Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Michael Richards' Apology: "I Am Not a Racist"

This New York Times story provides the programming background to Michael Richard's apology for his racist meltdown at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles on Friday night. Apparently, Jerry Seinfeld pulled some weight with David Letterman to get airtime for Richards' mea culpa:

The special appearance Monday night by the embattled comedian Michael Richards on David Letterman’s late-night show on CBS was, according to several of those involved, awkward, disturbing, and yet completely arresting television.

As Jude Brennan, an executive producer of “Late Show With David Letterman,” put it, “It was one of those things that are a little difficult to watch, but you can’t stop watching.”

During the appearance, Mr. Richards tried to explain his actions at a Los Angeles comedy club on Friday night when he railed at several African-American audience members for heckling his act, using the most racially charged epithets, to a point where many audience members walked out and he himself simply dropped his microphone and walked off the stage.

Mr. Richards became a last-minute guest on the Letterman show only through the intervention of Jerry Seinfeld, his friend and co-star from their days on the now-classic comedy “Seinfeld.” Mr. Seinfeld, who had long been scheduled as a guest on the show Monday night, made an appeal to the show’s bookers and producers early yesterday afternoon to set up a satellite interview in which Mr. Richards could apologize publicly for the racially offensive remarks.

Mr. Richards’s act, at the Laugh Factory, which was caught on tape by a cellphone video camera, played Sunday and Monday on Web sites and television news programs. It stirred outrage and shock among many longtime fans of “Seinfeld,” who knew him chiefly as his loony but lovable character, Kramer.

Protesters appeared at the comedy club on Monday and its owner, Jamie Masada, said Mr. Richards would not be back until he had apologized. “That is one thing I won’t tolerate,” Mr. Masada told reporters on Monday.

Oddly, Mr. Richards actually appeared again at the Laugh Factory on Saturday night, before the tape of his offensive tirade became public.
Read the whole piece, which notes that at the time of the Letterman show's Monday afternoon taping most of the audience was unawire of Richards' racist tirade. The piece also speculates that Richards' career in entertainment may be over:

Numerous commentators in Hollywood speculated that Mr. Richards might have damaged his career irreparably. Some also questioned whether the “Seinfeld” show itself, which has been among the most successful television shows of all time, still running in syndication and selling DVD sets of the episodes, will suffer if viewers are now uncomfortable with Mr. Richards’s portrayal of the goofy Kramer.
Erin Aubrey Kaplan over at the Los Angeles Times notes how post-midterm racial politics converged in the controversy over O.J. Simpson's book deal and the Richards' comedy show outburst.

Kaplan thinks O.J. got what he deserved in the Rubert Murdoch about-face, though, like everyone else, she's distressed by the Richards case, comparing him to Richard Nixon's Watergate-era "I Am Not a Crook" apology. Be sure to read Kaplan's entire piece, though, because she thinks O.J. murder aquittal "represented a rare instance of equal treatment, if not justice." She also thinks Richards is being treated easier than Simpson:
A much less satisfying story concerns Michael Richards and his explosion on stage last week at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood. Richards, known for years as the lovable eccentric Kramer on "Seinfeld," had either a breakdown or a prolonged moment of truth during a stand-up performance when he began talking back to some black patrons during his act.

Richards repeatedly called them "nigger," and his insults didn't stop at the word. Richards told the hecklers that "50 years ago, we'd have you upside down" and sodomized with a fork.

To me, he sounded less like a stand-up comic grasping at ways to save his act than a man imbued with white privilege, enraged that some black folks had dared to criticize him. People started leaving, either because they were insulted or because they feared a riot.

And let's face it, a white man screaming an epithet like "nigger" in a crowded club is akin to anybody screaming "fire" in a crowded theater. Of course, you can get arrested for the latter, not the former. But in so egregiously violating social law, even for a comic on a bad night, Richards should have to atone in a more meaningful way than confessing his sin to David Letterman, a savvy public relations move that means he's almost out of the woods already.

Sounding uncannily like Richard Nixon in 1973, Richards declared, "I am not a racist." This may make liberal Hollywood in particular and white people in general feel better. But how about facing the black people he so viciously maligned? And how about probing the possibility that he may be racist — why should we take him at his word?

I'm not equating racist invective with charges of double homicide. But the reality is that there is far more tolerance for a white person's unseemly behavior than for similar behavior of somebody who isn't white, especially if the unseemliness involves race. Richards' "racist rant" has been described as a terrible but isolated incident. O.J., meanwhile, is condemned for his character.

Richards, like O.J., is a celebrity who achieved cult-hero status. Like O.J., he projects and reflects his followers' deepest held beliefs about things they don't even know they believe until — in a split second — something brings it to the surface and forces a crisis.

O.J. was and is a crisis on every level, including a public relations crisis. Richards, meanwhile, is so far simply a public relations challenge. This says more about equality — and the rules of decorum — than we like to imagine.
Actually, I think Kaplan is equating murder charges with hurling racial epithets. O.J. is a reprehensible, cold-blooded killer who continues to make people sick over and over again. His actions are unforgivable. Michael Richards -- so lovable as Kramer -- has now lost his place in the pantheon of great comedy actors. His words are deeply disturbing, no doubt. He's apologized though, and can be forgiven.

No comments: