Laughing Through the Layers: Exploring the Paradoxical World of Comedy

There’s an old Shakespearean quote: “Many a truth are told in jest.” On some level that notion seems strange…paradoxical, even. Comedy is about things that are funny, and, presumably, things that are funny are breezy and light. Aren’t they? Well, that may be the case for your run-of-the-mill “dad joke,” but not all humor is created equal. Humor can be frivolous, but it can also be dark, wry, bawdy, sarcastic, morbid, or even cruel. The villain cackles when he/she feels confident about his/her sinister goals. The bully mocks his/her victims by laughing at them. Laughing with someone builds rapport. Laughing at someone expresses contempt…sometimes even dehumanizing contempt!! A lot of rancorous political division/hatred is expressed through mean-spirited comedy. Want to see if someone’s sexist, xenophobic, racist, or homophobic? Wait until they tell a bigoted joke. Who do they tell the joke to or with? How do the people they tell it to react? And, most importantly, why do they tell it- to build harmony and rapport or to express hatred by “testing the waters”?

No matter how breezy, jovial, sinister, or unpleasant humor may be, though, comedy- especially stand-up comedy- is worth protecting as a form of freedom of speech/expression. Many comedians, including (but not limited to) Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., Bill Burr, Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock, have noticed that form of freedom is under attack. The reason is of course the issue of political correctness and sensitivity. Comedy can be tame. But a lot of great comedy also pushes the envelope- tip-toeing that line between acceptable and offensive, or, at a deeper level, the line between order and chaos. Comedy branches out and speaks up about topics in insightful and truthful ways we may not want to say out-loud; topics like relationships, marriage, racism, abortion, politics, religion, and so on and so on. The comic says something edgy, and, if well-executed and well-timed, we laugh (often involuntarily)! “That’s what we were all thinking!” is a typical sentiment the audience collectively reaches. The comic is usually allotted this freedom. The jester can speak truthfully and humorously to the king without fear that the king will cut off his head. But nowadays we’re not so sure. Maybe the king won’t provide the jester that traditional safe “distance.”

 No incident was more indicative of this than the one at the 2022 Oscars ceremony. For anyone who may have been vacationing on Mars for the last year (and are just now returning to Earth), the “slap heard around the world” occurred when Chris Rock (presenting the award for Best Documentary) playfully roasted Jada Pinkett Smith. “G.I. Jane 2? Can’t wait to see you!” Rock was referencing the 1997 film G.I. Jane with Demi Moore. The actress shaves her head for the role. Jada Pinkett Smith, who has shaved her head due to alopecia, didn’t appreciate the joke and glared aside at her husband, Will Smith (who was nominated for his role as Richard Williams in King Richard). Moments later, Smith wordlessly marched onto the stage, slapped Rock, and returned to his seat. He then screamed loudly at the comedian twice: “Keep my wife’s name out your [expletive] mouth!” Everyone was shocked and confused. Was this a stunt? Was this rehearsed? The Oscars are a very classy, formal affair. People dress up in expensive tuxedos and dresses. Everyone is generally civil. Did one A-list celebrity really just physically assault another on live television?! Rock played it cool and carried on. Moments later, Smith won the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and gave a tearful acceptance speech. He described the real Richard Williams as a “fierce defender of [his] family,” apologized to the academy and his fellow nominees, alluded to Oscar Wilde’s notion of “life imitating art/art imitating life,” and then remarked upon whether he’d be invited back to the Oscars.

Will Smith infamously slaps Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars over a joke about his wife,
Jada Pinkett Smith. Image courtesy of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

The incident became an immediate, significant moment in pop culture, dominating social media, the airwaves, and the entire entertainment industry. Opinions were divided. Some sympathized with Rock. Others with Smith. Discussions on everything from race, infidelity, Hollywood ego, and, yes, comedy, ensued. Comedians were very rattled. Bill Maher devoted a special segment on Real Time with Bill Maher to the importance of comedic free speech and civility. A little over a month later, a man attacked Dave Chappelle as the comedian was performing onstage in Los Angeles. This was bad! For comedians the stage is a sacred territory. Audience members can heckle. They can interrupt and be rude. Comedians don’t like it, but they tolerate it. It comes with the terrain. Once someone crosses the threshold of the stage, however, it’s a whole different ballgame!

Chris Rock, in his most recent Netflix special (titled “Selective Outrage”), addresses this very issue, revisiting the infamous “slap-gate” incident. Chris Rock, dressed in a white suit, performs expertly…discussing everything from the English royal family to the war in Ukraine, female beauty, his relationship with his daughters and his ex-wife, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and Beyonce, Elon Musk, and, yes… Will Smith. “People ask me ‘Did it hurt?’ ‘Yeah, it hurt! I still got Summertime [a song by Will Smith]  ringing in my ear!” he explains. “But I’m not a victim,” the comedian goes on to clarify, adding that Smith practices “selective outrage.” Rock then self-deprecatingly jokes about how much physically bigger Smith is than him. “[Smith] played Muhammad Ali…I played Pookie in New Jack City…Even in animation he’s bigger than me! I’m a zebra. He’s a shark.” And then he expresses his disappointment in the actor. Rock admired the actor, but now that admiration has been lost. Rock indicates that Smith’s enraged energy was deeply misplaced. He mentions the notorious “Red Table Talk” the Smiths put on the internet (in which Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband discussed her “entanglement” with one of their son’s male friends).

