Stand-up Sunday: Michael Richards, Six Years On

For the contemporary stand-up comedian, the digital age presents both benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, comedians receive great publicity and access to new fans via platforms such as Twitter (which is a custom-made forum for joke tellers) or on podcasts such as Marc Maron’s WTF.

On the minus side, the ease with which audience members can record the audio or visual of an act means that material can be taken out of the comedian’s control and circulated in the digital realm before the wait staff even drop the checks. If there’s an altercation or a line that is crossed in an inexpert manner, the mater can spiral into something viral — and that’s not always good for a comic’s reputation. Just ask Michael Richards, who just this week found himself on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” web series, apologizing again for his racist tirade at the Laugh Factory six years ago. Well, he doesn’t apologize so much as he shows how it still weighs heavy on his soul.

“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” constitutes Seinfeld’s foray into new media, taking the breezy style he developed in stand-up and sitcom, and playing it out on the web with decent production values. Seinfeld gets to indulge his passion for cars — he picks up Richards in a “1962 VW split-window double-cab bus in dove blue, primer grey, and rust.”

“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” also allows Seinfeld to chat with comedian friends, including Larry David, Alec Baldwin, and the comedy duo of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. (I think Reiner and Brooks just might have a future in the industry!)

The episode with Richards involves several doses of nostalgia.

Michael Richards: Those were good days.

Jerry Seinfeld: Those were good days.

Michael Richards: You gave me the role of a lifetime.

Jerry Seinfeld: You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you.

The webisode format also allows for antics, such as wig-wearing and the two comedians attempting a drop-in at the house of Sugar Ray Leonard. And it provides them with an outlet for a few jokes.

Jerry Seinfeld: Jail is such a really a way that a grown-up would punish a child. “You go in there and you stay in there! Robbing a 7-11 — get in that cell!…You sit in that cell and think about what you’ve done! Charles Manson, that was supposed to be a party! You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Seinfeld’s humor isn’t the sharpest here, but that’s okay, as the casual component is part of the appeal, even though the camera operators and editors are obviously professional. Seinfeld has more substance to give us when it comes to insight into the creative process. He stops Richards from second-guessing his own artistic process, stating point blank that he (Seinfeld) doesn’t accept such judgments, because every performer is still trying to reach the same end goal of an entertaining performance, however they arrive at the promised land.

Jerry Seinfeld: I don’t accept the judging of process.

Richards gets excited telling Seinfeld about his experiences playing chess, and reveals an strong understanding of Kramer as the kind of clown that could easily appear in a wide variety of contexts, both within and without Seinfeld.

Michael Richards: But I could have played Kramer for the rest of my life. That character would fit into any situation. It was a great universality to the soul of that character.

Richards does not, however, appear to have great insight into his meltdown at The Laugh Factory, when he deployed the hateful and hurtful N-word against some hecklers.

It’s important to note that Richards did not pull the N-word out of thin air. That particular racial epithet has a long history of use on the stand-up stage, most prominently with Richard Pryor and Chris Rock, but also by white comedians such as Lenny Bruce. What Richards did pull out of…somewhere…was his careless use of the word. He was not a black man trying to re-claim the word or a white man trying to raise awareness; he was trying to inflict pain and shock on the hecklers.

Okay, but the Laugh Factory meltdown is old news. What has Richards learned in the meantime? Richards frames his regret strictly in terms of having been too sensitive.

Michael Richards: It was a selfish response. I took it too personally and I should have just said, “You know, you’re absolutely right. I’m not funny. I think I’ll go home and work on my material and I’ll see you tomorrow night. Blalalala. It’s just one of those nights.”

In other words, Richards does not acknowledge the unique status the N-word has accrued over centuries of use, nor even address why he chose that particular response. (For those interested in an illuminating history of the N-word, I recommend Randall Kennedy’s thoughtful and well-researched book.) Richards — who performed in blackface for the 1980s film Whoops Apocalypse — also does not appear to grasp the extraordinarily lengthy and prominent history of racist entertainment in the United States.

The choice is not between making Michael Richards the fall guy for racism in the U.S. or letting him off the hook for his actions. The obligation for humor scholars is to realize that Richards’ outburst did not occur in a vacuum. The same might apply to Richards himself. I wonder whether Richards, if he understood the larger context of racial and racist humor in which he operated, might have more understanding for what happened and wouldn’t remain befuddled by the incident and ensuing fallout.

Michael Richards: Inside it still kicks me around a bit.

Matthew Daube (Ph.D., Theater and Performance Studies, Stanford University, 2010) has taught in half a dozen different departments at Stanford, including Thinking Matters and a year as a teaching fellow at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. His dissertation, “Laughter in Revolt: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in the Construction of Stand-up Comedy” argues for the recognition of stand-up comedy as a distinct performance mode that emerged in the United States following World War II, linked to issues of race and focused on the performance of self. He is particularly interested in the intersections between humor and the performance of identity, and has published articles on the use of ethnic stereotype by the Marx Brothers and the role of the audience in stand-up comedy.

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