November 22, 2006

"A minor show-business miracle took place."

Virginia Heffernan admires the genuine spontaneity of Michael Richards' apology for his (also spontaneous) comedy club rant.
[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.

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,, 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.”
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.


Maxine Weiss said...

So self-righteous, when it comes to racism...Mel Gibson, this latest thing...

The University just won't tolerate, even a whiff of condescention, I guess.

By the way, dija know it's Thanksgiving.....and this story evaporated 48 hours ago???

Gotta get in that last bit of righteous indignation again.

Everyone on Althouse: Happy Thanksgiving !!

Go eat some turkey, and try to tone down the phony righteous least for one day.

Love, Maxine

Ann Althouse said...

Maxine: Did you read the post or just note the subject? What is "self-righteous" about it?

And it's not Thanksgiving either.

Zeb Quinn said...

The only thing I've been able to infer from this whole thing is that Richards in real life is as unhinged as Kramer the character is. Not quite in the same way, and not in an endearing way, but to the same degree.

mikeski said...

Really Zeb; my thought upon seeing him on Letterman was "that's a whole pile of personal demons right there."

Personally, he lost me at the mention of Katrina. His rationalization that his outburst was some sort of proxy for America's Shameful Race Problem™ was patently ridiculous.

Fritz said...

What I find fascinating, another racial slur was spoken that night. Richards' was called a "cracker" a reference toward the Scotts Irish white males.

David said...

The real "horror" is that there is a little bit of Kramer in all of us!

The EEOC usually keeps the rest of us quiet and quiescent in a politically correct stupor.

I don't apololgize for Richard's remarks assuming he was not under the influence of anything but the "angry white man syndrome!" when he spoke. What I do understand is the worn-out politcal correctness that is getting stale. Also, the cult of victimology that is supported by politcal correctness.

Free speech which only applies to so-called victims is the real rascist issue.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Anyone who confirms the prejudices of NYT columnists about Angry White Men can't be all bad.

David said...

May I take this opportunity to wish all on this site the best the Thanksgiving season has to offer!

We do have much to be Thankful for! Remember our military celebrating far from home and loved ones!

Ann Althouse said...

Fritz: I don't find that the slightest bit "fascinating." Richards is the performer on stage. The people in the audience were hecklers. It's not a question of tit-for-tat -- even assuming that one word is equivalent to the other word, repeated many times, and including vicious, violent imagery. A stand-up comedian knows he has to deal with the hecklers, whatever they say.

Joe said...

Yes, Virginia, make any white male angry and we are all racists just under the surface. Must be nice to be so perfect, so PC, so smug.

Fritz said...

This slur wasn't heckling, it was said as a derogatory remark aimed at Richards race at a point this was no longer a comedy routine. The black fellow intentionally used "cracker" the same way Richards used nigger. I defend neither for their racist slurs. Both are guilty. Why your double standard? Who knew macaca was a slur?

Mack said...

He did say he goes into character. Calling it a botched joke wouldn't exactly have been true. Sounds silly, but I guess you could call him a method actor; he doesn't pretend to be a racist, but becomes one.

Personally, I think U.S. race relations/politics are weird enough that somebody making an outburst like this doesn't necessarily mean what people think. Especially for a comic, who makes a point of finding taboos and mocking them, and in an environment where racism is ok, as long as it's funny. Even for others though... it seems some people sort of wall off any racist idea whatsoever, while others are more introspective. I feel like if you've thought a lot about different kinds of racism, and how they compare, you're probably also liable to say something crazy if you happen to flip out.

Isn't the conventional wisdom that most people, deep down, harbor some racist feelings, but that you're supposed to combat them with reason and tolerance? I guess if someone shows contrition and recognizes that they flipped out, I'm inclined to forgive.

Also, the point about Katrina wasn't that it caused it, but to note that it was poor timing on his part to add more fuel to that fire.

Cedarford said...

maxine - phony righteous indignation
Althouse - Did you read the post or just note the subject? What is "self-righteous" about it?

Heffernan was clearly being a self-righteous prickess, dragging Richards through the goals and doing the ritualistic Leftist psychobabble analysis on his presumed inadequacies - both to show her own moral superiority and properly punish the apostate ho engaged in forbidden talk that "hurts" the "cracker" word talking "victims of white oppression" as the lingo goes...

She is fulfilling her ritualistic expectation coming from peers of piling on the obligatory outrage! Shock!
Al Sharpton and Jesse and many liberal Jews and Gentiles steeped in PC have the act honed so well they could do it in their sleep.

