without a hitch. Or without Hitch,” Kimmel said, referring to the 2005 romcom starring Smith as the lovelorn pickup artist title character.
The actual Slap may have lasted just a millisecond–followed by Smith shouting “Keep my wife’s name out of your f–ing mouth!” twice from his seat–but its impact has been monumental, not just for The Academy, which enlisted a new “crisis team” this year to prevent any similar incidents and changed the color of the red carpet to beige “to evoke calm and peacefulness,” but for our culture writ large. The most shocking unscripted moment in live-television history since Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” has become a Rorschach test, with observers bringing their own lived experiences into their interpretations of what happened between these two pop cultural icons. Was The Slap an unacceptable display of toxic masculinity, as numerous op-eds called it, or was it “the gayest thing Will Smith has ever done,” as playwright Jeremy O. Harris put it? Was Rock punching down by dissing Pinkett Smith–or was it 6’2” Will Smith, who once played Muhammad Ali, the one who was quite literally punching down by hitting 5’10” Chris Rock? Was The Slap an admirable performance of old-school chivalry, a Black man defending his wife, a Black man defending all Black women, evidence of mental health issues, evidence of celebrity entitlement, a much-deserved and long-overdue consequence of insult comedy, a cry for help, a case of Method acting gone awry–or everything, everywhere all at once?
The Slap was a lot to process, which may be why our first reaction was avoidance. Amy Schumer, who co-hosted last year’s Oscars with Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes, channeled our collective shock when she emerged after the commercial break following the incident and innocently asked the crowd, “Did I miss anything?” A few days later, Jerrod Carmichael began his opening monologue as the host of Saturday Night Live with a disclaimer: “I’m not going to talk about it. To be clear up top, I’ve talked about it enough, kept talking about it, kept thinking about it–I don’t want to talk about it, and you can’t make me talk about it.” By May, Wanda Sykes was telling an Orlando comedy audience that she’s “still traumatized” by The Slap and as a result, cannot speak about what happened without getting upset.
To be sure, the people directly involved in The Slap didn’t want to talk about it either. It took Jada Pinkett Smith, the target of Rock’s joke, more than two months before she publicly addressed it on an episode of her show Red Table Talk devoted to alopecia, the skin condition that caused her hair loss. “My deepest hope is that these two intelligent, capable men have an opportunity to heal, talk this out and reconcile,” she said on the show. Her husband, who in the wake of The Slap was banned from the Oscars for 10 years, apologized to Rock in an Instagram post the day after the event, and traveled to India to meet with a spiritual guru. He didn’t actually talk about The Slap until July, when, in a video posted on his YouTube channel, he admitted he’s “spent the past three months replaying and understanding the nuances and the complexities of what happened in that moment.” Rock, for his part, largely avoided the topic for an entire year.
That is, until last weekend, when he devoted the final eight minutes of his new Netflix special, Selective Outrage, to unpacking The Slap. Despite Pinkett Smith’s hopes for reconciliation, Rock did not appear to be in the mood to mend fences. After calling his attacker “Suge Smith”–a reference to hip-hop-executive-turned-convicted-felon Suge Knight–Rock joked that ever since he was slapped, he has Smith’s 1991 hit Summertime ringing in his ears. “It still hurts,” he says.
We can tell. The bit starts out as a humorous exploration of the “punching down” theory: “Even in animation this motherfucker is bigger. I’m a zebra, he’s a shark!” he says, alluding to the 2004 film Shark Tale, in which Smith actually plays a fish. But it quickly transforms into a vindictive rant pinning the blame for the entire fiasco on Pinkett Smith. Not only did she (in Rock’s estimation) humiliate her husband by cheating on him with her son’s friend, August Alsina–an “entanglement” which dominated the tabloids back in 2020–she later rubbed salt in her husband's wounds by making him talk about it on her show. And not only that, Rock says that Pinkett Smith also dared to criticize Rock for hosting the 2016 Oscars, which she boycotted after Smith was snubbed for a Best Actor nomination for his role in the film Concussion. All this, Rock explains, is why he targeted Pinkett Smith as the butt of his joke before presenting the award for Best Documentary at last year’s Oscars. (If this all feels a little too inside baseball for you, then I’d recommend watching the special up to the one hour mark, because it has some very funny moments before it descends into this weird blend of misogyny, indignation and retribution.) They say tragedy plus time equals comedy, but in this case maybe more time was needed.
