On Violence and Vaudeville (A Superfluous and Belated Reflection on The Slap)

Who among us has been slapped across the face? I have, quite a lot, by both parents. I’ve always remembered one particular incident, minor in the scheme of things, but it always stuck out for the crystalline structure of the event, and the warped painful absurdity — actually absurdism — of it. I may have been about seven. The family was in a merry mood, watching television. My dad had asked me to point out some actor we’d been discussing. Then he got off on another tack, was distracted, and began talking to someone else, about something else. And then the actor came on the TV. So I interrupted him, tried to get his attention, and nagged him a little too hard — and then WHAM.

It’s not that it’s painful, although it’s usually that, in a bearable sort of way. But the worst part is the humiliation. Of, like, everyone present. The slapped, the slapper, and the spectators. That’s always a heavy moment. Suddenly, everyone in the room becomes a dog or a chimp or something, skulking and shame-faced, like animals. Violence is ugly in the most primal of ways. It’s like a crack has opened up in someone’s humanity, and something primitive escaped.

So (I know I’m late to the party but I’ve been dwelling on this for days), I find that I am less disturbed by Will Smith’s cuffing of Chris Rock at the Oscars, then the moment when he sits down, and the look on his face when he yells. THAT is revealing. That is the really scary moment for me. Before that, the mood remained somewhat light because no one knew that it was real. After all, the cast of characters in the little two-handed scene were a couple of comedians and slaps are a STAPLE of comedy, at least they were, back in the day. In silent comedies, and The Three Stooges and so forth. And Rock dealt with it lightly at first — until the yelling. “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!”. Like all smartasses, I have often been Chris Rock in the moment that followed: “Wow, dude — it’s a G.I. Jane joke!” it’s hard not to take an outrage committed against a comedian personally.

Kings love their court jesters. They love to egg them on farther and farther until they go “too far”, at which point they punish them. That’s how it was, anyway during the Ages we call Dark, the time before the Enlightenment, when written laws were supposed to replace the pre-existing ethic of Tooth and Nail. Civilized people don’t resort to physical violence. Full stop. In fact, can there be a better metaphor for what Fascism is? One person uses provocative speech; another person calls that speech “threatening”, so to “protect” someone, he stops the speech PHYSICALLY. Writ large, the slap becomes jail or torture or execution. It is the method of the January 6 crowd; it is the method of Trump and Putin.

I ran into conflict with an acquaintance (a person of color) this week, when in my outrage I said that Smith should have been ejected from the auditorium for his behavior. And this person became very upset, very angry. And granted, it has to have been very tough for black people this week listening to white people judge these two men, and criticize them, and opine with so much “wisdom” about what should have been done. And Whoopi Goldberg’s point is very well taken that a majority of white people (the Academy) throwing a black man out of their millionaire party is a very bad look. After all, she just got put into the woodshed herself for an entire week in response to some half-baked thoughts she expressed on The View, and I was against her suspension, because, View Producers, punishing a black woman for her comments about race is a very bad look. But a comment is not a slap. So on this issue, my sentiments are almost identical to those of Wanda Sykes, who said that the Oscar dust-up was “sickening”, that she felt “traumatized” and “If you assault somebody, you get escorted out the building and that’s it”. And Kareem Abdul-Jabar, who penned this exquisite essay about why this event was harmful not just to the culture-at-large but blacks in particular. So….my colleague who went off on me, and did so from a stand-point of race (how dare I judge another culture?), I think he’s about half right. Whites condemning (or for that matter, patronizing) blacks…there’s been more than enough, galaxies too much, of that. We could stand to hold our tongues (on a lot of things actually), because there’s usually someone a bit closer to the fray who can speak up for civilization on our behalf, anyway. The age of social media is a time of a quadrillion superfluous opinions.

