I think it’s safe to say we’ve all seen–or at least heard of–Will Smith and Chris Rock’s encounter at the Oscars. I’m not here to talk about this encounter or pick a side. Instead, I want to focus on something bigger than the slap itself. After weeks of hearing everyone talking about the slap, I began to think back to what caused it; Chris Rock made an offensive joke about Jada Pinkett Smith that poked fun at her alopecia, a disorder that caused her to lose her hair. After seeing how Will Smith reacted to the joke, we know this was a very sensitive topic for Jada and can at least slightly see where Will is coming from. Comedians are known for saying things that make people uncomfortable, but the question is, where do we draw the line? Do comedians have the right to say offensive things for the sake of comedy?
Allowing comedians to make insulting jokes has been a thing for as long as comedy has existed. During the medieval and Renaissance eras, jesters were hired by noblemen or monarchs to provide entertainment, which included singing, juggling, magic tricks, and jokes. They also had the unique privilege of being able to openly mock nobles, including the king and queen. For others, mocking or defaming the king or queen usually meant execution. It’s miraculous that the seemingly outrageous act of insulting a monarch could be allowed in a certain circumstance. This uncomfortable sort of humor has always been popular; we often feel more of a thrill and excitement in comedy when things are shocking.
More recently, the concept of a “roast,” where a certain person is bombarded with insults, has become popular. One of the most popular is the Comedy Central Roast, where a group of celebrities take turns roasting each other until a winner is crowned. They’re quite entertaining if not a little cringeworthy to watch. Not only do audiences like this type of shocking humor, but it’s also beneficial for the comedian. When a comedian makes an offensive or insulting joke, people are much more likely to talk about the situation as well as the comedian. Comedy roasts can be great because they encourage us to take ourselves a bit less seriously. However, there’s always the danger of comedians crossing a line. Did Chris Rock realize his joke would hurt Jada? Even if he didn’t, is it worth risking it just for a joke? I also wonder if the audience would have ever questioned the joke if we hadn’t seen such an emotional reaction from Will Smith. Would we have forgotten about it instantly, assuming that Jada laughed it off? It’s easy to say, “It’s just a joke,” until you are the one on the other side of it.
Some think that offensive humor can break down barriers, while others just think these comedians are getting a free pass to say things that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere. Both sides may have some truth to them. I find myself somewhere in the middle. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a comedy special that hasn’t made a single controversial, dark, or insulting joke. It’s a key part of the common comedic routine, and a lot of our favorite comedians probably wouldn’t be as funny if it weren’t for this type of humor. However, since it’s quite difficult to draw a definitive line designating what is acceptable or unacceptable, allowing this type of humor will continue to hurt people and trivialize serious issues. I find this all so interesting because it seems impossible to find a solution that makes everyone happy.
I don’t expect comedy to drastically change, nor do I necessarily think it should. But I do think it’s important to hold comedians accountable for their actions. Jokes are a universal language and a great way to make light of some tough realities, but they are not inconsequential, and should not be treated as so.
Cover Photo: Financial Times