Will Smith and the Oscars, Cancel Culture, and Threading the Comedic Needle

by John Ellis

I don’t like Will Smith. I’m not talking about Will Smith the person; I’ve never met him. I don’t like Will Smith the persona. During interviews, he comes across as acting to me, and not very good acting, at that. To be sure, Will Smith is undeniably a good actor when playing a well-written role (or even just an okayly – I just made a new adverb up – written role, think James West). The problem with Will Smith the persona is that he doesn’t appear to know for sure what character he’s playing during interviews and public appearances. Some actors during interviews come across as very genuine and likeable. For example, during interviews Paul Rudd is interesting, empathic, and comes across as a genuinely nice dude. Denzel Washington in interviews appears kind, empathic, and interesting in a way that carries gravitas. Having never met either of them, I have no way of knowing how well their public personas match their private persons.[1] However, last night, I think we all got a glimpse of Will Smith the person, which has made him a little more likeable to me.

If you’ve yet to see the video or read about it, last night on the Academy Awards’ stage, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock across the face. After angrily striding back to his seat, he yelled at the comedian, “Keep my wife’s name out your f*****g mouth!” He yelled it twice. His actions and words were prompted by Chris Rock’s joke, “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” For those unaware, possibly the most famous scene from the 1997 movie G.I. Jane is Demi Moore shaving her head. Jada Pinkett Smith is bald. Why she’s bald is important. Jada suffers from alopecia.

Being a public figure, Jada Pinkett Smith has been very open about her struggles. She has bravely become the face of a disease that causes many women to deal with embarrassment, shame, and body image issues. No doubt, her willingness to be open and out front with her disease has comforted and encouraged many women.

While I don’t condone Will Smith’s actions, Chris Rock is the one at fault here. Unfortunately, everything I’ve read or heard so far focuses more on Smith’s outburst and less on Rock’s disgusting joke at Jada’s expense. In the worst takes I’ve read, the event is branded as Will Smith assaulting Chris Rock. Again, I want to make clear that I don’t condone Smith’s actions, but he wasn’t the aggressor. Rock’s words abused Jada Pinkett Smith (and, by extension – covenantally – all other women with alopecia). In fact, there are other contexts in which Will Smith’s actions could be considered justifiable and commendable. There is no context where Rock’s joke is justifiable, much less commendable.

Now, look, I get it, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s own special brand of self-important absurdities opens them up for all kinds of ridicule. And this is the point where it’s important to understand the distinction between using sharp comedy to point up societal foibles and using sharp comedy in personally insulting and hurtful ways. In fact, I believe that the distinction is so vast as to render the latter as outside of comedy. Think of it this way.

A few years ago, I fell down the YouTube rabbit hole of prank videos. Some are dumb. Some are scripted. A few are funny. And some cross the line into unjustifiable. One (in)famous video features a “prankster” who approaches people wearing expensive shoes, compliments the shoes, and then steps on the shoe. The victims are justifiably upset. One dude punches the “prankster” in the face. Even if we can agree that a punch to the face was a big overreaction, we can also agree that, under 80s-styled playground rules, the “prankster” asked for it.[2] A “prankster” in another (in)famous video samples strangers’ food. Again, one dude beats the crap out of the “prankster.” Indignant, the “prankster” keeps insisting, “It’s just a prank, man!”

No, it’s not just a prank. And those types of pranks are not funny. And neither was Chris Rock’s joke at the Oscars making fun of Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia.

On the other hand, Ricky Gervais is a comedian who performed in a similar setting as Chris Rock at the Oscars who provided an example of using sharp jokes to point up societal foibles are even societal sins (and I’m not condoning every joke Gervais told during his stints as host of the Golden Globes – in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if combing through those nights, jokes that fall on the wrong side of my taxonomy are revealed). Threading the comedic needle requires skillful nuance, and, as a general rule, Gervais is a master at it.

His skillful nuance was on full display during his monologue opening the 2020 Golden Globes when Gervais told the audience of movie stars, “You all look lovely, all dolled up. You came here in your limos. I came here in a limo tonight, and the license plate was made by Felicity Huffman.”

Oscar nominated and Golden Globe and Emmy winning actress Felicity Huffman had recently served eleven days of a two-week sentence for her role in the college entrance exam scandal. Because of this, Gervais’ joke works on many levels. For starters, the joke wouldn’t have worked as well if he had picked on Lori Loughlin. Famous and privileged in her own right, Loughlin occupies space well below the ladder of fame and privilege on display at the Golden Globes. Felicity Huffman, on the other hand, would likely have been sitting in that audience if not for her involvement in the scandal. Pointing up the ridiculous privilege of those sitting in the room, including his own, and then connecting that privilege to the belief that one’s fame and privilege affords standing above the rules that “normal” people operate under is the joke. Chris Rock’s joke did not thread that comedic needle. Nothing of value was communicated by the joke. It was merely a cruel jab at Jada Pinkett Smith.

No doubt, at this moment, if not already, editorials and think pieces are being written saying basically what I’m trying to say. And, no doubt, the anti-cancel culture crowd will mimic “pranksters” by crying, “It’s just a joke, man!”

Well, as I’ve argued, it wasn’t just a joke. It wasn’t funny; it was cruel and hurtful. And cruel and hurtful words carry consequences. They definitely carry consequences for the victim. Why shouldn’t they carry consequences for the perpetuator, too?

I don’t know if people are going to call for Chris Rock to be cancelled. I am, depending on how that word is defined. And no doubt, if any anti-cancel culture folks are reading this, they are, ironically, now lighting their torches and sharpening their pitchforks. Everybody in all times and places engages in cancel culture. Actions and words have consequences, necessarily so. And there’s an important distinction here: what do I mean when I say I’m calling for Chris Rock to be cancelled? Do I think he should be barred from performing on stage or screen? No, of course not. Do I believe that because of his words/actions at the Oscars he’s forfeited his right to perform on that type of platform for at least the foreseeable future? Yes, the punishment should fit the crime. If Jada Pinkett Smith comes out and says that the two have talked and she’s forgiven him (or even if she says she’s forgiven him without the two talking) then my voice needs to recede. That doesn’t mean that other voices in the conversation should diminish. While she’s the public face for alopecia, she doesn’t speak for everyone who has it. There are levels in discussions about consequences (cancelling), and I occupy a level that doesn’t (nor should it) carry much weight.

Why even weigh in then? Well, words have consequences, including mine. And I want my words in this article to have two main consequences: One, I hope that this article helps friends and readers think through the issue of “cancel culture” apart from the unhelpful and shrill noise coming (most often) from the FOX “News” and company side of the cultural room. Secondly, I’m sure that I have female friends who suffer from alopecia and have been made more uncomfortable today than usual because of Chris Rock’s “joke.” I want them to know that I am doing my best to empathize with them, and a part of that is using my voice to say what they may not feel comfortable saying today.  

[1] On the other hand, and shamelessly name-dropping, Sandra Bullock is mostly the same in person as what she shows you in interviews. And that “mostly” isn’t a slight. Obviously, in person the public persona is muted.  

[2] The only reason these videos go viral and make the “pranksters” lots of money is the extreme reactions of the victims. The “prankster” is counting on people getting upset. That’s what I mean by “he asked for it.” You can’t provoke reactions and then get upset when the reactions cross a line. In other words, if you’re trying to provoke normally frowned upon reactions, you don’t get to decide where the line is that those actions are supposed to stop.

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