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Chris Rock's Jada Pinkett Smith joke infuriated Will Smith but it's unlikely to be the last awkward joke at the Oscars

The moment before Will Smith hit Chris Rock (AMPAS © 2022)

After years of struggling to win back viewers, the Oscars certainly got an audience boost this year — but not for the reasons the Academy was hoping.

Clips of the moment Will Smith stormed the stage to hit presenter Chris Rock after a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith have lit up the internet, prompting heated discussion about Smith's actions — but also, the commentary that sparked it.

And while no one expected violence to erupt on the Oscars stage, the type of jokes favoured by Rock have a long history at award shows and in popular culture more broadly.

"There's a dated element to a lot of Chris Rock's material, the 'your mama'-type joke, that is very anachronistic in 2022," says associate professor Lauren Rosewarne, a pop culture expert at the University of Melbourne.

Will Smith and Chris Rock. (AP)

"You know what you're going to get when you get Chris Rock, a comedian who has that '90s comedy history — and that's OK, it works for certain audiences, but it's never going to play well on places like Twitter where the humour, in my experience, leans more to a progressive, modern style."

First, there was Rock's jibe that Javier Bardem, who was up for an Oscar alongside his wife Penelope Cruz — who was referred to only as "his wife" — was praying for his fellow nominee to win because if "she loses, he can't win". The gag apparently that Cruz was so high maintenance that Bardem would never hear the end of it.

Then came the now-notorious joke at Jada Pinkett Smith's expense. "Jada, I love you," Rock says, "G.I. Jane 2, can't wait to see it." To her husband's right, Pinkett Smith can be seen rolling her eyes and looking visibly displeased with the quip.

Husband and wife Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith arrive at the Oscars.  (Reuters: Mike Blake)

For those unfamiliar with G.I. Jane, the line takes some explaining: In the 1997 film, Demi Moore appears with a closely shaven head similar to Pinkett Smith, who has spoken openly about her battle with alopecia — an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. 

Cue Smith, who could be seen laughing on-camera moments earlier, walking up to Rock, striking him and yelling: "Keep my wife's name out of your f—ing mouth".

Many have criticised the joke as ridiculing a medical condition, the same night CODA — a film about a deaf family with just one hearing member — took home the trophy for best picture for its inclusive depiction of living with disability. 

It was not the first time Rock made a joke at Pinkett Smith's expense. During the 2016 ceremony, the comedian took aim at her decision to boycott the ceremony due to the lack of diversity among the nominees: "Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna's panties. I wasn't invited."

So why, after so many years, are comedians still poking fun at a woman's illness, referring to a famous actor only as someone's wife, or commenting on a woman's underwear? And is this type of "comedy" exactly what the Academy wanted?

Do these jokes make us laugh?

Hackneyed phrases like "the old ball and chain" and "the wife won't be happy" have hung around for decades, and in the '90s and early 2000s, formed the basis of many sitcoms. 

And it's far from the first time hosts and presenters have come under fire for making misogynistic jokes during the Oscars.  

In 2013, Oscars host Seth MacFarlane was criticised for a slew of sexist material, the most memorable being an opening number where he sings about female actors.

The musical number ends with the lyrics: "We saw your boobs, we saw your boobs, we saw your boobs."

But in 2022, are these jokes even funny?

"The sexism didn't bother me initially, what bothered me more was that it was a really cheap joke that we've all seen a million times before," says Sydney comedian Béa Barbeau-Scurla.

"Your jokes aren't even funny plus you're punching down, you're Chris Rock, you should be funnier than this, you should come up with better material."

Barbeau-Scurla, whose Melbourne International Comedy Festival show Smile More is launching this week, says the debate is not about saying jokes can never be made about certain topics, but instead that ensuring they're not punching down at other people's expense. 

Comedian Béa Barbeau-Scurla (Supplied: Béa Barbeau-Scurla)

"I genuinely think you can make a joke about anything as long as it's funny, original and doesn't hurt anyone," she says.

"These older comedians, male or female, they're just so out of touch. Chris Rock got his fame in the '80s and '90s, and I think it's really hard to progress from that. Maybe he's just doing what he knows, but we've moved past that type of comedy now."

Her upcoming show, performed alongside fellow comedian Fiona Cox, is a commentary on the expectation of women to act politely and smile in the face of sexism. It's a phenomenon she also sees in the Oscars audience: people laughing along politely, even if they're uncomfortable.

"If you see that shot of Penelope Cruz, she's not enjoying herself. In my opinion, I feel like Javier Bardem's reaction is a bit forced as well," she says.

"I think they're just trying to be polite for the sake of being polite, I'm glad Jada didn't react like that — she looks visibly upset, and so she should be.

"For so many years women, queer people, people of colour, go through life smiling at these micro-aggressions because it's easier that way, but action and conversation only really comes from not responding politely."

So, will we see things change?

Probably not, says Rosewarne, who describes the latest controversy as "very much in line with Chris Rock's style of humour".

That means the Academy likely knew exactly what they were signing up for. 

"You've seen controversial hosts, let's say like Ricky Gervais for the Golden Globes, anyone who has seen five minutes of Ricky Gervais knows what you're getting if you hire him for a host," she says, "and they've hired him repeatedly".

Following the "boob song" controversy of 2013, MacFarlane was also reportedly asked back for another year. "I got asked back the year after I hosted, I guess because the numbers went up," he told Marc Maron's WTF podcast in 2019

Rosewarne says this approach to courting controversy was also likely front of mind in the decision to hire Amy Schumer to co-host this year's ceremony, alongside Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes.

"Amy Schumer has a well-established reputation of being confronting, whether you like her or not, she says things that some audiences find upsetting," she says.

"I dare say they probably thought they would get controversy from her, that she would say something extreme and zany, and that would be the talking point as opposed to this unimaginable fisticuffs moment."

Following the incident on Monday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, which organises the Oscars, said they do "not condone violence in any form".

But it remains to be seen if Smith will be invited back and whether the events of the 94th Academy Awards will serve as a wake-up call.

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