Tuesday, November 21, 2006

My two cents on Michael Richards

The questions started at six this morning. I was at my health club, getting ready to tackle a set of 20-pound curls when a tennis buddy interrupted.
"Hey Greg, what did you think of Michael Richards?" he asked.
The topic arose again a few hours later. A neighbor pulled up to my curb and yelled from his open window.
"Greg, how aboout Kramer? What was that all about?"
I guess when a comedian goes completely ballistic, spewing racial venom as if it were still 1850, it's only natural to ask the opinion of another comedian.
So here's mine.
By now everybody not hooked up to life support equipment knows what happened to Michael Richards, better known as Kramer from Seinfeld. He was attempting stand-up comedy at the Laugh Factory, a showcase comedy club on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. (I say attempting because Richards has never been known as a stand-up comedian. His background is in improv, not stand-up. The two are radically different) During his act, a few African-Americans started heckling him, yelling that he wasn't funny. Richards responded with a crack about a pitchfork and an ass. That generated a few gasps from the audience but some laughs as well.
Then Richards did the unthinkable in today's society. He, a white man, used the dreaded 'n' word. He called the heckler a "nigger."
In a matter of moments, Michael Richards' career had ended.
Three months ago, in a drunken stupor, Mel Gibson went off on Jewish people. The jury remains out on Gibson and whether he can revive his career. My guess is that Mel will rebound but only because his time these days is mostly spent behind the camera, as a director. In other words, people no longer have to look at him.
Richards knows no such luxury. He is a performer and obviously misses being in front of people. How else to explain his sudden urge to do stand-up comedy at a small club where open mic hopefuls share the stage with established Hollywood celebrities and the pay for a 20-minute set is probably around 10 bucks. Richards went in there to revive his career. He left with a reputation that will stay with him the rest of his life, just as Pee-Wee Hermann entered an adult movie theatre to get off with himself and left branded a pervert. When I see an old Pee-Wee Herman movie on cable, I still can't get over the image of Pee-Wee playing with himself in a dark theatre, while porn played onscreen. That was over 15 years ago.
Richards went on the David Letterman show three nights later and attemped to apologize. But it had the air of Clinton apologizing for doinking Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. You don't call somebody a nigger and then, days later, claim that you're not a racist and not the kind of person you are made out to be. When Richards said "nigger," he became a racist. When he attempted an apology, he became a liar and a racist. It's been rumored that Richards may donate a bunch of his Seinfeld syndication money to Katrina victims. That makes him a hypocrite, a liar and a racist.
I've tried to get inside Richards' mind in an attempt to figure out why he said what he did. Obviously I'm not condoning his behavior but every controversy has two sides. Did Richards use the word because he was desperate or because he is an old school comedian who still thinks racial insults are okay, if delivered in a comedy club.
Thirty years ago, guys like Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce and Foster Brooks packed nightclubs with routines that roasted minorities and, in Brooks' case, drunks Rickles and Brooks were regulars on the Dean Martin celebrity roasts. Numerous clips can be found on YouTube. Their routines were hilarious; audiences roared and applauded. And no group demanded an apology the next day.
Would those guys even have careers today? It's doubtful. Today our society is accused of being too thin skinned and I agree. Elementary schools are outlawing "tag" because, some say, it encourages bullying. A college mascot runs onto the field dressed as an Indian chief and some Native Americans deem it offensive. The scope of things that Americans find funny is narrowing and, like it or not, comedians have to recognize it. Richards clearly did not.
Now lets talk about the hecklers. Has anybody asked them to justify their actions? All we hear about is the party of African Americans who went to a comedy club to be entertained, sat in the balcony and left humiliated. That may be true. But one also has to realize that none of this would have happened had the group members just kept their mouths shut. Again, I'm not defending Richards in the least. But why heckle? Why not just wait around for the next act? The Laugh Factory is a showcase comedy club, meaning there are LOTS of comedians on the bill. You would be hard pressed to find an audience member who finds EVERYBODY funny. If I'm an audience member and one comedian doesn't suit my tastes, I go to the bathroom or step outside to the bar. If I were a smoker, I'd consider a bad act the perfect excuse to light up. The group could have done any of those things. Instead, they chose to place themselves into Richards' show and then started crying when he didn't take kindly to their participation.
