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Posted by on Nov 21, 2006 in At TMV | 50 comments

Seinfeld’s Kramer Ruins Career With Racial Insults (UPDATED)


There’s an old line: “When I told people I wanted to be a comedian, everyone laughed at me. Today, I’m a comedian, and no one’s laughing at me now!”

Was that written for Seinfeld’s “Kramer,” Michael Richards?

Richards, a veteran comic actor, sketch comedian and longtime cutting-edge comedian unleashed racial-epithet crammed rant onstage at The Laugh Factory, sparking a firestorm that will most certain downsize — if not virtually destroy — his career. Yes, he’ll still have his Seinfeld residuals. But so much for product endorsements, major Hollywood parts or a new TV show. He is now damaged goods.

The story was broken via a video posted on Harvey Levin’s great show biz news site TMZ.com:

Michael Richards exploded in anger as he performed at a famous L.A. comedy club last Friday, hurling racial epithets that left the crowd gasping, and TMZ has obtained exclusive video of the ugly incident.

Richards, who played the wacky Cosmo Kramer on the hit TV show “Seinfeld,” appeared onstage at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood. Kyle Doss, an African-American, told TMZ he and some friends were in the cheap seats and he was playfully heckling Richards when suddenly, the comedian lost it.

The camera started rolling just as Richards began his attack, screaming at one of the men, “Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a f***ing fork up your ass.”

Richards continued, “You can talk, you can talk, you’re brave now motherf**ker. Throw his ass out. He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! A nigger, look, there’s a nigger!”

The crowd is visibly and audibly confused and upset. Richards responds by saying, “They’re going to arrest me for calling a black man a nigger.”

One of the men who was the object of Richard’s tirade was outraged, shouting back “That’s un-f***ing called for, ain’t necessary.”

After the three-minute tirade, it appears the majority of the audience members got up and left in disgust.

Richards was immediately banned from performing at the club again (although on cable news shows the explanation was that he might be able to perform there if he apologized).

David Stein writes:

Richards’ slur-filled response to “hecklers” at The Laugh Factory was the most foul and disgusting thing I have ever seen on stage. Before you ask what a sports talk show host knows about comedy, I have owned a comedy club for the past 15 years and have been a stand-up comic for the past 20 years. I personally have seen more than 5,000 shows. Never — and I mean never — have I seen a performer talk to an audience in such a manner — with racial slurs for the sake of racial slurs. No punch-line. No tongue-in-cheek. No Kramer pratfall. Just good ole civil rights-era racial epithets.

Who still talks like this? Racists. Oh, I’m sure Richards will claim he was just trying to be funny, that is was a joke gone bad. After all, the “joke gone bad” thing worked for John Kerry last month, right? As a comedian, as a comedy club owner and as a Jew (Richards is Jewish,) I am appalled. Comedy is subjective, but this was not comedy. This was not intended to be comedy. This cannot even be excused as a typical comedian’s response to a heckler. A typical comedian’s response to a heckler is, “Hey, do I come to where you work and mess with the French fry machine?” A typical comedian response to a heckler is not yelling racial slurs and then saying, “Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a (expletive) fork stuck up your (expletive.)”

I laud the Laugh Factory’s condemnation of Richards and subsequent banning of him from the club. At least his fellow comics didn’t defend him like when all those basketball coaches defended Bobby Knight last week after he clearly hit a player in the chin.

Indeed, this may be remembered as Richards’ “Mel Gibson Moment” except for one difference. Gibson was drunk when he displayed his anti-semitism (no excuse). Richards was merely angry (no excuse). Tony Hicks notes:

It was all squeamishly bizarre. And — because this was a public figure spewing hate in a public place — somebody needs to do some honest explaining.

The concept of the celebrity breakdown isn’t new, but Richards, and Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant earlier this year, have taken it to a new, strange place. After all, this isn’t a spaced-out Mariah Carey handing out popsicles on MTV in 2001, before doing a brief striptease and saying, “I just want one day off when I can go swimming and eat ice cream and look at rainbows.”

Nor is it a drugged-up Robert Downey Jr. breaking into a neighbor’s house to take a little nap. Like we all haven’t done that.

There have been some classics, but most of them made us chuckle, not wince….But this is different. As a white-Euro man, I have no clue about the feelings generated by some idiot-celebrity telling a black man, before a room full of people, that he deserves lynching. And Richards, even if flees to the old “snapping-under-pressure” defense, deserves further calling out. It’s seems an unnecessary reminder, but celebrities aren’t the people they play. Period. So why is it so shocking to see them act like jerks?

But the race issue makes this worse for Richards. We’re not allowed to talk about race in this country. Everyone is afraid of offending by asking honest questions, or giving honest opinions. Comedians blur the line further, especially with the so-called “N” word. Dave Chappelle uses it, and we fall of our chairs laughing. Of course, being a matter of context, it’s funny.

Even a white guy could possibly get away with it, if done in the proper context. However Richards was going after two guys personally, going so far as to remind them we used to lynch them not long ago.

Maybe Richards needs a fork in his (expletive). If nothing else, to see if his career is cooked.

Hicks is correct: there will be spin, and Richards is already appearing with Jerry Seinfeld on David Letterman to offer a profuse apology.