It's boring.

It's all a show of agitprop that refuses to go away, coming from people that won't let go of the 60s refusing to believe the PC phenomenon peaked over a decade ago.

David - What I do understand is the worn-out politcal correctness that is getting stale. Also, the cult of victimology that is supported by politcal correctness.

Indeed. And I'm tired of the double standard whereby a "certified victim group" organization or member may attack with impunity and even use racially inflammatory language - then feign being overcome with psychological agony and demands for collective societal retribution when the attackee lashes back.

DookOfURL said...

No David, the real "horror" of all this is that if Obama runs for POTUS, this sort of thing will be before us 24/7.

Anyone who dares to criticize an African-American (which Obama honestly and literally is) will have the race card thrown at them and denounced as a racist.

The only hope the GOP would have to fight the race-baiters would be to run a white/hispanic female (Condi would get the "Uncle Tom" treatment, as she has in the past).

Duelling victims---it's the wave of the future for POTUS politics!

This is why I dread the thought of Obama running for POTUS----I just don't think we're up to it right now.

Revenant said...

The way I see it, either (a) Richards really is a racist or (b) he was pretending to be one as part of some nonsensical attempt to imply that white men in general are racists.

Since in either case he's an ignorant jackass, why should I worry which is the real explanation?

Anonymous said...

My question is what makes any of us a racist?

Is it thought, word or deed?

My limited experience in sociology tells me that all groups are initially distrustful of any outsider, right down to a clan (in the family group sense) accepting a new in-law. Don’t we all harbor innate distrust of any group not our own? Coupled with the exclusionary up bringing that most of us have had and influenced by the attitudes of our parents, especially if we are in the over 40 set.

It is easy to say a member of the KKK is a racist, as the words and deeds clearly show the thoughts.

What about someone who, like possibly Mel Gibson, may have been indoctrinated with racist attitudes and consciously avoids any racist displays, until something voids that conscious brake and the filth spews forth? Is he a racist?

Maybe Mr. Richards falls into that same category.

I sure, if we are honest, that we have heard some pretty awful things about the other races during conversations, and in some cases have had those conversations and attitudes reinforced many times while children, possibly while the same authority figure (parent, grandparent, caregiver) may have held individuals of that race in high regard, while criticizing the race as a whole.

I can do nothing about having those thoughts as part of my unconscious mind; but what makes me a racist or not is how I act on them.

It is my conscious act to not continue the inculcation of those attitudes in another generation.

But some would call me racist because I don’t like Charlie Rangel or Jesse Jackson, yet respect Walter Williams and Clarence Thomas; I myself think that is the ultimate manifestation of Dr. King’s dream.

Anonymous said...

Well, looking at it from outside the US - and the sociosexualpolitical swamp that is race in America - Richards looks like a very familiar type to me: An inexperienced (or flat out bad) stand-up comic who misjudges his audience - and doesn't have the sense to get the hell off the stage rather than make a bad situation worse.

A stand-up comic acquaintance calls it 'corpsing', and that's a very apt term.

paulfrommpls said...

Craig -

What does the sexualpolitco swampy thingy have to do with your point about bad comedians? Are bad or failing comedians unique to the USA? If so, I may emigrate. They would be worth getting away from once and for all. Especially if it also means race and sexuo-politico stuff is all calm and relaxed, and too, in other countries.

paulfrommpls said...

Stupid typo. "And not swampy-like, too" is what I had and then deleted except for the damn dangling "and too."

J said...

What's with all the deconstruction and analysis? A formerly very famous comedian nobody's heard from in six years did something loopy and got himself on Letterman within 48 hours. I heard people in show business have this saying about bad publicity...

Christopher Althouse said...

Michael Richards' biggest mistake in the apology was to, after Letterman asked if there was more he could do now that he's apologized, not say something along the lines of that he would reach out to the African American community and do whatever he could to make it up to them. He could donate a million dollars to the NAACP or to some kind of a scholarship program for minority students. He could do any number of things beyond apologizing to "prove" that he is genuinely sorry. If he really wants people to forgive him, he needs to take full responsibility for what he did and make a genuine contribution to the African American community. He is probably ridiculously rich, just like all the major people involved with Seinfeld, so I'm sure he has the resources to make a grand gesture like that. This isn't the sort of thing where it should all be okay as soon as you sincerely apologize; it's the sort of thing where you need some kind of penance.

sonicfrog said...