Chris Rock performs in his special, “Selective Outrage.” Image is courtesy of Netflix.

Rock points out the mockery and humiliation Will Smith was subjected to, and how he even tried to reach out to the actor in support. “And he hits me of all people!!” Rock emphasizes. What Rock basically describes is displacement- a very common psychological habit. “The boss yells at me, so I yell at my wife, the wife yells at the baby, and the baby bites the cat” is a shorthanded way to think of it. Something happens. People are hit with very unpleasant emotions and thoughts. However, they don’t take out their anger, sadness, or frustration on the initial person. They displace it to someone else. Sometimes the displaced person deserves it but often they don’t. In the case of the 2022 Oscars, Chris Rock was the displaced person. “I didn’t have any ‘entanglements’!” the comedian underscores in his newest special. Rock, essentially, challenges Smith: “If you are so angry and upset about your wife’s infidelity, why did you all voluntarily expose this to the public, and why did you take your anger out on me?!” (He didn’t say that, per se, but that was the gist of his message).

What Rock eventually ties his segment about Smith and the incident with him back to is the topic many of us are all-too-familiar with….the controversial “W” word- “woke.” What is “woke”? Why do people have so many different definitions and interpretations of it? Well, Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey initially created a variant of the term in 1923.1, 2 “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” he wrote.1, 2 In 1938, black American singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a. Lead Belly) used the phrase “stay woke” in his song “Scottsboro Boys.”1, 3 The song was about an incident in Alabama in 1931 in which nine black/African American teenagers and men were accused of sexually assaulting two white women.1, 3 The term found usage throughout the 20th century, making its way into the New York Times Magazine and the Oxford English Dictionary. In the 2000s and 2010s the term really took off. Frequently preceded by a hashtag, “woke” was popularized on the internet and college campuses, and was initially used in the protests over Michael Brown (a black/African American 18-year-old whom the police shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014). What does “woke” mean in that sense? “Woke” means “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” But then the term’s usage broadened.

It addressed race, but it also addressed gender, nationality, physical/cognitive capacity, religion, and sexual orientation. Several new terms (some descriptive, some pejorative) emerged alongside it, including: “white privilege,” “equity,” “microaggressions,” “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “critical race theory.” At this point, the word’s initial definition/idea became much fuzzier. What were people talking about when they talked about “wokeness”? For one group of people, “wokeness” is a perfectly reasonable school of thought in which people are alert to racial prejudice and systemic issues of social inequality. For another group, though, it is an insidious and sinister form of “soft totalitarianism” …a negative, cultish ideology that uses language manipulation, propagandistic storytelling, and contrived notions about group identity to spread and thrive. The animosity towards “wokeness” in that case isn’t necessarily an animosity towards racism, sexism, or any other forms of bigotry. It’s an animosity towards a particularly harmful and dangerous way of structuring society and its ethics; and events like the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, and the January 6th insurrection only poured more fuel on the fire!

Their concern(s)- TV shows and films that constantly portray men as weak, malevolent, and servile; “cancel culture” (a practice in which a person can be fired and their reputation destroyed for past transgressions, regardless of the size or scope of their past transgressions, if they sincerely apologized for it, if they were intentionally aware of what they were doing, or even if they are dead or alive); micromanagement of language and restrictions on free speech. So, which usage of the term “woke” is correct? I was genuinely curious, and so I asked around. From what I gather, the initial term “woke” is correct (“alert to racial prejudice and discrimination”). The issue seems to be that the term has been hijacked. When people rail against the threat of “soft totalitarianism” (as described above), their concern is perfectly valid/legitimate, but it needs a term other than “woke” to describe it. Otherwise, what sadly occurs is that a perfectly wholesome philosophy devoted towards social justice, equality, and dignity gets straw-manned as a dangerous, ideological movement.

To bring it full circle when Chris Rock challenges “wokeness” and Will Smith’s altercation with him, it is the latter notion that Rock challenges. Chris Rock after all is a comedian. He’s not an academic, a social scientist, or a counselor. He’s an actor and an entertainer…and a very funny one at that!! Comedians, overall, are very open and experimental individuals. Their careers are predicated upon “trial and error.” They go out, they test out material, they gauge their audience, and they adjust their material accordingly. Sometimes comedians go too far. Sometimes they don’t go far enough. But whatever occurs—whether they bring down the house with laughter or leave it with crickets chirping—their freedom of speech and freedom of expression are what drive their whole enterprise! And more importantly, comedy is a necessary part of a healthy and well-functioning society. Comedy can address frivolous stuff, but it can also better help us face various difficult truths about ourselves, others, and the world. To reiterate William Shakespeare: “many are truth are told in jest.”


[1] Romano, Aja (9 October 2020). “A history of ‘wokeness'”. Vox. Retrieved 2 March 2023, [2] Garvey, Marcus; Garvey, Amy Jacques (1986) [first published 1923]. The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Or, Africa for the Africans. Dover, Mass.: The Majority Press. p. 5., [3] Matheis, Frank (August 2018). “Outrage Channeled in Verse”Living Blues. Vol. 49, no. 4. p. 15.