[T]he actor known almost exclusively as Kramer on “Seinfeld” managed, as he has not been able to do in his post-“Seinfeld” career, to fumble his way into a new and surprisingly credible — if unsympathetic — persona.... Mr. Richards was simply an angry white man laid bare.On Letterman, Richards did not offer up the explanation that he was playing a character that was not him. He was admitting that those feelings lay inside him. The only time the tried to lessen his responsibility for the hateful words was when he referred to the rage in everyone -- rage that drives nations into war. I think if had been less spontaneous, he might have worked through the material -- as Heffernan has done -- for evidence that he was playing a character or a sequence of characters. He could have said, essentially, it was a -- to coin a phrase -- botched joke and stuck to that story. But he laid himself out there, and that's worth something in the world of show-business fakery.
As he put it in his act: “This shocks you. It shocks you. To see what’s buried beneath.”...
“You know,” Mr. Richards said at one point, seeming to address Mr. Letterman directly, “I’m a performer. I push the envelope. I work in a very uncontrolled manner onstage. I do a lot of free-association” — he slurred the word a bit — “and spontaneous. I go into character.”
That fairly simple point seemed, in the delivery, important. In the Laugh Factory clip, which was cut, framed and semiliterately subtitled by AOL’s entertainment site, TMZ.com, Mr. Richards begins by saying, “Shut up! Fifty years ago ...” and then the material becomes unpublishable. But viewed with the possibility in mind that he’s creating characters, it’s easy to see a trace of parody in the way he hams up his racist word, shaking his fist like the leader of a lynch mob.
A second later, when he retreats into another voice, one of hushed horror — “Ooh, Ooh” — it certainly seems as though the hang-’em-high character has been at least partly that, a character.
To Mr. Richards’s credit, he didn’t spend too much time in his appearance with Mr. Letterman on the question of whether he is or is not a racist. Sure, he delivered this magisterially messed-up sentence: “You can’t — I don’t — I know peop — people could — blacks could feel — what he’s — I’m not a racist. That’s what’s so insane about this.”
But what he emphasized so hard there, he seemed to retract a moment later. “And yet,” he said, looking caught. “It’s said!”
Ooh — that passive voice. “It’s said.” That can’t feel good.
Then Mr. Richards caught his breath for one last time. “It comes through! It fires out of me! Even now, in the passion, and the — and the — that’s here, as I — as I — confront myself.”
November 22, 2006
Virginia Heffernan admires the genuine spontaneity of Michael Richards' apology for his (also spontaneous) comedy club rant.