Like a Rock: How Chris Rock took the high road at the Oscars
There is perhaps no performance art as daunting as standup comedy. In my days performing in the New York City comedy club circuit, the standup spotlight could be downright terrifying for me at times. Would my jokes land right? How can I improvise if they don’t? Is the crowd festive or hostile?
Comedy, good standup comedy hits people very personally, and when done right, awakens an audience to humorous nuances of life that otherwise remain dormant in them until a talented comic comes along. A comedian can bring those realities out, almost surgically, with good jokes. And the sound of them leaving the body is a good hearty laugh.
A singer, musician, or actor hasn’t nearly the pressure to perform as does the comic. Finish a song or scene, and the crowd will politely (or genuinely) applaud at the end. Not so for the comedian. He or she needs to generate laughter throughout the set lest a five-minute schtick become a brief eternity amidst heckling and insults from drunken patrons.
On my best nights, I could leave the audience in stitches. On my worst, my jokes brought silence, snide comments or boos from the crowd. Even then, with the sinking feeling that I’d bombed, no one, no matter how badly I’d performed, ever threatened to harm me physically, let alone take the stage to slap me across the face.
Chris Rock is a far greater comedic talent than I could have ever hoped to be back in the day. He’s been at it long enough to know the difference between stinking up the joint and bringing the house down. No doubt, as a seasoned professional, he’s mastered the art of the comeback when he’s met with heckling from some jerk in the third row. What’s he’s probably less accustomed to is being physically assaulted for a joke, especially one at which his assailant laughed initially.
To me, the whole incident was too stinted and awkward to have been staged. Why would the Academy want to script something that was so poorly executed? What impressed me, however, was Chris Rock’s response.
Immediately after it happened, he expressed genuine surprise at what had occurred. When Will Smith angrily expressed his disgust, Rock calmly explained that what he said was intended as a harmless joke. When Smith fired back, Rock calmly acquiesced in order to diffuse the hostility. After briefly composing himself, he cracked a spontaneous joke (that we’d just witnessed the greatest moment in television history) and moved on to his presentation.
If there’s anyone who knows a joke when he sees it, it’s Chris Rock. He knew this was no joke and had the presence of mind to not attempt to make it one. He kept his cool in a tight spot, which was all the more impressive that it was done, not only in front of a large crowd of his peers, but to a wider live television audience. He didn’t mention the incident again, and didn’t even press charges in the end.
Many observers who watched it unfold have suggested that Will Smith, being a significantly larger man than Chris Rock, could have seriously injured the comic in what he did. Perhaps, but while Smith may have taken home an Oscar that night, it was Chris Rock who, despite his smaller stature, emerged as the bigger man at the 2022 Academy Awards.
Not everybody hates Chris. I certainly don’t.