Comedy and slaps

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A great deal of attention is temporarily focused on the dust-up at the Academy Awards between Chris Rock and Will Smith. Chris Rock cracked a joke about Smith’s wife and, taking umbrage, Smith strode unto the stage and slapped Rock hard across the face.

Folks went all atwitter and the event made the rounds in the various forms of media. I watched the video of the event and sadly shook my head that this received any attention at all. The incident has been called “the slap heard around America.”

First, I think that there are very few funny people — that is, true comedians —around these days. A good many “comedians” I have heard or seen come across as angry, neurotic people who lash out at people and call it comedy. They can excuse their boorish and childish tantrums as “comedy,” while reviling people they detest. Personally, I don’t care for those who make a career of belittling others.

I was never a fan, for example, of Don Rickles. Loads of people loved his brand of comedy, of course, but I always found it in poor taste. For the most part, I hold the same opinion about Phyllis Diller. There were moments when both were funny, but I rarely watched them. I don’t understand people who take pleasure in other people’s embarrassment, humiliation, or pain.

I stopped watching shows on television that broadcast videos that advertise that they are funny but many times and videos of people who were attempting to do something and got hurt. For some reason, Americans get their funny bone tickled when some poor slob has something hit, kick, or smash him in the crotch.

And it’s a staple on these programs. Golfer gets hit in the unmentionable place with a golf ball. Skateboarder slips going down a handrail and slams his nether region into a metal handrail. It wouldn’t be funny if it happened to us.

What is it about us that delights in laughing at the misfortune of others? It’s not that I’m against humor … there is a good deal to laugh about. Even the Bible says that “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” When someone asks me about grandchildren, my usual response is, “Grandchildren are God’s reward to you for not killing your own kids when they were teenagers.” Most grandparents laugh because it’s close to the truth! Good humor draws us in because it’s so often based on a truth.

But “fat jokes,” for example, make overweight folks uncomfortable. So do jokes about one’s race, or one’s handicaps, or one’s medical condition. Unless, that is, the jokes are told by someone in their shoes. Otherwise, it just comes across as mean-spirited, demeaning, and insensitive.

The lady comic holding what was supposed to be the dismembered head of Donald Trump wasn’t funny. On the other hand, Trump’s ridiculing a disabled person wasn’t funny either. Real comedy reflects the amusing aspects of real life. It doesn’t have to rely on attacks, vulgarity, profanity, or the demeaning of other people.

On the other hand, people shouldn’t be so willing to take offense either. I was the subject of what was to be a “friendly roast” over two decades ago. I knew what it was all about and gave my assent to it. I shouldn’t get upset if I willingly put myself in a place where I know I’m going to be insulted, supposedly in good fun. Admittedly, a couple of the people who “roasted” me took advantage of the situation to let some hostility toward me out in public. But I smiled and laughed along with everyone else. It didn’t even occur to me that slapping someone was an option.

What Will Smith did, slapping Rock, was a crime. He approached a person who was no physical threat to him, a person smaller than him, and, without warning, slapped his face in front of a large crowd and a viewing audience of millions.

In Georgia, to threaten someone’s safety by words or actions is “assault,” To slap someone, as did Smith, is “simple battery.” Will Smith could face up to a year in jail for what he did on camera, if it had happened in Georgia.

“But he was defending his wife!” some might cry. Hogwash. His wife was never in danger. At the worst, she was offended. No one has a constitutional right to never get offended.

After the incident, both men apologized, more or less, and took responsibility for their actions. That’s good. Often people hold on to grudges and blame the other party for some action or offense for years. Hopefully, this breach will heal.

If one has a problem with this kind of “comedy,” one has the option to not be there or to leave the event. I like Eddie Murphy. Loved him on “Saturday Night Live,” in the “Beverly Hills Cop” series and “Coming to America,” and other movies as well.

When the movie of his standup comedy, “Raw,” was released, my wife and I bought tickets and went to see the film. But the film was vulgar and filled with profanity. Worse, we just didn’t find it funny. We left before the movie was even a quarter finished. We didn’t loudly protest while the movie was on, throw popcorn on the floor, or slap the manager of the theater. We just left.

Was Chris Rock out of line? Should Will Smith be punished for his actions? I really don’t care. The problem for these entertainers is that both men have come to the attention of the public for the wrong reasons. Some say that “All publicity is good publicity.” I disagree. Many will find Rock’s joke about Smith’s wife as highly inappropriate while others, who have admired Smith for his TV and movie accomplishments, will now have a different opinion of the man himself.

If this incident had occurred in a junior high school setting, we might describe it as a “smart aleck kid getting slapped by a bully in the playground.” Both would have wound up in the principal’s office. The incident is over, both have apologized, so let’s move on. And as the principal might say, “I don’t want to see you two again in my office. Now go behave.”

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the pandemic, the church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]