Will Smith slapping Chris Rock was the moment, but let’s talk about the 20 seconds immediately afterwards, because what happened during this stretch is independently significant and deserves to be discussed and remembered, too. I’m talking about one of the longest purposeful audio interruptions in television history. Or at least, American television history.
After Smith hit Rock, the comedian amazingly composed himself (fortunately there was no injury or this story might include the possibility of criminal charges—more on that later) and said, “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.” The camera flashed to Smith, who yelled out—twice—“Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”
None of this had to be censored—and yes, censorship is the right word. ABC could also have just bleeped the three curse words. After all, the telecast was on a slight time delay, giving the network’s standards and practices team (which usually includes a lawyer) a brief moment to review. Instead, ABC cut the audio for 20 seconds straight. Looking back, it strikes me as odd that people weren’t sure whether the slap was some scripted comedic bit. The fact that ABC reacted to the mayhem this particular way should have been the tip-off that everything had gone off the rails.