My basic question concerning this episode: Who Cares!!!

But even I must admit, I did love the bit when he brought up Katrina, almost as if he were blaming his inherent racism on the Bush administration.


Mark said...

Christopher Althouse wrote: This isn't the sort of thing where it should all be okay as soon as you sincerely apologize; it's the sort of thing where you need some kind of penance.

You have got to be kidding. You have really, truly been well trained, haven't you. The guy makes a bad joke because he gets angry - heck, he might even actually have some racist thoughts - and he owes penance???

To whom? The black people in the audience? The ones who called him a cracker-ass motherf***er? Those paragons of anti-racist virtue?

If the man "owes" anything - and he doesn't - it might be an apology for being rude to patrons of the comedy club. But this idea that he expressed some horrible politically incorrect thought (and I mean that in the true communist/leftist sense) and thus must express penance by giving a bunch of money to black people is just obscene. Do you ask that of black comics who riff on white people in the audience and white traits? No, I bet not. I bet you don't even think there's anything wrong with it. I bet you don't even expect them to apologize.

"Penance"! Christ!

hdhouse said...

perhaps the term "racist" is used when the hurler of terms can't express it better....

richards was "ill advised", "lacking control", "stupid or to an extent, dumber than dirt", "off his meds"...a whole lot of things..but

i just wonder why we run to the "racist" conclusion first off. are there other explanations? do we call trent lott racists because we forget to call him what he might have been at the moment..."carried away - overly drammatic" or just a funbletongue who probably meant no racial harm..he just did a dumb thing and said dumb words. richards the same thing.

its time to step back one and just think about this and similar events with a little common sense.

Revenant said...

The guy makes a bad joke because he gets angry - heck, he might even actually have some racist thoughts - and he owes penance???

He does if he expects to be treated like a respectable human being again, because respectable human beings would be truly horrified at behaving as atrociously as Richards did.

And the "bad joke" excuse, like Gibson's "I was drunk" excuse, doesn't fly. I've been absolutely furious at people many times in my life. I have NEVER resorted to racial or ethnic slurs against them because I do not think of people that way. Richards revealed that he's a racist. He expects to be treated like he isn't one. He'll have to work for it.

Christopher Althouse said...

Revenant: Agreed, good response. I would have said the same, but I have a rule against replying to comments with too many question marks and exclamation points.

Anonymous said...

Richards outburst was a sign of someone filled with rage and personal demons not under his control - perhaps he should give up stand up comedy as hecklers in that business are a dime a dozen.

But the hecklers in the crowd out to be taken to task for being rude and disrespectful during the routine as well. I see this as a general lack of respect and civility that many people these days and it crosses all color lines.

Mark said...

Christopher Althouse wrote:I have a rule against replying to comments with too many question marks and exclamation points.

Oh, how high-minded you are. Such refinement! Do deign to come down from your cloud and grace us with your morally elevated multicultural platitudes now and then, won't you?

I suspect it's just that you had no answer.

Revenent: To whom does he owe penance? He insulted a couple of specific black people, one of whom unleashed a racist, threatening tirade on him in response. He apologized on national television. What exactly would you have him do? How much more must he degrade himself before you consider him to have been cleansed of this unforgiveable sin? Do liberals like you understand how sanctimonious you appear?

Revenant said...

Do deign to come down from your cloud and grace us with your morally elevated multicultural platitudes now and then, won't you?

I suspect that Christopher's reason for not responding to people who use a lot of "!!!" and "???" in their posts is that those are signs that the person is too emotional to reason with. He called it right in your case.

To whom does he owe penance?

Penance is an act undertaken to show devotion and repentance. You don't "owe it" TO anybody. You do it to show that you're really sorry for what you did. Going on Letterman and babbling about Katrina and the supposed racism of the American public does not count. That's just a feeble attempt to evade admitting he did anything wrong -- it isn't *him* who's racist, see, it's that *society* is racist, and he just channelled that, and blah blah blah.

He insulted a couple of specific black people

I already explained this. I'll explain it once more: he demonstrated that he's a racist. I expect genuine acts of atonement for that if he expects me to treat him like something other than my moral inferior. So far all he's done is desperately try to save his career, Mel Gibson style.

Do liberals like you understand how sanctimonious you appear?

"Liberals like me"? I don't think that loathing racists makes a person a liberal. It just makes them a decent, civilized human being. You should look into it.