Racism in comedy: Kramer's sense of humour failure

When ex-Seinfeld actor Michael Richards' stand-up routine was interrupted, he responded with a barrage of racist bile. And, after footage was posted on the internet, it wasn't just his audience that was left shocked
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The Independent US

Suddenly, Mel Gibson is no longer the most reviled man in American show business. Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic tirade of six months ago may not have been forgotten exactly, but it has certainly been eclipsed.

The man he has to thank for that is a comedian who, until his moment of maximum meltdown last Friday night, was regarded with uncommon affection by television audiences in the United States and far beyond.

For nine years, Michael Richards played Jerry Seinfeld's eccentric neighbour Kramer on Seinfeld - a bravura turn that combined brilliant physical comedy, hilariously mismatched thrift store clothing, and a uniquely zany neurotic quality that made Kramer, in many ways, the most human and lovable of a distinctly grotesque gallery of principal characters.

That, though, was then. Last Friday night, Richards took the stage at the Laugh Factory, one of the most prominent comedy clubs in Los Angeles, and suffered what might very politely be described as a total sense of humour failure. To put it more bluntly, he went on a monstrously offensive racist tear that first stunned his audience and then prompted most of them to walk out in disgust.

Thanks to an audience member who captured the tirade on a video cell phone, and thanks more particularly to the cable-news media which has replayed the incident endlessly over the past 48 hours, we know in almost excruciating detail what exactly he said - even if we, along with the rest of the world, remain clueless as to why he said it.

In the moments before the cell phone picked up the incident, Richards was evidently told by two black hecklers that he wasn't funny. He turned on them almost immediately, telling them he was rich and could have them arrested and escorted out of the place if he felt like it. That didn't go down too well, and the hecklers let him know they didn't appreciate him lording it over them.

That was when he seemingly lost control. "Shut up!" he screamed. "Fifty years ago we'd have had you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass!"

Some audience members chuckled at the sheer excess - in the age of Borat, people are becoming accustomed to hearing expressions of gobsmacking racial animus in the service of some higher satirical purpose.

But Richards took it to another level. "You can talk, you can talk, you're brave now motherfucker!" he shouted. "Throw his ass out! He's a nigger!" He then repeated the word "nigger" four times before mumbling: "They're going to arrest me for calling a black man a nigger." People in the audience could be heard gasping in disbelief. Someone, apparently one of the original hecklers, shouted: "It's not funny. That's why you're a reject, never had no shows, never had no movies. Seinfeld, that's it." To which Richards retorted: "You interrupted me, pal. That's what you get for interrupting the white man." At that point, the audience got up en masse and started filing out as Richards dropped the mike and walked off stage.

What is interesting about the episode is that, in a less wired, less interconnected, less media-conscious world, it might have gone all but unnoticed. The management at the Laugh Factory clearly thought they could "manage" the incident, because Richards was back on stage the next night. He's probably not the first prominent comedian to lose it. The point, though, is that until the age of WiFi and video phones we were much less likely to know about it.

The scandal did not break until Monday morning when the footage was picked up by AOL's video streaming site, TMZ.com. Within hours it was all anybody in cyberspace was talking about. It wasn't clear if they were outraged at Richards so much as intrigued by the fly-on-the-wall nature of the video watching a man in full public breakdown mode.

At that point, in the great American tradition, it turned into a media event. Television reporters started hounding Richards at his home in the San Fernando Valley and calling his agent. Richards, meanwhile, went into crisis management mode, refusing at first to say anything on camera but assuring a reporter from CNN that he felt terrible about what had happened and would make amends.

The inevitable apology was not long coming. Jerry Seinfeld was scheduled to be a guest on David Letterman's late-night chat show on Monday night, and he talked Richards into offering an expression of contrition by video hook-up.

Like Mel Gibson's apology - indeed, like all celebrity step-downs from the unforgivable - Richards' mea culpa was less than convincing. "You know, I'm a performer. I push the envelope, I work in a very uncontrolled manner," he said. "I do a lot of free association, it's spontaneous, I go into character ... The rage did go all over the place. It went to everybody ... For me to be at a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, I'm deeply, deeply sorry. I'm not a racist, that's what's so insane about this, and yet it's said, it comes through, it fires out of me and even now, in the passion that's here as I confront myself."

There's something about showbiz confessions that, knowingly or not, follows a pre-written script. Mel Gibson insisted he wasn't anti-Semitic, Richards that he wasn't racist. One of the patrons at the Laugh Factory, interviewed on television, said that for Richards to say he wasn't racist was like a man who shoots his family dead and then tells the police that he's not a murderer.

