The Five Hands of “The Slap Heard around the World”

Perhaps you’ve heard?  An actor recently slapped a comedian in public and people are still talking about it.  No?  Well, it’s true—it happened at the Oscars last Sunday and some people are calling this breach of civility “The Slap Heard around the World.”  It has given rise to many serious and solemn questions about violence.

To be honest, I can see both sides of this highly non-frivolous issue: on the one hand, you don’t make light of the medical condition of another person’s spouse in front of a live TV audience of millions.  On the other hand—even though I understand Smith’s anger as a point of honor (and although he appeared to be enjoying the joke until his wife rolled her eyes)—violence is seldom the answer.

That said, and on the third hand, although I am not categorically against punching the odd bully in the nose (and as a kid had seen it work wonders for playground morale), I don’t think Chris Rock was being a bully.  He was being a cheap-shot artist.  He was being a comedian in 2022, and we pay comedians good money to push the limits so that we can all talk about how indignant we are about it afterward.  Many, perhaps most, comedians these days are cheap-shot artists in one sense or another and have been for a long time (see Gilbert Gottfried, the late Norm MacDonald, Don Rickles, and everybody else).  Rock seemed to think that it was a dumb throwaway line, “a G.I. Jane joke.”  This has given rise to endless “how could he have not known?” queries.

The problem with offensive humor is that it has to inspire the right kind of offense.  We have to be shocked—shocked!—but not especially surprised.  Profanity is among the oldest and most venerable causes of offense (“In my day, Will Rogers didn’t have to drop the F-bomb to be funny”).  Americans have also shown an impressive capacity to embrace personal meanness as well as scatology and regression in humor (see The Family Guy on all counts).  The television program Seinfeld often cited as the greatest sitcom ever, was founded on a base of petty meanness.  There are millions in it, probably billions, and there would be no mean humor if there wasn’t.

Racist and sexist humor by contrast give rise to the wrong kind of offense (e.g. Michael Richards’ 2006 bigoted standup meltdown in response to hecklers), although a few can still get away with it.  In today’s entertainment world, you have to push the limits, and any comedian with his or her salt will at one point or another take a risk that crosses a line (thus the insipid rite of passage tradition of The Aristocrats—an ever-evolving routine whose outline allows up-and-coming comedians to intentionally push past the limits of what is currently acceptable by inserting new and even more {yawn} offensive taboos).  Apparently, Chris Rock crossed the line, at least in one man’s eyes.

In another way, however (on the fourth hand), the Great Smack might actually be seen as denoting a kind of progress.  For although this sort of public effrontery might have sparked a fistfight 70 or 80 years ago, 200 years ago, it would have likely resulted in an “affair of honor” leading to the dueling ground and possibly even a hit Broadway show (see Hamilton).  In 1806, Andrew Jackson shot and killed a man in a duel for insulting his wife.

As entertaining as it might sound in the abstract, the slapping of one millionaire by another is hardly the deadly high drama of Hamilton-Burr duel.  And although we were all right to predict that last week’s spectacle would figure prominently in last night’s Saturday Night Live, I suspect that Lin-Manuel Miranda is probably not working on a musical version of the event.

So what was the right answer to Rock’s breach of etiquette in the public square?  If the Smiths had had the presence of mind, they could have just gotten up and walked out.  Then, when will Smith’s name was read out for best leading man, the hall would have resounded with audible silence to punctuate the point that Rock had crossed a line too far.  It would have been the stuff of Hollywood legend—Homeric—a moment that people would have been talking about for as long as there is a Hollywood to talk about.  And Rock would have had to go home and live with it, sans Smith’s handprint on his face.

But now the airwaves and blogosphere are full of moralizing disgust and loathing at such intolerable primetime violence. The horror. The horror.  Make no mistake about it, this is a big moment—a “teaching moment”—and an opportunity to preempt the legions of people who follow the ill-considered actions of Hollywood celebrities lemming-like and who are already drawing back their open hands in rank imitation. For as Justice William O. Douglas (who likely cuffed a few rogues in his earlier days) reminds us somewhere, words are different from actions and must be treated differently.

Of course, there is a chance that some good might come out of this tragic episode. Only about 15.4 million people watched the Oscars this year and it seems likely that more people will watch next year because of the events of last Sunday. One can even imagine that Smith’s wife will own this thing and run with it.  What are the odds that there will be a G.I. Jane II movie?  What a coup it would be if it starred Jada Pinkett Smith, complete with an amusing cameo appearance by Chris Rock (perhaps she could slap him on screen, or something—that would be funny).

Okay, enough. Sure, Smith was wrong to hit Chris Rock. No question about it.

On the fifth hand, however, violence and suffering are already endemic in the world; 45,222 Americans died from gun violence in 2020, and about 15,000 children will die in the world today of mostly curable or preventable causes (a similar number died on the day of the slap and a like number will die tomorrow).  The planet is overheating by the day, thousands of species are being driven into extinction by human activity, the world’s reefs are dying, a killer pandemic that has already killed around one million Americans is still abroad in the world, there are currently more than 82.4 million refugees worldwide, and the U.S. and Russia both have something like 5,000-6,000 ICBMs pointed at each other on a first-launch basis as a major war rages in Eastern Europe with no end in sight.

What was the question again? Something about an actor slapping a comedian?

Michael F. Duggan blogs at