A New Meaning for Punchline

Think of something stupid or cruel you could say “in jest” about a woman who practices the law.

She only prosecutes domestic violence because she’s a woman.

Women lawyers are just liberal feminazis.

She’s just a politician. She doesn’t really know the law.

You know the difference between a woman lawyer and a pit bull? Lipstick.

What a b—h.

This is the tip of the iceberg. I’ve heard much worse, especially since my wife decided to run for Circuit Judge. My blood starts to boil whenever I hear such ignorant blather. I’ve certainly formulated responses I’d like to make to the people who share such “jokes” even though I don’t share them.

However, I’ve never hit anybody for saying stupid things about my wife.

As everyone knows, Oscar winner Will Smith did just that on Sunday night. When Chris Rock made jokes about the appearance of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, who has alopecia, Will Smith marched across the stage, slapped Rock in the chops, and continued to make threats against Rock. It was so dramatic that the first response of many viewers was to assume it had been planned. It’s Hollywood, right?

Whether or not Rock’s jokes were actually funny comes down to subjective judgment. Plenty of people in the audience laughed. Pinkett-Smith certainly didn’t. At what point do the words in a joke become fighting words?

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22 Responses to A New Meaning for Punchline

  1. Bill Arnoldus says:

    Words in a joke become fighting words once they become personal. Personal (adjective) 1. of, affecting, or belonging to a particular person rather than to anyone else. 2. of or concerning one’s private life, relationships, and emotions rather than matters connected with one’s public or professional career. Now joking lightly about personal topics and outright calling someone on personal topics have different reactions because a lighthearted personal joke can be funny and taken well by an indifferent party. Once a party takes offense though, that’s when the joke suddenly crossed the line and becomes offensive, possibly starting a fight. It ultimately boils down to the interpretations of the joke and how the butt of the joke takes it.

  2. James says:

    Realistically, there is at no point where words become fighting words. The ideas they present however, can make someone angry and upset. There is never a time where the words of someone joking should result in the actions Will Smith took. It was immature and illogical. However, I can’t help but understand how it feels for words to push limits. This considered, there is almost always a better way to address something that physically assaulting it. However, as a professional, Rock had no business going after Jada like that.
    I’m conclusion, Rock is in the wrong, however, Smith NEVER should have assaulted Rock. There were better ways

  3. Andrew Liu says:

    There certainly is a point where words can become fighting words. Like Bill said, once the words become personal to the affected person/persons, they can have a substantial impact on their emotions and mental wellbeing. In the case of Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett-Smith, the target of the joke was Pinkett-Smith’s hair, which was lost due to alopecia. It is widely accepted that making jokes toward people’s medical conditions is unacceptable. It was evident that she didn’t appreciate it, and the joke resulted in Rock being slapped on national television.

  4. Eddie Lai says:

    There is absolutely no point in which works in a joke should become fighting words. A word of a joke will never justifiably provoke violence. There is a Chinese proverb “动嘴不动手。” To roughly translate, it means to use words and not violence. No matter how wrong the other side is, choosing violence instantly escalates the situation and puts you on the losing side of the argument. Despite Chris Rock’s joke being insensitive, Will Smith is still largely in the wrong. He could have easily chosen to sit still and call Chris Rock out later, but he didn’t. I know he, most likely, was not thinking of the consequences because of the emotions, but that is still not a reason to assault Chris Rock.

  5. Jason Barlow says:

    Words in jest, I would say, become fighting words the moment someone decides to act upon them. Words do not have any meaning beyond what we give to them, and though Rock said some things that were unkind, Smith also behaved immaturely. There is the saying, “Actions Speak Louder Than Words,” one action will speak several times louder than thousands of words against it. Smith was ultimately in the wrong in this situation, almost blindly following his emotions and defeating himself with the argument of his actions.

  6. I have two different takes on this situation. One, violence is never the best way to handle an altercation. However, there are certain things that should not be said let alone joked about. Considering she has no control over her condition, the joke should not have been made altogether. Two, Will Smith should have responded with more professionalism. Hitting someone never truly solves anything. Yes, the joke was extremely unnecessary but that does not justify Will’s response. Typically, I think people end with violence because personal matters are brought into the mix. At the end of the day, it is best to verbally end the altercation. There is no valid reason for hitting someone, but I understand that a person can easily do it out of anger.