But that’s with respect to issues of race. I am quite comfortable putting down the aggression of my fellow males, which honestly transcends skin color. Some have been sensitive this week about the perception of black people as lacking self-control, to reference Kareem’s op-ed, but honestly oceans of blood have been spilled by angry white men, millions killed by them on every continent. I’m not pointing a finger at a particular race; I started this essay by talking about my own father. Idi Amin was terrible; Hitler and Stalin were worse, at least in body count. But they had something in common, yeah? Swingin’ or not swingin’ between their legs, as the case may be? Is Will Smith Hitler? No, that’s preposterous. (And by the way, I forgot to say, I really love Will Smith, or always have, at any rate.) But I’m picturing that great Jerome Robbins dance in West Side Story: a slap leads to a slap, which leads to a cut, which leads to another cut, and then it’s a rumble, and then someone’s dead. Not at the Oscars, but somewhere.

Believe it or not, there’s a vaudeville angle here, haha! (This is ostensibly a show biz blog with an original core focus on vaudeville.) Until quite recently, American show biz was quite different from what it is today. The changes came gradually over my lifetime. In vaudeville (and in radio, film and television throughout most of the 20th century), there were (admittedly rigid) standards of decorum onstage and off. Many have chosen to blame Chris Rock for what happened, and there’s a point there, if a flawed one. (The flaw being, there’s never an excuse for violence, even if someone has a rude mouth). But here on planet earth, provocative speech DOES provoke people. So, um, don’t do that? The present tumultuous state of our society is the farthest thing from unprecedented. Prior to vaudeville’s invention of modern show business, entertainment took place largely in wild and wooly saloons, an all-male culture where anything went. Certain businessmen got the idea to create a form of entertainment that would also be suitable for women and children. And so they imposed some industry-wide rules of speech and behavior, that later carried over into mass media, vestiges of which remained until quite late in the 20th century. They were thought to be restrictive, and so they were gradually jettisoned.

While I’m uncomfortable with the censorship of language, there is one unfortunate by-product of the change, and that’s the fact that we have become less kind. Acknowledging that the industry incorporated institutionalized cruelty in the form of cultural stereotypes, what was NOT permitted was personalized insults. Many people think that’s a thing, a necessary thing for comedians, but it’s NOT. It’s a NEW thing. A night club thing. Foul-mouthed insult comics were strictly part of live adult entertainment (as opposed to mass media) for a very long time. Then it became a thing in comedy clubs, and gradually made it to the mainstream in concert films of comedians and TV specials and the like. But I assure you, even at, say a Friar’s Roast (!) for most of the 20th century, the insults were mild and affectionate by our standards. I don’t know where or when the present ugliness arrived. Certainly by the time of The Aristocrats (2005). But now audiences have this expectation of ugliness and some comedians seem to feel a compulsion to deliver it. Gee, what an unexpected result! Public discourse gets meaner, coarser, and less polite, and as a result every single day some famous person sends millions of people into a tizzy for “crossing the line”? And somehow its everybody’s fault except that of whatever millionaire exhibitionist said it? You could have fooled me that would ever happen! Manners exist for a reason — so we don’t kill each other. I’m not saying everyone needs to be some simpering G rated Mr. Rogers up there. And I strongly believe in satire — where the targets are the rich, the powerful and the cruel. Anyway there’s a happy medium between children’s entertainment and “Hey, Crowd of a Thousand People Plus All of You Watching at Home on Television: what do you say we all laugh at this bald woman!?”

The other innovation of the vaudeville managers was audience decorum. Prior to vaudeville, people had brawls in Bowery and Barbary Coast music halls. But standards were imposed. Nowadays, if you cause a disruption, in a theatre, in a dance hall, at a meeting, at a banquet, you are ejected. Pretty much everywhere. But instead Smith got an award, a standing ovation, and now a two week period of “investigation” of an event millions of people saw with their own eyes. What’s to investigate? Was he wearing brass knuckles? The rich and powerful Smith is getting the Trump treatment — the powers that be are too timid to dress him down, because apparently they’re are afraid of alienating his fans. But the end of the line in both cases is universal anarchy. You think I’m exaggerating? Kids LOVE Will Smith! I love Will Smith. And a slap by itself is not a big deal. We all saw Rock shake that off, and I’ve shaken off many a slap myself. But it’s the normalizing of it that’s the terrifying prospect, as we seem to slide further into this universal cage match.

And to return to our vaudeville theme, I echo the many who’ve pointed out Lady Gaga’s kindnesses to the ailing Liza. But come to think of it, women were always the biggest stars in vaudeville.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.