Comedy, offense, and violence—are there lines that shouldn’t be crossed?
Will Smith’s assault on Chris Rock in this year’s Academy Awards elicited musings and think pieces on the nature of comedy and violence, with quite a number mulling over the question: Are all things fair game in the name of comedy?
On that night of March 28, Rock made a quip about the hair loss of Smith’s wife Jada, who has alopecia. Smith then strode onstage, slapped Rock, and returned to his seat, where he uttered profanities directed at the comedian.
The Academy issued a statement, saying it doesn’t “condone violence of any form.” Meanwhile, actress Sophia Bush tweeted that “assault is never the answer” and comedian Kathy Griffin told Smith that assaulting a comedian is “a very bad practice.”
The following day, the King Richard star apologized to Rock via Instagram, saying that his actions “were not indicative of the man I want to be.”
Rock himself said he is still kind of "processing what happened."
For some Filipino comedians, the incident also affirmed the perils and difficulties of stand-up comedy.
Responsibility and sensitivity
Veteran stand-up comedian and director Phillip Lazaro told PhilSTAR L!fe that stand-up comedy is "a difficult job and it comes with a lot of responsibility and sensitivity.”
Lazaro, who said both Smith and Rock have faults, said material for stand-up comedy should be well-prepared and suited to one's audience.
“You should know your crowd. Hindi puwedeng you just have a bag of jokes and you throw it out just like that. It doesn’t work that way,” he said.
Lazaro said Rock’s joke on Jada could have been done “in good taste."
“You can make fun of yourself. You can make fun of situations na hindi totoo or situations of people who brought it upon themselves,” he added.
For Lazaro, Rock's joke was demeaning to the art of stand-up comedy as it was at the expense of an audience with a medical condition.
“Kasi that happened to me. One of my sisters, she had alopecia also. We went to a comedy bar. She was wearing a scarf. Pinagtawanan yung sister ko, sinabi manghuhula kasi naka-scarf. Pinagmumura ko talaga yung comedian. Minura ko talaga ng bonggang-bongga,” said Lazaro.
But Lazaro added that Smith could have had more restraint knowing that the event usually has a comic who roasts the audience.
“He knows he’s going to the Oscars. He has been there before and he was nominated for best actor. Hindi first time na may stand-up comedian, alam niya yan, yung niloloko yung mga tao sa harap,” he said.
James Caraan, a stand-up comedian and the host of the The KoolPals podcast, said Rock's joke left much to be desired, but still it did not merit a violent response.
“Para sa akin mababaw siya, pero 'di siya nagme-merit ng ganoong reaction na ginawa ni Will Smith. Worst case na pwedeng nangyari is magkaroon ng outrage online, but hindi physically injuring the comedian right there and then. Yung gravity niya, 'di siya equal doon sa nangyaring reaction,” said Caraan.
Caraan said Jada's negative reaction, as shown by her adverse facial reaction to the joke, may have also contradicted even her advocacy for alopecia.
Jada opened up about her condition, which is an autoimmune disorder, during an episode of her Facebook watch series, Red Table Talk, in May 2018.
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"Ano ngayon yung pinapakitang implication ng advocacy mo? ‘Di ka ganun ka committed sa advocacy mo, ‘di ka ganun ka comfortable sa appearance mo pala na konting kanti lang, nagresult na sa ganoong reaction?” Caraan said.
UP Assistant Professor Samuel Cabbuag likewise said that both Smith and Rock are accountable in the incident. Cabbuag, who teaches sociology at the university, characterized Rock’s joke as a form of "ableism," or discriminating against those who have disabilities.
“Yung joke ni Chris talagang below the belt kasi pinagtawanan niya yung health issue ni Jada, kasi it's about sa hair dahil nga may sakit siya,” he said.
Cabbuag also took issue with Smith’s violent reaction to Rock’s joke, tagging it as a wrong response.
Should there be boundaries?
Are there topics that should be off-limits for comedians?
For Lazaro, comedians should have boundaries, which includes refraining from delivering offensive jokes to their audience.
“You can make fun of fictitious situations, of people’s situations, pero never make fun of their miseries, their disabilities or their sickness. It’s a big no-no. That’s a poor type of comedy. Using other people to make other people laugh, just to lighten up the mood, that’s not good,” said Lazaro.
“A real stand-up comedian performs art. It comes with responsibility,” Lazaro added.
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For Caraan, all should be fair game as material for comedy.
“Para sa akin, as a stand-up comedian, lahat dapat pwedeng gawan ng jokes. As a comedian, ikaw yung boundary. Ikaw yung magse-serve as fine line between offensive and not offensive,” he said.
But beyond the material, Caraan said the timing and delivery of a joke are also crucial.
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“Maraming factors ang pagiging offensive at pagkakaroon ng fine line. Meron siyang factors ng timing kaya merong sinasabi na ‘too soon,’” he continued. “May formula: tragedy + time = comedy. So importante yung papahilumin mo muna tapos pagkalipas ng panahon magkaroon ka ng lakas ng loob para i-try.”
"It’s more of the timing, crafting well-written jokes. Kapag naka-offend ka ng tao, ‘di maganda yung joke mo, di siya well-crafted. Kailangan mo isulat ulit.”
Lazaro, on the other hand, said there should be certain limitations.
“You need to be intelligent, you need to be sensitive. Bakit kami may limitations? How come I still work given these limitations? It’s as simple as ‘I cannot talk about this’,” said Lazaro.
Cabbuag said that such limitations are also at times imposed by society's norms.
“Di ba dati, laging jino-joke na kapag bakla ka, katatawanan ka. Now, it’s not good anymore kasi these are real people," he said.
“We should not look at it as censorship but rather, bakit hindi pa rin naiintindihan ng mga tao na yung ibang mga bagay ay mali na?”
But besides the comic, the audience also has a measure of responsibility.
"For example, alam mong pinasukan mo ay comedy bar. Dapat maging aware ka kung ano magiging jokes nila all throughout [the show]. Sinong pagtatawanan nila? Sarili nila at yung audience,” said Cabbuag.
“Kapag yung context [ng event] is roast style, d’i ba pagtatawanan ka talaga ng mga tao? Dapat alam ng audience na iyon ‘yung pinasukan nila,” he added.
“At the end of the day, kailangan alam mo yung context ng situation para magkaroon ng opportunity to have a mutual understanding.”