Slap And Tickle
It was not, in the pantheon of American humour, the greatest of jokes.
But, as it turned out, it was the little joke that could – remembered less for what it said, than for what it set in motion.
When Chris Rock stood on the 2022 Oscars stage and told that GI joke at the expense of the wife of best-actor-favourite Will Smith, he was acting within the bounds of the comedic contract.
Whether the joke was any good is a matter of taste, and of context.
If you’re young, you may not know that GI Jane was a 90s movie featuring a bald-and-hot Demi Moore. If you’re a middle-aged man, you may not know that Jada Pinkett Smith wears cropped hair because she suffers from alopecia. If you’re a pop-culture dipper-inner, you may not have heard the Smiths speak of their troubled marriage, punctuated by an ‘entanglement’ between Jada and a hot young rapper, August, who claimed that Mr Smith gave his explicit consent to the entangling…
The job of comedy is to make merriment, reveal truth, and puncture the powerful, all the time giving us some respite from the dark clouds of reality which swirl beyond the theatre door. Comedic style runs the gamut from caring kindness to cruel vitriol. It can be anywhere on this spectrum, but it must be funny.
Most audiences know the contract of comedy gives them power too. Laughing and cheering floats careers; booing and jeering buries them.
Will Smith had a better idea.
Discontent with the words emerging from Rock’s mouth, he took action – marching on stage during the live telecast to meet the comedian, man to man. Failing to expect the unexpected, Rock stood tall and square, awaiting his arrival quizzically. As Smith’s hand travelled through the air, Rock neither ducked nor defended, nor responded in kind. He simply stood and received it – the thin clip of hard skin on soft flesh plain to hear, and excruciating to watch.
“Will Smith just slapped the shit out of me”, he said, neatly summarising what a global audience had just witnessed.
As if to affirm the assault was no ruse, Smith returned to his seat and shouted aggressively up at Rock, twice over, as a tense silence descended onto the theatre.
“Keep my wife’s name out of your fuckin’ mouth”.
The repetition was purposeful. Smith needed the people to know they had witnessed an act of valour, not vanity.
And yet, the plot points were all too clear (and largely accepted by Smith a day later):
- The tigress was tickled, and she snarled
- As for the tiger, he snapped and then slapped
- Eighteen minutes later, in a rambling acceptance speech, Smith claimed to be a vessel for love, neatly gaslighting the audience
- It was a shameful assault, intended to dominate and humiliate
The Oscar Slap now takes a life of its own.
But it emerges from a familiar cultural landscape in which the boundary between fame and infamy is already frayed. The incident lives at the intersection of outsized over-sharing (Jada, love you, and you ain’t alone), outsized ego (Will, love you, and you ain’t alone) and outsized financial stakes (Hollywood, love you, and you ain’t alone).
Chris Rock is today reported to have had ‘no idea’ that Pinkett Smith suffered from alopecia, a state of ignorance which presumably seems preposterous to the Smiths.
And so the sequel begins. Watch how La La Land spins its magic. Although only one deserves that right, each of the three protagonists will leverage Le Slap for their own careers and their own agendas.
Meanwhile, billions will view a violent assault, in perpetuum. It will become a pub quiz question in time, I fancy. You know, that time the Prince of Hollywood couldn’t stand that his wife couldn’t stand a joke, and resolved to become a vessel to sort that shit out.