It would not be hard to look at the 2022 Academy Awards and come away with the impression that the Oscars were destroyed by jokes. The most obvious and catastrophic was Chris Rock’s cruel, lazy crack about Jada Pinkett Smith, which Will Smith responded to by slapping Rock across the face, and which will forever define this year’s ceremony. But even before that point, and in the hour and a half that followed, the night was a repeated demonstration of underwhelming, misfire comedy. With the exception of host Regina Hall’s fun, silly bit about pulling aside handsome A-listers to give them “COVID tests,” the hosting trio of Hall, Wanda Sykes, and Amy Schumer did little to give the ceremony a shape or any sense of a shared, controlled tone. A pre-taped segment with Sykes touring the Academy museum, miffed that her $15 donation got her nothing, fell totally flat. A bit where Schumer pretended to mistake Kirsten Dunst for a seat filler did not land. It’d be completely reasonable to look at this ceremony as a whole and declare that it would have been better without any jokes at all.
But the opposite response is just as true: There needed to be many more jokes. Not everywhere, and not in every segment — at their best, awards ceremonies are about sincere emotion and heartfelt goodwill for remarkable artistic achievements. Puncturing or eliminating that would be tantamount to undermining the whole shebang. Still, the 2022 ceremony proved that an absence of jokes can be just as bad, and can do just as much to undermine the sincere celebration of well-deserved wins. Rock’s joke and Smith’s uncontrolled response to it were the worst things about the Oscars. The second-worst thing was that no one had the courage, the decision-making power, or the presence of mind to make the follow-up jokes that might have put things back on track.
Most jokes make us laugh by relieving tension. Typically, a comedian has to create the tension before it can be released, which is the functional role of a joke premise or a setup. This could take the shape of, say, “Regina Hall is single and she’d like to make out with hot men,” or Amy Schumer introducing Adam McKay’s nomination for Don’t Look Up, or Wanda Sykes coming out dressed as Richard Williams and complaining about his shorts. Then comes the punchline, which takes the dangling, unaddressed tension of the premise and twists it by acknowledging it. Regina Hall is single and so now we get to laugh as she ogles and gropes hot men (subtext: decades of women being objectified at awards ceremonies). The Sykes costume spins outward into a more elaborate costume bit; Schumer turns the Don’t Look Up namecheck into a dig at its position as the Best Picture nominee with the least critical acclaim. Tension, release.
In the immediate aftermath of Rock’s ill-conceived joke, though, no one needed to create any tension in that room. Everyone had just seen an upsetting, confusing, totally unexpected thing happen. The next moments were aching for someone to open a release valve, and absent the immediate arrival of a trained conflict mediator, it could only happen through jokes. They didn’t need to be thoughtful responses or offer some witty way to twist what had just happened into a source of humor. They just needed to be an opportunity for everyone to get on the same page about the fact that, yes, something utterly unpredictable and unnerving had taken place. But instead, the Oscars continued to roll along with the pre-planned schedule. Next, Questlove accepted an award for Best Documentary, giving a beautiful speech that was absolutely steamrolled by the events immediately preceding it. Then a tribute to The Godfather, then “In Memoriam,” then a clip of the Production Design award from earlier in the day, then Kevin Costner presenting the Best Director award to Jane Campion, then a tribute to Pulp Fiction, and then, in a truly mind-boggling next move, Will Smith took the stage to accept his award for Best Actor.
Eventually Schumer came back out, and in reference to the last time she’d been onstage, she joked that she’d spent the intervening time trying to get out of her Spider-Man costume. “Did I miss anything?” she asked. In the theater, there was a rolling laugh and a smattering of applause. “There’s like … a different vibe in here.” More laughter, more applause. But it was nearly an hour between the enormous disruption and someone other than Will Smith acknowledging what had happened. Absent any kind of input from the supposed hosts of the evening, and without any even milquetoast attempt to dial the mood back down to a comfortable zone, that hour felt like an eternity. Even worse, it felt like an eternity in which the lived reality of what had taken place was drifting further and further away from the blithely cheerful false normalcy of the ceremony. An elephant had entered the room, and rather than address it, the Academy Awards spent the next hour piling bedsheets and tablecloths and montages of The Godfather on top of it, all in the desperate hope that somehow we’d forget it was there.
Comedy is an art form designed to address the elephant, and in that hour, the Academy Awards desperately needed someone to do that. It’s not clear why it didn’t happen. There were not one, not two, but three hosts, all hired precisely because they are funny, charismatic personalities. Two of them are professional stand-up comedians with years and years of experience handling awkward, uncomfortable moments. Yes, much of their contribution up until that point was familiar, sometimes even hacky awards-ceremony banter, but in the moments after that slap, the theater would have exploded with laughter at even the most basic joking reference to what had taken place. When she finally got back on camera, Schumer’s joke was so obvious that it was barely even a joke; it was a plain description of a weird mood, with the half-buried implication that it’d be fully absurd to not know why everyone was acting so strangely. It wasn’t enough, but it was something.
There was no way to salvage the show completely; no amount of joking could have erased or completely addressed a rupture that large. But more jokes would have made everyone feel at least a little bit more comfortable, a little bit more confident about playing the roles of happy award winners and supportive colleagues. Yes, a joke did ruin the Oscars. The people in charge should’ve known that jokes were the best chance to save them.