  7. Aaron+Sharp says:

    I personally have a friend with alopecia. When she heard the joke she was more than angry at people’s responses. People were defending Chris Rock’s joke, saying “it was just a joke”. There is a golden rule in comedy. The funniness must outweigh the offensiveness. You can’t laugh and be offended at the same time, so if you successfully tell a joke that’s funnier than offensive then it’s not over the line. The problem is this golden rule applies to everyone in the room, and while some people who don’t suffer from alopecia found the joke funny, when the joke is made at your expense, the offensiveness rises and the funniness falls. This is when a joke has gone too far.

  8. Vishnu Gadepalli says:

    In any other context, Will Smith would have been justified in what he did to Chris Rock. If a man makes fun of another man’s wife, they deserve anything that may happen to them. However, in the context of what actually happened, I don’t believe that the Rock’s words should have been taken as fighting words. Smith should not have done what he did. Rock was simply doing his job — telling jokes. A comedian’s job is to poke fun at all different types of people, and one being rich and famous doesn’t exempt them from being subject to these jokes. I also find it interesting how Will Smith actually visibly chuckled when Rock delivered the joke. This leads me to believe that he wasn’t really that upset, but he felt obligated to be when his wife was visibly not amused. This exemplifies the effort that Will Smith puts in the marriage compared to Jada Smith which can be interpreted as the reason their relationship is so flawed. On the other hand, I understand Smith’s frustration, but what he did was completely unprofessional and from now on, he will be seen in that infamous light. Especially, because of the type of person Jada Pinkett-Smith is, I don’t think Smith needed to “defend” her reputation like he did because in the process of doing so, he tainted his own by being banned from the Oscars for the next 10 years. She never respected her husband and made this public on many occasions, so I believe this only further proves that how Will Smith reacted was over the top and just unnecessary. All this to say that words in a joke don’t ever become fighting words unless there was ill intention, and I just don’t see that as the case in this situation.

  9. Everett "CJ" Mason, Jr. says:

    Although I do not think that there is ever a point where words should become “fighting words”, there is certainly a line that should not be crossed when it comes to humor. In this case, Chris Rock was making jokes about a personal issue that has been haunting Pinkett-Smith for a while. Despite the checkered history between Will and Jada, I do respect him for standing up for his wife who he has been married to for many years. I do not, however, agree with slapping anyone (or instigating situations like that) over remarks not made directly about you. Will could have just as easily pulled Chris Rock to the side afterward and discussed why he was upset, which would have likely prompted a public apology from Rock. Not only would this have been more professional, but Smith would also not have to be living in the shadow of guilt from this situation and facing the consequences for the rest of his life.

  10. I can see both sides. Joking words turned into something bigger and more dramatic are so useless I feel. Just walk away, or speak it from the heart! Life is too short to get riled up because someone has no filter or common sense. I also see, however, that actions can speak louder than words, especially those made out of uncontrollable anger. Even the tiniest backhanded comment could end up in violence depending on the day. I know what it is like to let things slide and not stand up for yourself, you get run over. I still believe that Will Smith was stooping down to the same disrespectful level as Chris Rock when he chose physical aggression instead of communicating.

  11. Hilldana Tibebu says:

    I think jokes can only become fighting words if the person telling the joke is unapologetic when approached about the disrespect felt by their joke. A public display of violence made no point except that Will Smith is violent. Had he gone to Chris in private and expressed his and Jada’s discomfort with the joke, the issue would have been resolved. Also, I don’t even think Chris knew that Jada has alopecia, so Will’s actions were completely reactive and not thought through. Usually, violence is usually only brought into a situation like this to assert some kind of dominance or manliness, which is what I personally believe Will was trying to do. This is Chris’s profession, if Will had a problem, he should’ve addressed the situation in a more professional manner.

  12. Jeremiah McClain says:

    I think it’s stupid to believe that a person can’t help themself to resort to violence when their feelings are hurt. There is no reason to fight someone over words. It really just boils down to self-control. If someone says something stupid about your wife, and your first thought is to end their life, then you have poor self-control, simply put. If I’m able to put you into an ‘fighting’ mood or worst, an asylum, with only my words, then that characteristic is something you need to work on.

  13. Cali Orman says:

    There is not a specific point that a joke becomes fighting words. When jokes get personal it is important to know the person you are joking with. If you know the person well you will know the boundaries and things that cross the line. That is a risk of joking with people you don’t know well, you may not know how far is too far.