But Rock isn’t the only comedian weaving The Slap into sets lately. Far from avoiding the subject, many comedians–Black male comedians in particular–are suddenly leaning into The Slap as a rich reservoir of material. In Lil Rel Howery’s HBO special I Said It. Y’all Thinking It, which dropped in November, he recounts his own reaction to witnessing The Slap on television. Like many of us, at first Howery thought the moment had been staged, because Smith’s “smooth turn” as he whacked Rock appeared to be too elegantly choreographed to be spontaneous–until he saw Lupita Nyong’o in the audience, making what he called “them Us eyes.” Ultimately, what he found most shocking was that Rock didn’t fight back or ask for backup: “I’d be yelling at everybody! Ain’t nobody gonna do nothing?” No less of an eminence than Eddie Murphy, our greatest living comedian, weighed on on The Slap while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes in January. Addressing the young actors in the room, Murphy offered tips for success in the entertainment business: “Just do these three things,” he said. “Pay your taxes. Mind your business. And keep Will Smith’s wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!”
Kevin Hart kicked off his Reality Check tour in July in Atlantic City with a joke about the incident, arguing that it underscores how much all of us, even superstars like Smith, are losing our damn minds following more than two years of the Covid pandemic: “Will Smith didn’t plan that s–!” Later that month, Hart presented Rock with a pet goat onstage and told him that “the name [of the goat] is Will Smith,” which could actually be interpreted as a compliment (aka Greatest of All Time.) Meanwhile, Dave Chappelle, who was touring with Rock, gave his assessment of the incident to a UK audience in September: “Will did the impression of a perfect person for 30 years, and he ripped his mask off and showed us he was as ugly as the rest of us.” In the cold open to SNL last weekend, Kenan Thompson played Mike Tyson, who was introduced as the new Oscars “head of security” in a spoof of an Access Hollywood red carpet interview: “This year, all the nominees have been given tasers. All the seat fillers have been given guns and Jimmy Kimmel has been given a flame thrower,” he said.
But nobody was more inspired by The Slap than Marlon Wayans, who devoted his new HBO comedy special, God Loves Me, to dissecting it from all angles. When I first started watching, I couldn’t believe that this person, who was neither the slapper nor the slapee, had chosen this particular topic to talk about for an entire hour. Haven’t we heard enough at this point about The Slap? What more is there to say about it?
A lot, it turns out. By the end of the hour, I realized that Wayans–who can be considered “Slap-adjacent” owing to the fact that he’s been friends with all three parties involved for more than three decades–was the ideal tour guide through this incident, its ramifications and meaning, not just for him, but for all of us.
The special unfolds like a schadenfreude exorcism, going from euphoric glee to acceptance and grace. It turns out that a young Chris Rock stole Wayans’s first role in the 1988 movie I’m Gonna Git You Sucka–directed by Wayans’s own brother–and later heckled him so much that he quit stand-up comedy for 20 years. With The Slap, Rock was finally getting his comeuppance, and Wayans loved to see it: “I rewound that shit so many times, kept playing it back,” Wayans says, cackling. He then talks about his friendship with Pinkett Smith, who he met when they were both teenagers backstage on the set of the Wayans family’s sketch comedy show In Living Color, and had a huge crush on–until she introduced him to her new boyfriend, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and broke his heart. He talks about his admiration for and jealousy of Smith, who for years got all the film roles that Wayans desired, who managed to only grow in star power over the past 30 years. He explores the feelings of being a Black man experiencing The Slap–“It’s like I slapped myself on that stage,” he says–and the divergent yet similar reactions between Black and white observers of The Slap. He ends in a place of gratitude, to Rock for making him a better comedian, to Pinkett Smith for teaching him about love, and to Smith, “who upheld Black excellence for so long,” and deserves forgiveness for having his worst moment on what should have been his best day.
The Slap, in the end, taught Wayans to appreciate all the ups and downs of his own career. And there he is, back onstage doing standup at the top of his game at the age of 50. If there were ever going to be a fitting final word on The Slap, God Loves Me would have been well worth it. Perhaps now we can all move on.
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