Comedians think the incident could result in more violence onstage — but some comparisons went a little too far.
Of all the things that have happened to shake up the Oscars in its almost 100-year history, Will Smith getting out of his seat to walk on stage and slap Chris Rock — and then scream “keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth” twice once seated again — is the most shocking. Rock, while presenting, made a pretty weak joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, being in a sequel of G.I. Jane because of her shaved head. Pinkett Smith has admitted that she has been diagnosed with alopecia, so the joke was especially insensitive considering that fact. Others have pointed out that Chris Rock made an entire documentary on the complicated history and forced societal implications on Black women’s hair, so to mock a Black woman’s hair was an odd target. But regardless of the politics of the joke, people are still most aghast at Smith resorting to violence — especially comedians who thought that the sucker punch could signal others to start assaulting comics on stage.
Kathy Griffin tweeted, “Let me tell you something, it’s a very bad practice to walk up on stage and physically assault a Comedian. Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters.” Mark Hamill added, “Stand-up comics are very adept at handling hecklers. Violent physical assault...not so much,” adding the hashtag #UgliestOscarMomentEver. Conan O’Brien made light of the moment tweeting, “Just saw the Will Smith slap. Anyone have a late night show I can borrow just for tomorrow?” Billy Eichner jokingly tweeted, “This year, I will bring violence to the GLAADs.”
Others pointed to the grimmer side of the matter. In a now-deleted tweet, Judd Apatow ranted, “He could have killed him. That’s pure out of control rage and violence. They’ve heard a million jokes about them in the last three decades. They are not freshmen in the world of Hollywood and comedy. He lost his mind.” Apatow deleted the tweet when it was pointed out that white people don’t need to be policing the situation. One cultural commentator on Twitter remarked, “wh^te people pretending they are the human embodiment of civility, composure, and non-violence, will never not be hilarious to me. what a truly delusional people. just an amazing constant lack of self-awareness.”
Nikki Glaser made the distinction that Hollywood has a long history of excusing terrible behavior, but made a faulty comparison in the process. In a since-deleted tweet, she retweeted a comment that remarked, “Insane that Will Smith can assault someone at an awards show and just sit back down in the front row and win an award and everyone is laughing and applauding him like Hollywood is honestly so fucked.” She then added her own comment: “How did Weinstein get away with that for so long??” In another tweet, the comic wrote, “Tonight’s Oscars proved that Hollywood is alive and well, still doing what it does best: protecting and celebrating disgusting behavior!” She also retweeted Judy Gold who commented, “It’s called a joke.”
Jim Gaffigan was also vocal, even making a comparison to former President Donald Trump, saying, “I’m still disgusted. We don’t deserve the brilliance of Chris Rock. ‘When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.’ —Donald Trump and Will Smith.” The comedian got pushback for the conflation though and ultimately deleted the tweet. He continued, “Okay bad comparison on my part. I was trying to make a point but it doesn't matter. FYI, i didn't think the joke was brilliant. I said Chris Rock is brilliant. I still do and we don't deserve his brilliance. Please continue to defend physical assault. It says so much,” while retweeting the sentiment from another user, “The other disgraceful performance last night came from the attendees in the theater who normalized Will Smith’s outrageous behavior.”
Not long after the whole incident, Smith went on to win his first Academy Award of Best Actor, for his role in King Richard. In a rambling, tear-filled speech he apologized in a way, but didn’t reference Chris Rock by name. He mentioned that art imitates life, alluding to the volatile nature of Richard Williams whom he portrayed in the film, and also made cryptic references to God and protecting his family. The whole thing will go down as one of the most bizarre incidents in award season lore.