  14. Hong Zheng says:

    If people knew the weight behind their words, this world would be a lot quieter. While I believe that Chris Rock went a little far, I feel like his occupation as a comedian gives him the ability to jokingly insult people without much repercussion. That being said, I think Will Smith was in the wrong for not handling this situation appropriately. First, Will should have recognized that he was dealing with a comedian. Second, he should have understood actions taken off-camera can lead to further embarrassment and a place in history. Even if the joke insulted his wife, he should have taken it backstage and handled it off-camera. While I understand his frustration for his wife, his approach towards the situation was unprofessional and may even lead to embarrassment for the wife.

  15. Laya says:

    I do not believe that a joke should turn into a physical fight. There are obvious times when people can cross the line, but fighting someone is another level. Smith walking up and slapping Rock, disrupted the Grammys. The entire situation could have been settled after. A private conversation between the two of them would have resulted way better. Even if that did not end well, it would have been a more mature attempt to fix the problem. I understand that Jada felt hurt and wanted justice, but starting such a big commotion during the program was a lack of self-control. It may be hard to control your emotions, but that is what a mature adult must be willing to do. If your boss yells at you, you cannot just start throwing punches. As long as you stay calm and collected, while still standing up for yourself, that will result in a more beneficial solution, than just a fight would.

  16. The line is crossed in many ways. One way that I’ve personally is when the jokes start to become more and more frequent even when the person expresses their discomfort with the jokes. It all comes down to knowing the other person and understanding where you can and can’t step. It’s not uncommon for me to make jokes at my friends by making fun of them, and I expect the same in return. The line there would be if I said something too personal that I know makes them uncomfortable, or if they said for me to stop and I kept on with the same joke over and over again. You should be able to read a person and the situation and use your own judgment as to if the joke is appropriate or not.

  17. Christina Zhang says:

    I believe that both Chris Rock and Will Smith were odd in this situation, and my evaluation from an outsider’s perspective can be inaccurate. But, I think that there is no definitive line that can or cannot be crossed when it comes to jokes. If someone is genuinely offended from a joke told at their expense, then their response can certainly be validated, whether or not through physical violence. Though there are definitely better responses than physical violence.

  18. Jenna De Ochoa says:

    I do not condone Will Smith’s actions. Violence will never be the correct response and, while words can be extremely hurtful, they are just words at the end of the day. Students can say vile, offensive things to another student, but the student still is suspended from school for slapping the bully. Will Smith had a reason to hit Chris Rock, however, he should have been mature enough to remain in the audience. Chris Rock, on the other hand, should never have made a joke regarding alopecia. Diseases should not be a topic for a punchline. While this type of “comedy” is often indulged in when children are changing in locker rooms or secluded at sleepovers, it was never meant for the stage lights. Chris Rock should have realized common, undeniable boundaries regarding comedy and saved the joke for his family. Comedy is meant to lift spirits and should never bring another down.

  19. Arika Gardner says:

    I don’t believe that violence is ever the answer especially in cases of verbal disputes or rude commentary. People will say what they want to say and as long as they don’t physically attack you then I feel like a person can control themselves. Will actions were definitely unjustifiable. G.I Jane is not nearly as offensive as other names people have called is wife. Not to mention that he laughed at the joke before going to slap him, so he found the joke funny. I don’t believe he should have been banned from the academy since there are other actors who have done worse things that just slap a person on live television, but no amount of words should make you want to hurt another person.

  20. Will Smith was justified in his violence toward Chris Rock and should not be punished for his outburst. Violence can be a valid option, especially when someone targets a loved one. Chris Rocks’ joke was immature and should not have been said on stage. A disease should never be a topic for a joke; you never how much a specific disease has impacted a person’s private life experiences. Public comedians need to exclude hurtful jokes from their sets and Chris Rock needs to issue a public apology. Alopecia, like many other diseases and disorders, could be a triggering topic to someone in the audience. Will Smith may have overreacted, but his show of violence is completely and utterly understandable.

  21. Claire Ellison says:

    Jokes become fighting words when it is a personal attack against someone or a collection of people. As stated previously, violence is never the answer and Will Smith should not have assaulted Chris Rock. However, Chris Rock should have never made a joke about someone’s medical condition, especially at a televised event. Both people were in the wrong and deserve to be called out for it. However, one was calculated, and the other was in the heat of the moment, which should be taken into consideration when taking sides in the matter.

  22. Oliver Higginbotham says:

    I do not see the reason so many instances turn violent like the confrontation between Will Smith and Chris Rock as stated in your blog. I personally think that words are words and that they should not have any effect on how you feel in the situation, in most cases. The few instances I think it should have an effect if it has a physical effect or causes problems with a relationship between you and friends or family. Even though what Will Smith did wasn’t right, it was only partly in the wrong in my opinion.

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