Back in the safe space of Hollywood scandal

There’s nothing like a good Hollywood slap in the face to distract us from our looming dystopia. As bombs continue to fall on Ukraine and mothers shepherd their children through mine fields, it took Will Smith slapping Chris Rock to return us to our safe space: the latest Hollywood scandal. Nothing says escapism like two celebrities in a made-for-television brouhaha.  

“The slap heard ‘round the world,” as it’s been heralded in the media, smacks of the self-absorption of our popular culture. Heard ‘round the world, really? Heard in Lviv, against the groaning of bulldozers plying through wreckage? Heard in the clatter of refugee camps in Europe? In El Salvador, where 62 people were murdered in gang violence over the weekend? 

After the incident, social media erupted, memes formed, newspaper headlines blared and actual crises were, well, upstaged. “BEST SMACKTOR,” snarked the front page of the New York Post. Facebook, the most self-centered communications platform since the mirror, exploded with our completely uninformed but no less authoritative positions and diagnoses: Smith needs anger management therapy…Rock provoked Smith…the whole thing was a conspiracy to hoist the Oscar’s anemic ratings. 

As if measuring the trajectory of the bullets in the Kennedy assassination, we watched repeated footage, analyzing the width of Smith’s pre-slap grin, the approximate roll of Jada Pinkett Smith’s eyes.

Yes, the slap was a gratuitous act of violence deserving of condemnation; the provoking joke an abuse of Ms. Smith’s physical condition. But it was not earth-shattering. It doesn’t deserve the fixation we’ve applied. 

We used to watch slapstick; now this slap sticks. We’re addicted to what happened on stage; distracted from a darkening world stage. 

I teach a course at Cornell University that deals with politics and popular culture. We trace the evolution of film and television from Frank Capra’s stirring 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” to the mockery of politics portrayed in “Veep” and “House of Cards.” A recurring theme is that American popular comedy is at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The Keystone Cops, the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny’s frugality, Gracie Allen’s dimwittedness — the characters were the punchline. I recently watched a documentary about the stand-up comic Don Rickles. His act was insult comedy — at times racist, antisemitic, misogynistic. He packed venues because he was actually the butt of the joke.

We howled at the crude slapstick of pies being thrown in faces and the poke-in-the-eye antics of The Three Stooges. It was as if they were saying: “We don’t take ourselves seriously; neither should you.”

That changed in our popular culture. Watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” reminds us that as our politics became more complex, so did popular culture. Lenny Bruce wasn’t entertaining in order to crack a joke, but to make a point. As was Richard Pryor, the Smothers Brothers and more. 

Then, in the 1990s, it changed again. “Seinfeld” frequently reminded us that it was a show about, well, nothing; not to be taken seriously. Even the show’s final episode was a rim shot, a practical joke. It turned out that this show about nothing was really mocking the utter self-absorption of its main characters, documented by a courtroom airing of grievances by secondary characters. A brilliant parody of popular culture itself.

The world is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. We are at one of those pivotal moments in history where everything may change. A Guttenberg moment, a Columbian exchange, a new Industrial Revolution. Europe may change. American democracy may change. Everything may change. 

Let’s leave a slap in the face where it belongs. It was a crude, unimportant, forgettable Hollywood drama. There are more important things that would actually benefit from our attention.  

Which brings me to my favorite posting in the unavoidable torrent on Facebook, from someone I’ve never met and don’t know: 

“After sleeping on it and more contemplation this morning, my feelings about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock last night are that Clarence Thomas is on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on cases involving an election that his wife has been trying to use her proximity to power to overturn.”

Touché.  

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael. 

Tags Chris Rock Clarence Thomas Jada Pinkett Smith Popular culture Russia-Ukraine war safe spaces Slapstick Steve Israel Will Smith

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