Like many Oscar viewers, Caroline Hirsch, owner and founder of the New York comedy club Caroline’s on Broadway, thought she was watching just another pre-rehearsed bit on Sunday night when Chris Rock delivered his “G.I. Jane 2” joke about Jada Pinkett Smith and then saw Will Smith walk onto the stage and slap Rock across the face.
“I thought (Will) was kidding around, cause he’s kind of a playful guy,” Hirsch told TheWrap. “And then when he smacked him, the expression on Chris’ face was like, ‘Oh, my God, what just happened?’ And I knew he wasn’t part of it. It was like, OK, he really did this.”
And soon Hirsch, who has known Rock since he was a young comic making his way in the stand-up world, realized that the incident could lead to copycat aggression against comics performing around the country, including her club. “We’re frightened now that this could be behavior that’s picked up by other people when somebody’s telling a joke,” she said. Even if fans didn’t rush the stage to assault a comic, she said, “it will be throwing a drink or food or something at a performer, like the old days of vaudeville. We’re concerned about that. We’re just worried about not feeling safe.”
Hirsch’s worry is widely shared in the comedy world since the Slap Heard Round the World. Shortly after the Oscars incident, Kathy Griffin tweeted: “Let me tell you something. It’s a very bad practice to walk up on stage and physically assault a Comedian. Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters.”
And in a since deleted tweet, Judd Apatow wrote: “He could have killed him. That’s pure out-of-control rage and violence. They’ve heard a million jokes about them in the last three decades. They are not freshman in the world of Hollywood and comedy. He lost his mind.”
Noam Dworman, owner of New York City’s Comedy Cellar, had a more measured take. “I’m not predicting an outbreak of violence against comedians,” he told TheWrap. “It’s certainly possible that people could be influenced by this, but … It’s very rare that there’s an incident between a comedian and an audience member.
Both Dworman and Gotham Comedy Club owner Chris Mazzilli believe they have adequate security to handle just about any situation. “The heckler wouldn’t make it to the stage,” Mazzilli said.
But Dworman does anticipate that Hollywood faces a reckoning over its initial response to the incident. “As this is settling in, people are realizing that they didn’t sufficiently respond to it, and I sense that the general response is correcting itself,” he said. “But that’s the thing about Hollywood: They look to the left, they look to the right and then they decide how they feel about things. These are the same people who gave Roman Polanski a standing ovation,” he said referring to the 2003 Oscars ceremony, when Polanski won Best Director for “The Pianist” and the audience rose to its feet to applaud a convicted child rapist who didn’t appear at the ceremony because he fled the U.S. in 1978 prior to his sentencing.
Rock himself has not addressed the slap since Sunday night, but it’s possible he will do so Wednesday night, when he kicks off his new stand-up tour in Boston, at the Wilbur Theatre (which did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment on whether it was increasing security).
Whatever Rock says (or doesn’t) about the Oscar slap in his set, he will walk on stage with the full backing of his peers. On Tuesday, the Laugh Factory in L.A. added an image of Rock to its marquee with the message: “Laugh Factory supports First Amendment right for all comedians. The comedy community loves & supports you Chris.”
Dworman voiced a similar sentiment: “It’s more than a consensus. It’s almost unanimity of support for Chris and outrage that somebody would cross the line of answering a joke with violence and physical humiliation.”
Hirsch is also optimistic that the feeling of disquiet will soon pass. “Comedians will do what they need to do and they’ll go up on stage and they’ll be as honest, as themselves, as they always will be,” she said. “That’s what comedy is about: It’s taking a chance, it’s going for it. That’s what makes it funny.”
Umberto Gonzalez contributed to this report.