‘Chris Rock did the brave, smart, toughest thing’: comics on that Oscars slap

Four seasoned standups, all with the comic’s dread of hosting awards shows, on what to do when a gig goes very wrong – and how they might have reacted

It was the slap that was heard around the internet – Will Smith’s outraged stage invasion at the Oscars had been seen more than 80m times online within three days. For professional comedians, however, it was the moment afterwards that struck home – Chris Rock in charge of an awards ceremony that has just gone so far south he can barely see it and it’s his job to get it back on track. And get a laugh. We asked four comics about the fears of the clown.

Ed Byrne: ‘Being hit on stage is very rare’

Ed Byrne: ‘Roasting the crowd is an American tradition.’
Ed Byrne: ‘Roasting the crowd is an American tradition.’ Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

Awards shows are never the most fun event on a comic’s calendar. The order of gigs you want to play go: one where all the people are there to see you; then all the people are there to see comedy; and then a long way down the list come industry awards such as the Oscars, where people are there for a reason that has nothing to do with you, they all know one another and wish you’d hurry up.

You have to know what the audience will take, especially if you’re roasting the crowd. That’s quite an American tradition. We take the piss, but the roast means saying whatever you want to prick pomposity. It’s why Ricky Gervais does stuff at the Golden Globes he wouldn’t do at the Baftas. Rock did at least know the room. But if an awards gig goes wrong, it really goes wrong – although being hit on stage is very rare.

I’ve only known two comedians get hit: one was a student gig with Brendon Burns. After the show, a girl went up and slapped him in the face. And Jim Jefferies has been punched twice – he nearly got knocked out at Jongleurs and was hit on stage once at the Manchester Comedy Store. That helped his career immensely – it was videoed and went viral.

Jim Jefferies attacked at the Comedy Store, Manchester 2007
Jim Jefferies being assaulted at the Comedy Store, Manchester, in 2007. Photograph: Daily Motion

The worst moment for Rock would have been the five minutes afterwards when you think: “Well, I better try to get a laugh then.” I did a financial service awards, I was dying on my hole and I said: “Look, I’m just going to go because either I’m a terrible comedian or you’re a terrible audience. I’ve been a comedian for 20 years, how long have you been an audience?” And I walked off. Then the organiser goes: ‘Well, now you have to do the charity auction …’”

Ed Byrne is now on tour with If I’m Honest

Zoe Lyons: ‘That slap wasn’t about alopecia’

Zoe Lyons: ‘Awards audiences take themselves very seriously for one night.’
Zoe Lyons: ‘Awards audiences take themselves very seriously for that one night.’ Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

I’ve hosted a lot of awards and you do sometimes have people get up on stage, blind drunk, and you know in your heart that they are about to do something that will probably lose them their job. It’s pretty much always taking the mic to make a speech, but there is no way that is going to end well for them. As I suspect Will Smith is discovering.

Simply showing up to host an awards makes a comedian’s toes curl. Your instinct is to gently take the piss, but awards audiences are there because they take themselves very seriously just for that night. Even if it’s for the road lighting industry – surely there’s only one award? But you can’t say that. My worst was a pensions awards – 36 awards to get through. By the end of it, most of us were actually drawing our pensions.

You have to detach emotionally. Keep smiling. But I’ve never actually seen a comic get slapped on stage in my career. Twenty years ago audiences were more volatile than today, and I saw a guy square up to a compere once, but it was bull elephant charging and he sat back down.

The thing is you don’t know the backstory to offence. I have alopecia. Watching that joke, I can’t help but think that the slap wasn’t about the alopecia. I don’t have enough information on the ins and outs of their marital status but the alopecia element – well, it didn’t enrage me as an alopecia sufferer, but it did produce, ironically, one of the most hair-raising moments of television I’ve seen this year.

Zoe Lyons hosts Lightning on BBC Two

Dane Baptiste: ‘Remove the subtext and it’s unforgivable’

Dane Baptiste: ‘Chris Rock did the best he could under very difficult circumstances.’
Dane Baptiste: ‘Chris Rock did the best he could under very difficult circumstances.’ Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Awards shows are not a comedy audience, and the Oscars is probably the least comedic place. They do not put on those dresses and suits to have a laugh. Comedy and the Oscars are always in conflict – which is probably why comedy films never win Oscars.

I thought Chris Rock did the best he could under very difficult circumstances. Most comedians have had enough experience to know when things have been pushed too far. You are always aware of the climate of the room 30 seconds into the gig. Rock was bringing a strong energy, campaigning for a response the crowd was very reluctant to give.

It’s hard enough to deliver the perfect joke with the perfect timing – with situations like that, it’s very hard to plan for things going that badly wrong until they happen. You have two choices: respond in kind; or with an element of self-deprecation. If you want an evening like that to survive, you have to make the joke on you.

Rock’s kneejerk response could have been to deal with Will Smith the way he would a heckler, because he has played hostile rooms, far more hostile rooms, during his career. But he took the self-effacing response to toxic masculinity, and it was the brave thing, the smart thing and the toughest thing to take the position of fool.

If you remove the subtext or catalyst and make that moment about the simplest thing it was – a man taking offence at a joke, so he violently attacks the comedian – then it’s unforgivable. If we have an environment that allows you to assault a comedian making a joke that upsets you – if the repercussions of offence are violence – then free speech comes with a stipulation. Who decides what that stipulation is?

Dane Baptiste hosts the podcast Dane Baptiste Questions Everything

Shaparak Khorsandi: ‘A heckler hissed: “I pay your wages”’

Shaparak Khorsandi: Chris Rock was my hero.
Shaparak Khorsandi: Chris Rock was my hero. Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/Corbis/Getty Images

When you come at a comic, you come at a professional who has been booed off and slapped off and dealt with worse than you. Before I did standup, I was in the audience when someone threw a pint at Dave Fulton’s head. It smashed behind him and he just said: “If I’d known I was going to the zoo I’d have bought my bananas.” I thought: “If I can have this career, I would die happy.”

I’ve been a fan of Will Smith for years but I felt so proud of Chris Rock. When it goes wrong, we still have a job to do. Sometimes, it’s telling jokes, sometimes it’s fighting fire. Rock showed his mettle as a standup. He stayed on stage, the camera closed up on his face and he was thinking: “Fix this, deal with everything later. Everyone in the room is expecting me to make everything OK again.” It was not about him, not about the fact that he’d been assaulted, it was about the crowd.

I have had a heckler come on stage when I was very new, and she hissed in my face: “I pay your wages.” The promoter offered to take me out the back door, but I held my head up and walked past her at the bar. When the rug’s pulled from under our feet, a seasoned standup is still a gladiator.

This won’t have been the first time Rock and Will Smith have met. Rock was the zebra in Madagascar and Jada was the hippo. There must have been wrap parties. There’s some beef there. Smith, he was so upset, as if he’d gone to the ceremony with a heap of other stuff. So I’m 100% a comic. Chris Rock was my hero. Will Smith … what’s going on, love?

Shaparak Khorsandi: It Was the 90s is at the Soho theatre until 21 April and on tour afterwards


Stephen Armstrong

The GuardianTramp

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