Award shows have a comedy problem. It’s awards season, the time of year when Mondays become a day of debate over distasteful jokes, and we forget who was even handed a trophy. After a year of reckoning within the entertainment industry regarding diversity and representation, the 94th Academy Awards could have been a night of acknowledgement and celebration for an unprecedentedly diverse set of actors, filmmakers, and others involved in the film community. Instead, most of the discourse we awoke to on Monday was about one thing and one thing only: the Will Smith slap.
Last Sunday, while presenting the award for Best Documentary Feature, Chris Rock made jokes about several audience members. One supposedly unscripted jab was directed at Jada Pinkett Smith’s short hairstyle, which she has said is a result of her alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair to fall out, and which disproportionately affects Black women. In response to this joke, Will Smith walked onstage and slapped Chris Rock and later shouted at him from his seat. Though some of us were eager to take sides, others were tired of the conversation before it had even started. Regardless of whether you think the slap was justified, we must realize that this instance of an unnecessary joke taken badly is not an isolated occurrence. Award shows have relied on comedy sketches for years, and it’s time to evaluate whether this relationship is necessary.
At the beginning of every Oscars is a comedic monologue that sets the tone for the rest of the show. This portion of the broadcast often features jabs at prominent members of the film industry, such as this year, when Amy Schumer made a joke about Leonardo DiCaprio’s relationships with younger women. These jokes are often self-aware, calling out the unrelatable nature of a room full of privileged celebrities. While it can be enjoyable to see the camera pan across the audience of our favorite stars, capturing their reactions to the often cringe-inducing jokes, it is usually just that: cringe-inducing.
I’m sure we all remember Ricky Gervais’ minutes-long rail against Hollywood’s biggest stars at the 2020 Golden Globes. While at first glance we might appreciate his awareness of Hollywood privilege, it is unclear why he felt the need to poke fun at the very show that he had agreed to host. At the end of the day, he was the one getting paid. At the end of the day, the joke, however self-deprecating it may seem, is still being made by someone who benefits from Hollywood privilege, and it can be hard to watch.
At this year’s Oscars, a break between awards was filled by a sketch in which Regina Hall called several male heartthrobs onstage and made COVID-19 related sexual jokes about them. While it can be refreshing to flip the script and see men objectified instead of women, it was uncomfortable to witness. Maybe because it was reminiscent of Seth McFarlane’s horribly objectifying “We saw your boobs” song at the 2013 Oscars. Watching these types of sketches, you ask yourself, “Is anyone proofreading these scripts?”
The conversation surrounding the Will Smith slap has revealed discrepancies in the treatment of Hollywood stars who have taken harmful actions against others. People have been quick to make judgments about the situation, some believing Smith should have been removed from the venue, and some believing the Academy should revoke his award. This would be a harsh response, considering many Hollywood stars have committed worse actions and received less punishment, namely producer and convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein, who still possesses 81 Oscar awards. Smith announced his resignation from the Academy on April 1. Smith’s response to a distasteful joke directed at his wife simply can’t be compared to Weinstein’s actions. The task now is to evaluate whether this situation could have been avoided altogether.
If award shows were restructured, we could revisit and redefine their purpose, which is not necessarily even to name a winner, but to celebrate the achievements of those nominated. Last Sunday, a joke made in poor taste, and the reaction to it, took away from history-making achievements. This year’s awards saw the first deaf man to win best actor, the first film with a predominantly deaf cast win best picture, the first Afro-Latina and openly queer women of color to win supporting actress, the first Latina to win for best animated feature, and the third woman to win best director. This is what the Monday conversation should have been about, not the comedy that made us uncomfortable.
While no award show is entirely unproblematic, the Grammy Awards are an example of what they all could be. The Grammys, which took place this Sunday, April 3, relies less on comedic sketches and more on performances. This allows the artists nominated to shine, and for viewers to celebrate the music they love. Similarly, the Oscars could cut time and controversy by focusing on musical performances, tributes, and clips from the nominated films. After all, that is why we watch.
Award shows matter, if nothing else, as a celebration of achievement in the entertainment industry. But in order to maintain their relevance, they must be restructured for the modern audience. Let’s cut the hard-to-watch comedy and bring the conversation back to performances worth watching.