It was Richards' bad luck that several professional comedians were in attendance last Friday, and many were quick to offer less than flattering opinions. Paul Rodriguez, a well-known local comic, went on CNN and said the word "nigger" in and of itself shocked the conscience.

"Once the word comes out of your mouth and you don't happen to be African American, then you have a whole lot of explaining [to do]," he said. "Freedom of speech has its limitations, and I think Michael Richards found those limitations."

Richards was not the only one shown up. Several cable news hosts did themselves little credit by asking the same crass question show after show: if it's okay for black performers to say "nigger", why isn't it okay for white performers? - the insinuation being that the distinction was racist in and of itself. The Laugh Factory management, meanwhile, had an awful lot of explaining to do.

Owner Jamie Masada, who is no stranger to tabloid headlines since introducing Michael Jackson to the recovering cancer victim who ended up accusing him of child sexual abuse, put out a statement saying that the only reason he allowed Richards to return to the Laugh Factory stage on Saturday night was to issue an apology.

That sounded less than convincing, not least because no apology was forthcoming in Saturday night's set. After the media storm hit - and after a few dozen protesters massed outside the Laugh Factory to broadcast their feelings in no uncertain terms - Masada suddenly became a lot less accommodating.

"We have made it clear that Mr Richards is no longer welcomed here," he said. "The Laugh Factory is a comedy club, not a forum for personal attacks."

It's hard to know what the real story behind Richards' outburst is. Life has grown distinctly quiet for the 57-year-old performer since Seinfeld ended its run in 1998. He's had bit parts in movies and episodic television, but his one big venture - an attempt to set up his own sitcom entitled The Michael Richards Show - fell flat after just a few episodes.

Not too much is known about his personal life, except that he is divorced and, according to a gossipy website maintained by restaurant workers called bitterwaitress.com, he has a reputation as a lousy tipper.

Without excusing him, it is perhaps worth pointing out that pushing boundaries - a staple of many inventive comics over the centuries - has become a much trickier proposition in an age when not too many taboos are left to break. Back in the 1960s, all a comedian like Lenny Bruce had to do was use the word "cocksucker" on stage to wind up being prosecuted for public obscenity. That seems pretty mild by today's standards.

The countercultural generation of comics who came along in the wake of the Vietnam War had an active interest in breaking taboos. Bruce is now generally regarded as a hero, not a pariah. Likewise, Andy Kaufman, the subject of the 1999 Jim Carrey biopic Man On The Moon, outraged people in ways that were generally inventive rather than hateful.

Kaufman once got himself hired on a television sitcom in the guise of his alter ego, an abusive lounge singer called Tony Clifton, threw a tantrum and had himself thrown out of the building by security guards.

However, even Kaufman had his low moments: he once infuriated an adoring student audience by refusing to tell jokes and choosing, instead, to read The Great Gatsby from end to end. By the time he was done, the very few remaining audience members were fast asleep.

The curse of Seinfeld?

Michael Richards may be the only principal cast member from Seinfeld to have self-destructed in public, but none of the four - Richards, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander - has made much impact since their sitcom, the most successful in US television history, came to a close in 1998. In the Hollywood press, people talk about the "Seinfeld curse" - a notion the actors themselves reject, although all bar Richards have appeared as themselves in Seinfeld co-producer Larry David's sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, in roles that often refer to the difficulty of escaping their Seinfeld characters. Curb aside, this is what the other three have been up to for the past eight years:

Jerry Seinfeld

Having played a comically altered version of himself for nine glorious seasons on NBC, he started seriously enjoying being the real version of himself. He recorded a stand-up special, made a couple of shorts about his imaginary adventures with Superman, and made a handful of American Express commercials, but otherwise settled into the comfortable existence of showbiz royalty, living in the Hamptons, with a young wife and three kids. He pops up on the late-night chat circuit periodically, looking happier than a pig in mud.

Jason Alexander

He was the only principal cast member to fail to win an Emmy, but in acting circles his performance is often the most admired. He tried to launch a sitcom about a motivational speaker who has trouble motivating himself, but Bob Patterson lasted just 10 episodes. He has done theatre and episodic television. But the association with George Costanza seems, so far, impossible to break.

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss

She has worked perhaps the hardest to break the curse, launching two sitcoms, with middling results. Watching Ellie had her playing a singer who has an affair with a member of her back-up band. The tone was meant to be funny and gossipy, almost bitchy, but it didn't quite work. The New Adventures of Old Christine, about the travails of a divorced mother, is still on the air, but the second coming of Seinfeld it decidedly is not.