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Comedians get slapped all the time, just not the ones you see on TV

Chris Rock has long been regarded as a dangerous comedian — and it finally came true

You know this part but it’s worth retelling: Chris Rock delivered a short bit to introduce the Oscar nominees for best documentary and decided to throw in a zinger about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair, which is cut short because she suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune disease that caused her hair to fall out. Her husband, Will Smith, got up from his seat, strutted over to Rock and delivered a smack that rattled everyone in attendance and all those watching at home.

This one incident has prompted as many takes, opinions and projections than we’ve seen from a pop culture moment in ages. There were enough thoughts on race, power and gender to teach a semester-long class. But there’s also a simple fact: Sometimes comedians just get slapped.

One of the biggest compliments a comedian can get is being called “dangerous” — meaning that she or he is unafraid to deliver jokes in spite of the threat of serious career, and sometimes life-threatening, repercussions. That usually requires aiming jokes at entities that are more powerful than the comedian. Dick Gregory was a target of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover because of his jokes about white supremacy. Wanda Sykes stood at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and earned the wrath of conservatives for comparing radio commentator Rush Limbaugh to the 9/11 terrorists. Hannibal Buress risked his career by reigniting the controversy over comedy legend Bill Cosby’s sexual assault allegations.

Rock has also been regarded as a dangerous comedian for the way he has discussed race, peppering as much commentary about racism into his sets as possible. But how dangerous is it when you spend much of your career punching down to poor Black folks and Black women? Remember: In Rock’s most famous bit, he recounts that, “When I go to the money machine tonight, all right, I ain’t looking over my back for the media, I’m looking for n—as!” It was an eight-minute rant about the type of Black people who scare him. And he has been obsessed with demeaning Black women, chastising his Black female guests on his HBO show in the late-’90s, making a whole Netflix comedy special in 2018 essentially about his ex-wife and, of course, Good Hair. The 2009 documentary was 96 minutes of shaming Black women dressed up as an intellectual deep dive.

When Rock insults poor Black folks and Black women, he’s insulting people who often aren’t in any position to do anything about what he says about them. Oftentimes these people can’t even be in the room when Rock is making these jokes. Sunday night, he looked out upon a sea of white faces, singled out a Black woman and made fun of her hair and disability. Of course, he’s just one of many rich and famous comedians who are paid millions of dollars while picking at people whose voices get drowned out. There’s little danger in that. 

That’s where Smith comes in.

Smith may be the only Black man in Hollywood who could have gotten away with rushing the stage, slapping someone and being allowed to stay in his seat the rest of the night. Even Pinkett Smith would, at best, have been escorted out of the venue and at worst blackballed for yelling obscenities at Rock during his set, let alone laying hands on him. Rock found himself in a position he hasn’t been in in a long time: onstage earning the ire of someone higher up on the societal ladder.

Comedians, not surprisingly, have rallied behind Rock. Kathy Griffin, for instance, noted the danger of people running up on them onstage and how Smith’s assault could influence more fans to rush the stage and attack comedians. I get that. But here’s the thing: Comedians are regularly attacked onstage and it’s often Black women and queer comedians who suffer from these attacks. And it’s persisted with or without nationally televised palm slaps.

Just last week, Sampson McCormick, a Black gay comedian, was punched by a white male audience member while performing in California. According to McCormick, the man said, “I’m going to beat your Black ass,” as he launched his attack. And just a simple Google search reveals how dangerous it is for marginalized folks to do comedy. These are the same people who have been targeted by some superstar comedians, exuberant in punching down on Black queer folks. Dave Chappelle has been going on a yearslong tour delivering jokes at the expense of transgender people and has had nary a hand placed on him. But Black queer or female comedians performing at barely secured tiny clubs? The danger of them being attacked never left.

It would be nice if the comedy community that spent the last few years complaining about cancel culture or the way they get called out for hate speech took a moment to exhibit some level of introspection. It would be nice if Rock took a moment to think about why he can’t stop himself from finding new ways to insult Black women. 

But I have a feeling we’ll only hear more straw man arguments about the safety of comedians who punch down on the vulnerable among us while ignoring the actual vulnerable folks writing jokes about their oft-ignored and disregarded experiences.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.