By Kellie Schorr
As a teen in the early 80’s in El Paso, I loved to go to restaurant named Springfire that was a favorite of college kids and high schoolers with permissive parents.
It featured great barbeque, a well-stocked bar, and offered stand-up comedy every single night. What it was famous (and loved) for was the abuse it heaped on the audience at both shows.
If you stood up to go to the restroom, they would shine a flashlight on you and follow you all the way singing, “They’re going potty!” If you coughed, the spotlight would shine on you, and they’d do a comedy riff about all the terrible diseases you may have (which always ended up being sexual in nature). If you dared to heckle, they were mercilessly prepared to shred you. After the spotlight released you, a server would appear at your table and give you a bumper sticker that said, “I was abused at Springfire and loved it!”
Springfire brought so many laughs and several important lessons to my young life. It taught me how good it felt to be with friends, that you could find humor in anything, and that you better go potty before the show starts. The club also showed me the transgressional nature of stand-up comedy.
Stand-up derives from the tradition of the court jester, someone who could actually speak truth to power (without losing their head) because it was their job to provide observational entertainment. Stand-up is designed to observe, critique, and offend. When a stand-up comedian enters a room, the gloves are off, and—if they are good at what they do—the laughter is on. When you’re in the audience you are part of the project, whether you like it or not.
Dr. Sharon Lockyer, a sociologist at Brunel University who researches stand-up said it best when she wrote, “Audiences enter into an unspoken contract, suspending the normal social rules and allowing unexpected, controversial, or scandalous subjects. Their ability to understand the premise and appreciate it determines whether a joke produces a laugh or scathing disapproval.”
When it comes to Chris Rock, Will Smith, and the already infamous “slap heard ‘round the world” there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that using a woman’s alopecia as the premise for a throw-away joke was indeed a poor choice and, at the same time, not surprising. Stand-up plays by a different set of rules. The response was off the rails.
What’s Wrong Got to Do with It?
At my office the next day the air was thick with chatter about the event. In one room we had:
Masculine Traditionalists: “He has the right to defend his wife!”
Feminist Traditionalists: “She can defend herself!”
Apathetic Traditionalists: “Are we having donuts again Wednesday?”
Effusive Romantics: “He was showing his love for her.”
Pragmatic Romantics: “He could just send her flowers.”
Fiscally Responsible Romantics: “Have you seen the cost of flowers these days?”
At the end of the discussion, once the pot was filled with opinions and stirred a few times, the consensus was: <dramatically opens envelope>
“Everyone was wrong.”
Chris Rock was wrong in his topic choice. Stand-up is supposed to punch up (at power or privilege) not punch down.
Will Smith was wrong to physically assault someone, give a wildly disconnected acceptance speech where he claimed, “love makes you do crazy things” (something domestic violence survivors quickly pointed out is what their abusers say), and refuse to leave the auditorium when asked.
The Academy was wrong in not evicting him or asking security to get involved when he refused to leave.
The whole room was wrong to give Smith a standing ovation.
So, now that we’ve determined everything about everything was wrong—what do we do? Having spent all the energy to assign blame, where do we end up? Right where we started. Nothing has changed. Nothing is better. It’s all just wrong. As Shakespeare would tell us, “Sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
What Else Can We Do?
Whether it’s this event, or personal suffering that we experience, being trapped in the duality of right/wrong isn’t going to help us as much as we would like. What can we do other than judge?
Empathy. Empathy first. Empathy last. Empathy always.
One of the best ways to employ empathy is to start with the question “What is it like?”—sit for a moment and ask it in as many facets as a diamond.
- What is it like to be a woman whose career relies on appearance and lose your hair? What’s it like to be so open about your personal business—your marriage, your sex life, your hair—that it is fodder for comments every and any day, even your husband’s biggest day?
- What’s it like to have your wife go through something you can’t stop, or help? What’s it like to suffer from narcissism, or be so self-entitled you co-opt an event to deal with your frustrations then can’t adequately read the situation or apologize properly because you can only see in terms of how “you felt” and how it affected you? What’s it like to feel the social pressure of representation everywhere you go? How much pain does it cause you and the people near you?
- What’s it like to be performing in front of “the elite” of Hollywood and be tasked to create humor in a room that rarely laughs unless you are one of “the darlings”? What’s it like to be slapped in front of a million people and have to stand up there and hand out an award while your face hurts and your mind is reeling? What’s it like to watch that person get hugs and love and ovations as the police are asking if you want to press charges?
- What’s it like to be a producer or production assistant holding a clipboard spelling out exactly what is supposed to happen and then it all goes into unscripted, unexpected, violent territory? What’s it like to have two minutes to make decisions while the whole world is watching and you’re dealing with the power players of your craft in a highly politicized field?
The questions won’t do anything to change what happened, but it may change how it plays out in your mind, your heart, and your ability to learn from it.
Empathy is not a “get out of responsibility free” card.
There still needs to be accountability, amends, and changes that happen because of an event. There is no “fixing”; there is only awareness. Empathetic understanding is a way to lean into that awareness and turn it into growth.
Beyond the duality of “right and wrong” we saw on Oscar night we also had an example of a better way.
At the end of the Oscars, Lady Gaga presented with Liza Minelli who is going through her own suffering and confusion. Realizing Liza was losing her place in the moment, Lady Gaga reached down and took her hand while whispering, “I got you” to which Liza responded, “I know.” It was one of the most touching, human moments that event has ever seen. What made that moment so transcendent?
Empathy first. Empathy last. Empathy always.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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