Montreal comedians divided on Chris Rock's right to 'cross the line' in wake of Will Smith's Oscars slap
'A joke is always laughing at the expense of something or someone,' says comic Renzel Dashington
The most talked-about moment of Sunday night's 94th Academy Awards left Montreal comic Renzel Dashington speechless.
"To be honest, I'm not even sure that actually happened. I'm still in shock."
Dashington, along with spectators around the world, watched in disbelief as the winner of the Oscar for best actor, Will Smith, strode on stage and slapped presenter and stand-up comic, Chris Rock, after Rock made a joke at the expense of Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
The slap heard around the world sparked a heated debate on social media, with many denouncing Smith's violent reaction, others supporting him for standing up for Pinkett Smith, and some calling into question the limits of comedy.
But for Dashington, a well-known Montreal comedian and owner of the Bad Boys du Rire comedy club, the art form knows no limits.
"As a comedian, in order for you to be the best at what we do, you need to allow yourself the space to cross the line consistently," he said.
Dashington said he personally tends to be unapologetic in his comedy.
"I don't want to hurt anyone. I think most people that do what I do don't want to hurt anyone, but a joke is always laughing at the expense of something or someone."
WATCH | Renzel Dashington says comedians have to push boundaries with jokes
Pinkett Smith has for years been open about her struggles with hair loss caused by alopecia. Rock took a swipe at her shaved head while on stage to present the award for best documentary, prompting Smith's surprise confrontation.
Eva Alexo, a Montreal comedian and co-creator and producer of the Montreal English comedy show, The Kickback, says while Sunday night's violence was uncalled for, she understands Smith's emotional reaction to the joke.
The ridiculing of Smith and his wife on social media has been well-documented.
"As a comedian, I will say that [the slap] was a lot at first glance; as a human being, I will say there is always context, and everyone reaches their breaking point," said Alexo.
"It's really easy for us to look at celebrities and judge them and say they have no right to have feelings because they have all of this money, but they probably get cyberbullied more than the average person."
WATCH | Eva Alexo explains why she understood Will Smith's reaction to joke:
Alexo said it's important for comedians to change with the times. She said there is a limit to some of the topics that are considered funny in 2022.
"Comedy is supposed to be about healing and finding the light in really dark situations and making people feel better about that or relatable to you," she said.
"It is not my place to talk about something that I don't know about."
Rock showed professionalism, comics agree
What Dashington and Alexo do agree on, however, is Rock's demeanour post-slap, touting his professionalism.
"That was the greatest night in the history of television," Rock joked before going back to presenting the award for best documentary.
Dashington said if he were in Rock's position, he would have pressed charges against Smith.
"I wouldn't give anyone the latitude to think that that's appropriate behaviour because you didn't like something I said," he said.
Bruce Hills, president of Montreal comedy fest Just For Laughs, shared Dashington's sentiment, taking to Twitter to decry the lack of consequences for Smith after the attack.
So we just let comedians get attacked because we don’t like a joke?! No consequences?! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Oscars?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Oscars</a>—@Brucehills
Montreal comedian Mike Ward, who was found by the Supreme Court of Canada last year not to have breached the limits of free speech for routinely mocking a disabled child singer as part of his comedy act, referred in a tweet to Rock's bit as "an innocent joke."
The limit of free speech is a common debate in the comedy world, Alexo said. She says as a stand-up comic, she is all about expressing yourself, but she draws the line at mocking other people's trauma.
"It's not my life experience. It's not my story.... And it's not something I will do."