Any comic will tell you that it's no fun being heckled. I've come out on the winning and the losing end of hecklers. When a heckler decides to interrupt the show, the comedian is immediately on the defensive. The audience wonders how he will respond. And they expect the response to be hilarious. Plus, now it appears the comeback line has to be hilarious AND politically correct. That's a tough mountain for any comedian to climb.
Richards, unfortunately, chose not to even set foot at the mountain's base. Instead, he went right for the jugular and it cost him dearly.
Unlike the days of Rickles and Bruce, it's no longer considered entertaining to do material about minorities unless you are a minority. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle say "nigger" in their acts 50 times and the audience, both black and white, doubles over in hysterics. If an African-American heckled Dave Chappelle and Chappelle responded by calling the heckler a nigger, laughter would rain down from the rafters. But Richards should have known better. Nigger is an ugly word and he is living in a fantasy world if he thought uttering it would not have consequences.
I do stand-up comedy for business groups. The rules are simple: no profanity, no jokes with any hint of ethnic undertones and no sexual innuendos. I get reminded of these rules before every show. The client always includes the phrase, "we got burned by a comedian once."
What amazes me is, most of the time, the comedian who did the "burning." was a celebrity. An insurance company I worked for hired Dennis Miller for a private event a few years ago. He was specifically warned not to say "fuck" during the show. Five minutes into his performance, Miller violated the rule. Then he violated it again. And again. And again and again and again until a high-ranking company executive walked onstage and made the "cut" sign across this throat.
My point is, celebrity entertainers, like professional athletes. often have a twisted view of reality. Athletes beat up women, shoplift, commit assault and drive their Maseratis 125 miles per hour while drunk. Then they can't understand why there is talk of (gasp) a suspension! For one game! Celebrity comedians, who have made millions of people laugh, need to be careful and remember that notoriety doesn't make everything funny. The rules apply to everybody. So if you are going to venture into unfamiliar territory, there could be consequences.
A few weeks ago I caught Roseanne's new HBO special. She was going on and on about global warming. The audience was not laughing. There were two reasons for this. One, the material wasn't funny and two, nobody wants to hear Roseanne talk about global warming. Roseanne made her millions portraying a fat housewife who talked about her family. I remember watching her Tonight Show debut where she charmed the audience with a story about how fat moms dealt with their daughters' depression.
"Lets eat pudding, marshmallows and Oreos, " she said. "By the time you come out of that sugar coma, it will be a brand new day."
The audience roared. Within months Roseanne had a series of Pizza Hut commercials. Two years later she had the number one show on television.
Now Roseanne has returned to stand-up comedy. The audience expects to hear that type of material. Instead, she makes them suffer through her views on world events rather than giving the audience the material that made her famous in the first place. I may get an argument from other comedians but I feel that's the way it should be. The audience made you famous so give them what they want!
Which brings us back to Michael Richards. He may be trying to break the Kramer mold but it made him a very rich man. And no doubt when he walked on stage that night at the Laugh Factory, the audience expected to see a Kramer type version of stand-up comedy. I don't remember Kramer ever crucifying African-Americans on a Seinfeld episode. To the contrary, he always seemed to be hanging out with them.
So shame on Michael Richards for not thinking before he spoke and for not realizing that, in today's society, certain words denote hatred. Shame on the Laugh Factory management for letting the hecklers have their way with Richards. Shame on the hecklers themselves for dogging a comedian from the safety of a comedy club balcony. And shame on their attorney who feels the hecklers deserve money for their role in the incident. An apology from Richards? Absolutely. But financial compensation? Not in the least.
I can only think of one person who, at this moment, is thankful for Michael Richard's tirade. That would be former Congressman Mark Foley, who, like Richards, was a public fiigure who was convinced he could do whatever he wanted and nobody would care.
When will they ever learn?