Nerd Factor: The Sound of One Hand Slapping


Dr. Mike ~ UL Communications Studies Professor

Comedy is dangerous. 

I tell that to my classes whenever the topic comes up. Comedy is, hands down, the most dangerous genre there is, even more than horror. Comedy is dangerous for the comedian and comedy is dangerous for the audience. 

Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony offered the perfect example of this when Will Smith struck Chris Rock on stage after Rock made a joke about Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. 

Both men made terrible mistakes. In doing so, both men may have harmed their careers. Time will tell. 

However, they certainly harmed comedy. 

Smith failed when he resorted to violence. The temptation here is to see Smith’s actions as a defense of his wife’s honor. However, someone as immensely talented in wordcraft and comedy as Will Smith had many other options available to him. The simple fact of the matter is that Smith could have killed or seriously injured Rock. Go back and look at the side view of the picture. This was a powerful strike. Any violent blow to the head has the possibility of serious short- and long-term health repercussions, something Smith should have known since he actually starred in a movie called, of all things, Concussion

Rock also failed. He made a terrible error in his comedic craft. Comedy should be used to target upwards at the powerful, or maybe laterally amongst like-minded people. Comedy should never be used to strike downwards because then it becomes bullying or cruelty. When Rock made a joke about Pinkett Smith’s short hair, he lost track of this fundamental axiom. Having recently revealed that she suffers from alopecia, Pinkett Smith shifted from a lateral position of fellow celebrity down to a victim of a condition she cannot control. Simply put, Rock should not have gone there. 

How does this affect comedy though? When Rock deployed it so poorly and Smith reacted so badly, they diminished the effectiveness of comedy. 

Comedy is one of the most powerful tools we have in our society. It is a great equalizer. Through comedy, people criticize the powerful. Comments that would cause one to disappear in an authoritarian regime can instead make someone famous here. We need comedy to hold the powerful in check. 

While Smith and Rock are not the most powerful people in the world, they are major celebrities. People see what happens to them. The next time a comedian takes on a legitimate target, will that comedian’s effectiveness be diminished because somehow the target perceived his or her honor as being harmed? Will the target feel justified in striking back?

I am not suggesting for a minute that what happened on stage Sunday night is the first step in a short road to authoritarianism or fascism. Instead, what I am saying is that through their errors, Chris Rock and Will Smith made it harder to be funny. 

And the world being the kind of place it is these days; we don’t need to lose our full abilities to use comedy. 

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