“For me to be at a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, I’m deeply, deeply sorry,” he said during a taping of David Letterman’s “Late Show.”

“I’m not a racist. That’s what’s so insane about this.”

But, in the longrun, it probably won’t do him much good. The toothpaste is out of the tube and it’s hard to get it back in again.

Mel Gibson will never again get huge B.O. — meaning “box office,” not body odor…but to many Jewish moviegoers he will forever have the latter. They won’t pay a dime to see him.

Pee Wee Herman never recovered from the exposure he received when police spotted him at a porn flick. The exposure (at the porn flick and the negative publicity) effectively ended his career as a highly popular national entertainer who was on the verge of becoming a cultural icon due to his movies and CBS kids TV show.

Richards’ career will never be the same, either. Seinfeld seems like a loyal type, so it’s unlikely he’ll abandon Richards (if there is any reunion special in the works). But things won’t be the same:

  • Richards’ image is destroyed. How can you say “oops it slipped out” when you repeated the n word over and over?
  • Richards may have been trying to unsuccessfully channel Lenny Bruce or George Carlin (note in the video below when he talks about “words,” insinuating that they don’t really matter.) Instead, he came across more as David Duke — with bad hair.
  • Richards’ performances will never be perceived the same again on the Seinfeld DVDs by many. They won’t go through a suspension of belief and see an actor seamlessly portraying an eccentric. To many African-Americans (and some others) they’ll see an actor who they have pegged as a not-so-closet bigot.
  • Richards has had a long and highly distinguished career as a comedian and sketch comic so there was no excuse. He is NOT an amateur. This will obscure much of his previous work, in the court of public opinion.
  • Richards will have a hard time explaining to professional and even starting comedians why he said what he did in a situation facing a heckler, even a highly aggressive one. Heckler put down jokes are as old as stand up comedy. There are tons of one-liners people have used throughout the years to squelch hecklers. Examples are here (family friendly) and here (ADULT material). More here. What’s the common denominator in these anti-heckler lines? Even an experienced comedian knows that you don’t handle a heckler by insulting their race. That would be the sign of someone less than an amateur.

    And Richards is hardly an amateur. So there is NO EXCUSE that explains what happened and NO APOLOGY will erase this blight on his career.

    The big question — and story — is what made him not just go over the line but go totally off the comedy reservation.

    And, yes, there IS something “wrong with that…”

    Here’s the video that has sparked the controversy (WARNING: Adult Content) so you can judge it for yourself.

    PERSONAL NOTE: A reader asked for my comments as a performer.

    I’m not on the same level as Richards or Seinfeld, but I can say that every performer has stories of bombing. There is even a book that deals with the highs and lows of stand up — a book called “I Killed” which I’m reading now. Check it out.

    Read bios of comedians and they all have stories of performances that were Performance Hell. Clearly, Richards was not doing well in the minutes leading up to his poor choice of how to proceed. If a performer starts to “bomb” it is an excruciatingly lonely experience; the performer can’t just say “Oh, well, you hate me tonight, so goodnight!” but they have to try to salvage the performance. That entails experience, fall-back performance strategies…and also a lot of LUCK. The phrase “flop sweat” reflects a performing reality in cases such as this.

    I have my own share of horror stories. One was doing a show for an audience clearly composed of people associated with organized crime. They did not want a show at all (but I had been contracted to do one). Many years before I went into ventriloquism full-time, I did a song parody satire at the piano in New Delhi. And the wife of a high American official was very angry at jokes that poked fun at anyone. In my own case, in the these-days-rare cases where a “bad show” happens I shift to alternate strategies, move set segments around around, etc. If it doesn’t work? I complete my show, smile graciously and leave when it is over. I would NEVER use name-calling. Why? The comedian has to try to win over the audience. Just name-calling turns the audience against the comedian.

    A few putdowns usually will do, and I’ve seldom had to use those. The great ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson had one line he’d use if he had problems from a heckler. His dummy Danny O’Day would say to the heckler: “Who’s working your string?”

    Wit, even aggressive humor, is one thing; just hurling words to hurt and shock accomplishes nothing…if you’re there to do COMEDY.

    UPDATE: Apparently Richard’s apology on Letterman didn’t hit it out of the ballpark. TMZ.com:

    Looking sallow, drawn, and speaking in halting fragments, Richards explained via satellite from Los Angeles to David Letterman and friend Jerry Seinfeld in New York, that he had lost his temper after some members of the audience interrupted his act and that he “took it badly,” unleashing the racist invective that TMZ first aired this morning. He apologized to the people who took “the brunt” of his abuse, saying he was “really busted up,” but then went on a strange tangent on race relations, saying he was “concerned about hate and rage” and about a “great deal of disturbance between blacks and whites” after Hurricane Katrina.

    Richards did not say whether any other factors contributed to his actions, adding only that he would be doing “personal work” in the aftermath of the incident.

    Audience members in the Ed Sullivan Theater, who were watching Richards on a screen, began laughing at Richards at first, thinking that the interview was a comedy skit, until Seinfeld admonished them, saying, “Stop laughing. It’s not funny.”

    UPDATE: Watch Richards’ apology on Letterman on Crooks and Liars HERE.

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