Comedy and knowing what’s not funny

April 7, 2022

By Jacquelyn D. Heath
Special to The Milwaukee Times

Like many people, I enjoy a good laugh. Sitcoms, funny movies and stand-up comedy are among the forms of entertainment I seek out when it’s time to unwind. Many of my favorite entertainers, past and present, are comedians – Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen De Generes, Cedric (The Entertainer) Kyles, Steve Harvey, Lucille Ball, George Carlin, Moms Mabley, and Redd Foxx among them.

To me, all of these comedy “giants” share one thing in common. They knew how to make all people laugh by knowing what is funny. Better yet, their comedy instincts also guided them to know what is NOT funny.

The 2022 Academy Awards program, broadcast worldwide, held the promise of lifting the public out of the two-year-long (and counting) doldrums brought on by restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. It also offered a glimmer of progress for the African American community. An all-black production team was at the helm. Two of the three hosts were black females; and many of the presenters and Oscar nominees, in both acting and technical achievement categories, were black. That’s quite a move forward from the “Oscars So White” outcry of just a few years ago.

Our creative genius as a people was being showcased and honored – something that we African Americans have always known and appreciated.

And then, the unthinkable happened.

Comedian and presenter Chris Rock was assaulted on stage by Best Actor nominee (and this year’s winner) Will Smith, after Rock made an off-script remark about Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, and her bald head. The hair style, it turns out, was not a fashion statement, but evidence of the actress’s battle with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes extreme hair loss.

Ironically in 2009, Rock had produced and starred in a film entitled Good Hair, which examined the culturally peculiar relationship between African American women and their hair. He is also the black father of black daughters, so he should have first-hand knowledge about the sensitivity of the subject.

Did Rock miss the mark on this issue? Perhaps…but in my opinion, it has less to do with hair and more to do with a basic tenet of comic genius; that is, know what’s funny and moreover, what is not funny. ‘Insult’ and ‘comedy’ should never be used together – period.

They say that art imitates life; physical or mental illnesses are no laughing matter. If anything, resorting to someone’s infirmity for laughs is a cheap shot stemming from insensitivity, poor taste and lack of human empathy for which no talent is required.

Unfortunately, one misguided act precipitated another, when Will Smith responded to Chris Rock’s ill-advised remark by slapping him into the middle of next week. The two performers have wasted the days since the incident explaining themselves, instead of enjoying their respective achievements.

I’m sure the Oscars will continue next year, with a new crop of films and artists to honor. And let’s hope that Will and Chris (and Jada, too) move on from this episode and continue to pursue excellence in their lives and careers, and use their considerable talents for something positive.

This incident provides an example of two observations my own Granny would apply to a situation like this. First, never waste time arguing with a fool; if you do, then you have two fools on your hands. Second (excuse the grammar), if you don’t start nothin’, there won’t be nothin’.

I do hope everyone gets to enjoy the movies over the next year and the Academy Awards in 2023. Don’t forget to bring the popcorn; but you can leave the unnecessary drama at home.