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Does Compassion Have a Place in Comedy? A Review of the Oscars

Last night’s Academy Awards will be remembered as the night of “The Slap.” After Chris Rock made a joke about his wife’s alopecia, Will Smith walked onto stage and hit him. Behind that moment, however, lies a deeper issue with unkindness masked as jokes, which has more recently been coming to light. Let’s explore the night in a broader context that may explain how the slap came to be...

In the last few months, early 2000s starlets such as Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and Paris Hilton have been highlighting how poorly they were treated by the media and comedians for years. Jokes that, at the time, earned a hearty laugh, would be viewed as the antithesis of “woke” today. For example, at the 2007 MTV Movie Awards, Sarah Silverman made jokes about Paris Hilton breaking her teeth on prison bars painted like penises. In her podcast, Sarah recently apologized to Paris and noted she feels there is a place for more compassion in comedy.

Cut to last night. The first incident of inappropriate jokes (which has now been overshadowed by the last), involved an awkwardly long bit in which Regina Hall paraded the men of Hollywood on stage. She made jokes regarding essentially auditioning them to be with her; she said she would shove her tongue down their throats; she joked about one of the actors being “legal,” and she proceeded to pat down another. An older man bringing younger women of Hollywood on stage and making similar jokes would be wildly inappropriate (bordering on harassment), and it is unfair for such jokes to be made about men. Next, Regina joked about Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s marriage and attempted to bring Will on stage with the other men. Anyone who has been on the Internet over the past year knows that Will may be emotionally vulnerable about his marriage and this could be a sore subject.

Toward the end of the show, Chris Rock made a seemingly harmless joke about Jada’s bald head. Again, let’s think of this joke in context. Jada has openly spoken about her struggle with alopecia. Additionally, Black women’s hair has been the butt of jokes for centuries. It’s another lazy, mean joke.

So, let’s return to Will Smith’s night. He was there to celebrate being nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor (which he did win). It should have been a happy and historic night. Instead, Will had to sit and be the butt of the joke repeatedly. Should he have slapped Chris Rock? No. Can we understand an urge to slap someone after enduring that night? Maybe...

This larger issue has been directly addressed in the latest season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Midge criticizes the sexist and xenophobic jokes told by male comics and views them as the product of lazy, poor joke writing. You don’t have to make a person or group of people the butt of the joke to get a laugh.

I’m a huge fan of comedy, I don’t believe comedians should be censored, and I believe many of us are quick to be offended when we could use a good laugh instead. Good comedy should challenge societal norms and provoke creative thought. All that being said, the idea of inserting some humanity into comedy should not be controversial. We can craft a great laugh without hurting someone. I hope the Oscars writers will take that into consideration next year, and I hope all of us will start to think more about building others up than tearing each other down.

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