But not a particularly appalling joke either. There’s a version of this Oscars ceremony where Pinkett Smith rolls her eyes and receives Rock’s gag as a slightly barbed compliment (after all, Moore did look famously incredible when she played GI Jane). In that timeline, we’d now all be talking about whether Rock went too far, and how Smith – who shortly after received the award for Best Actor – has finally had the recognition he’s been waiting for.
In this timeline, though, the only post-Oscars story is the slap, and the grossly indulgent immediate response to it. Rather than being kicked out by security, Smith was given a standing ovation after a teary-eyed acceptance speech. Director and screenwriter Judd Apatow received an angry backlash for tweeting (dramatically, but factually) that Smith “could have killed” Rock. “That’s pure out of control rage and violence,” he continued. But he was out of step with the mood on social media in the immediate aftermath, and deleted the tweet.
As a standup since the 1980s, Rock has dealt with his fair share of hecklers but never anything equivalent to this. That’s not for any lack of provocative material. Throughout his career, Rock has played it close to the bone, especially when it comes to celebrity audiences. Presenting the VMAs in 2003, he teased the attendees about seating politics, then ended on the line: “You got the Olsen twins over there, so then you gotta put R Kelly way up there.”
At the time, the Olsen twins were teenagers – and Kelly was in the midst of a long-running trial on child pornography charges. He would be acquitted in 2008 despite video evidence, and finally convicted of multiple offences including sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of a child last year. Some have since argued that Rock’s joke contributed to the abusing-in-plain-sight impunity that Kelly enjoyed: is he using his comedian’s privilege to call out an abuser, or making a rape joke?
At the very least, though, Rock’s gag seems preferable to the alternative of maintaining a respectful silence, given Kelly’s presence at the show. At any rate, it was a joke that killed on the night, including with the Olsen twins. (How they might feel retrospectively about laughing up the idea of themselves as grooming victims is, of course, another matter.) And it did no damage to Rock’s standing on the hosting circuit.