Will Smith’s Oscars Slap of Chris Rock Prompts One-Liners and Worry From Comedians

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Stand-ups including George Wallace and Kathy Griffin say it could encourage future confrontations, while others dig into the incident as a source for more jokes

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Despite his concern, Mr. Wallace had jokes.

On stage, “I’m 6′ 4″, 290 pounds, with a mic stand. If you feel comfortable going home with a black eye and a black ass, come on up,” he said.

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As cultural attitudes shift around them, comedians have been re-evaluating where the lines are. Some are plowing forward with business and jokes as usual, while others say they’re policing their material for jokes that could offend audiences. Usually they worry about online backlash and a hit to their bottom line. Mr. Smith’s storming of the Oscars stage demonstrated what it’s like to be physically attacked over a joke.

“Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters,” comedian Kathy Griffin wrote in a Twitter post.

The joke that set Mr. Smith off on Sunday night was aimed at his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith and her close-cropped haircut. Mr. Rock made a crack about a “GI Jane” sequel, referring to a 25-year-old movie starring Demi Moore, who shaved her head for the role. Ms. Pinkett Smith has alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss, she has said. Mr. Smith mounted the stage, slapped Mr. Rock, then returned to his seat, where he cursed at the comedian.

A stunned Mr. Rock struggled to keep his poise. “Wow, dude. It was a ‘GI Jane’ joke,” he said.

On Monday, Mr. Smith issued an apology to Mr. Rock and others in a written statement on Instagram, saying, “I was out of line and I was wrong.”

Mr. Rock’s barb stood in contrast to the relatively benign humor in the rest of the telecast and from its three hosts, Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes. Ms. Schumer, an actress and stand-up comedian, took some direct shots at celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, but most of her jokes were at her own expense or the films in contention.

Of the Oscar-nominated satire “Don’t Look Up,” she said, “I guess the Academy members don’t look up reviews.”

The ceremony on Sunday was the first time there had been a host in four years. The last time Mr. Rock hosted the Oscars, in 2016, he made fun of Ms. Pinkett Smith’s refusal to attend amid the #OscarsSoWhite backlash. The upshot of the joke: You can’t boycott something you’re not invited to. Mr. Rock followed that up with a riff on one of Mr. Smith’s biggest flops, “Wild Wild West.”

In joking about a Black woman’s hair, Mr. Rock was hitting on a topic that he is familiar with. He co-produced and starred in a documentary released in 2009 titled “Good Hair,” in which he explored cultural significance and stereotypes related to Black women’s hair.

Some comedians raced to weigh in as the shock waves spread. Conan O’Brien, who ended his TV series last year, wrote on Twitter, “Just saw the Will Smith slap. Anyone have a late night show I can borrow just for tomorrow?”

Other comedians have expressed disgust.

Howard Stern, on his SiriusXM radio show Monday morning, railed at Mr. Smith, along with the Academy and the assembled celebrities, some of whom reacted to Mr. Smith’s tearful five-minute acceptance speech for best actor with a standing ovation.

“Here’s Hollywood that’s so outraged by every little thing. Not one person got up and said, ‘Hold on, we’ve got an out-of-control situation.’ How this guy was allowed to sit there for the rest of the awards…he just assaulted Chris Rock.”

Mr. Rock’s bit wasn’t something worth fighting over, Mr. Stern said: “It was not even a good joke. The joke, quite frankly, was beneath Chris Rock.”

Similar recent comedy standoffs have largely played out online. Comedians DL Hughley and Trevor Noah both recently took fire on social media from Kanye West after they made public critiques of the rapper’s online behavior toward ex-wife Kim Kardashian.

Mr. Noah is scheduled to host the Grammy Awards this weekend. Mr. Hughley reacted to the incident between Messrs. Rock and Smith with, “And I thought me and Kanye had beef!”

Mr. Wallace said the altercation at the Oscars was an extreme example of the behavior comedians are seeing in clubs.

“You don’t know what’s going to offend somebody. People in the audience feel free to speak out now, they feel bold now.”

He added that Mr. Smith could have settled the issue with Mr. Rock with a backstage discussion instead of a blow that capsized the whole show. “I love me some Will Smith, but not today,” he said. “I might love him tomorrow, but it was too far, too much.”

Write to John Jurgensen at [email protected]

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