The Michael Richards mess — a sitcom star, nearly a decade past notoriety, talking trash in a Los Angeles comedy club — seemed like a one day story. But as always with such things, it is the reaction to the event that is of interest.
As far as Richards is concerned, he seems determined to outdo the ugliness of his rant on November 17th with the servility of his multiple acts of contrition. His publicist, casting a wide net for overstatement, says that his client has opened a “terrible racial wound in our nation,” and Richards has dutifully gone groveling to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. “We might turn this minus into a plus,” Jackson says, and he doesn’t need to say for whom. As Star Parker points out, Richards’ turning to Jackson and Sharpton as the representatives of the black community is condescending in the extreme. Meanwhile, the men in the audience who were the targets of Richards’ insults have retained legal representation to seek damages.
Those who genuinely object to what Richards said are not contradicting themselves if they also abhor how the victim mentality and its representatives swoop down instantly, like buzzards picking the carrion apart before the blood has dried.
It has been pointed out that Richards is apologizing only because the incident was captured on tape. If it were not for the You-Tubing of America, the pressure on him to apologize would be infinitely less. It was only when millions of people were able to view the incident that some public statement became necessary.
Some cite this as proof of Richards’ insincerity, but in truth the video audience is the only one worth apologizing to. The live audience is fair game, since going to a comedy club is something like sitting ringside at a prizefight: you might get sprayed by some nasty stuff.
Anyone familiar with comedy clubs knows that the style of performance is often quite abusive. It seems to me that people who attend such venues expect this kind of material and this kind of treatment — as long as it is at the expense of others, not themselves. It’s the same philosophy that feeds the success of radio shock jocks like Howard Stern: the comedian as bully, with an audience watching or listening in adoration as long as none of the abuse comes their way.
At the Laugh Factory, a few black audience members heckled Richards for not being funny; he responded with references to lynching and multiple repetitions of the word “nigger.” One of the men then responded, “That was uncalled for!” Indeed it was, and Richards’ response was way out of proportion, but the audience members had initiated the exchange. They liked dishing it out, but didn’t care for taking it.
None of this exonerates Richards — he said what he said, and people are free to draw their own conclusions about him. Jerry Seinfeld, who acted as a good soldier (as well as a careful businessman) in getting his friend Richards a prime apology slot on David Letterman’s show, spoke about how sickened he was by Richards’ remarks. You want to say, “But Jerry, these people were in a nightclub. Who were they expecting, Jimmy Stewart?”
Although his outburst appeared spontaneous, Richards seemed to be aiming for Lenny Bruce territory — trying to shock people by breaking a taboo, followed by a lecture on how it’s only a word (Richards said something to this effect on the tape). I think taboos are vastly underrated myself, but people who go to comedy clubs tend to feel differently. No one is forcing them to choose foul-mouthed comics for their evening entertainment.
Those black Americans who have resurrected the use of the most notorious racial epithet as an ironic statement of rebellion or racial pride or God knows what else are reaping the whirlwind by doing so. Gangsta rappers and their ilk have made the word more casual and less taboo, while also insisting that only they have the right to wield it. Outbursts like Richards’ are inevitable in a climate that on one hand is overrun with political correctness and on the other mocks the very idea that there is such a thing as bad taste.