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There is a very important disclaimer that appears at the beginning of David Letterman’s new interview with Will Smith on season four of his Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction: “This episode was filmed prior to the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony.”
Netflix and Letterman are telling viewers that there will be no explicit questions or answers about Smith infamously slapping comedian Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, at the Oscars earlier this year. As of the new season’s release on Netflix, Smith has still not spoken publicly about the incident that has upended his life and career, with multiple upcoming projects shelved for the time being.
And yet, throughout the nearly hour-long conversation, there are moments that come off very differently than they would have if Smith’s fun-loving persona was still intact.
Early in the interview, Letterman described the experience of having Smith on his old Late Show as watching a “locomotive” enter the studio, “but you’re telling people that’s not exactly who you are.”
“There’s a person that you want to be and a person you want to be viewed as,” Smith explained. “And then there’s who you really are.” Echoing the first line of the self-titled memoir he put out last year, Smith said, “I’ve always thought of myself as a coward.”
The actor recounts the experience of being nine years old and watching his father beat up his mother. “And I didn’t do anything,” he said. “And that just left a traumatic impression of myself as a coward.”
Smith went on to say that when he discovered comedy, he came to realize that “negativity cannot exist inside of a human body when you’re laughing,” and he began to use comedy as a “defense mechanism.”
“Ultimately ‘Will Smith’ became a symbol of joy and fun, and when I showed up, I wanted people to be happy,” he told Letterman, “because I found that when my household was that way, I felt safe.”
Not only has Smith’s image as a “symbol of joy and fun” perhaps been irreparably damaged by his actions at the Oscars, but it’s also striking that those actions were a direct attack on comedy itself, the medium that he says was his way of surviving an abusive household.
Later in the episode, there are more moments that play differently in a post-slap world. At one point, Letterman makes an innocuous reference to Smith’s mother, and the actor jokingly says, “Don’t say nothing about my mother, Dave,” before pretending like he’s going to fight the 75-year-old host right there on the stage.
In another scene, Smith shares lessons from his training to play Muhammad Ali by demonstrating how you know when someone is about to punch you. “Show me that, but don’t hit me,” Letterman jokes.
When someone drops their right foot back, that’s “how you know he’s preparing to sneak the shot,” Smith explains. Smith then throws a fake punch at Letterman, who replies, “Oh Jesus! That was frightening. Don’t do that again.”
By the end of the interview, Smith is telling the host, “Life is so exciting to me right now because I can reach people differently than I’ve ever been able to reach people, largely because of my pain. I’m really ready to dive into my art in a way that I think will be hopefully fulfilling for me and helpful for the human family.”
Now, the only question is whether Hollywood will give him the chance to move forward.