I'm not sure I can ever watch Seinfeld again without a twinge.
I was watching last night's syndicated episode as the gang rode rougshod over the handicapped, parking in a handicapped space then selling a woman a defective chair. Remember the series finale, where they are thrown in jail after a parade of witnesses from shows pass attest to their many offenses against political and social correctness.
Last night's episode ended with a woman carreening down the street in the defective wheelchair sold her by Kramer and George.
Those shows were funny because they were so improbable, because you saw them coming from extreme cluelessness and self-absorption, not malice.
After Michael Richards' racist rant at an L.A. comedy club, I'm not so sure any more where some of that humor was coming from, though I believe Jerry Seinfeld's anguished apology-in-absentia for Richards.
Comedians like Richards, and Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters, always seem on the edge of losing control. But they only remain funny when they don't go over the edge. Richards did, which makes me think he needs help as well as censure.
Richards apologized to David Letterman's audience last night, but it is hard, perhaps impossible, to undo the damage he has done to the long and painstaking process–still underway–of purging the bodies politic and social of the ugly poison of racism.
Here, from CBS's transcript of the show, is what Richards said on Letterman:
Letterman: “Why don’t you explain exactly what happened for the folks who may not know.”
Richards: “I lost my temper on stage. I was at a comedy club trying to do my act and I got heckled and I took it badly and went into a rage and said some pretty nasty things to some Afro-Americans, a lot of trash talk, and uh…”Letterman: “And you were actually being heckled or were they just talking and disturbing the act?”Richards: “That was going on too.”Richards: “…You know, I’m really busted up over this and I’m very, very sorry to those people in the audience, the blacks, the Hispanics, whites – everyone that was there that took the brunt of that anger and hate and rage and how it came through, and I’m concerned about more hate and more rage and more anger coming through, not just towards me but towards a black/white conflict. There’s a great deal of disturbance in this country and how black feel about what happened in Katrina, and, you know, many of the comics, many of performers are in Las Vegas and New Orleans trying to raise money for what happened there, and for this to happen, for me to be in a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, you know, I’m deeply, deeply sorry. And I’ll get to the force field of this hostility, why it’s there, why the rage is in any of us, why the trash takes place, whether or not it’s between me and a couple of hecklers in the audience or between this country and another nation, the rage – “Letterman: “But Michael, let me interrupt here for a second and ask a question about had the people doing the heckling or the people who were not paying attention, had they been white or Caucasian or any aother race, what would have been the nature of your response then?”Richards: “It may have happened. It may have happened. You know, I’m a performer. I push the envelope, I work in a very uncontrolled manner onstage. I do a lot of free association, it’s spontaneous, I go into character.I don’t know, in view of the situation and the act going where it was going, I don’t know, the rage did go all over the place. It went to everybody in the room. But you can’t – you know it’s, I don’t – I know people could, blacks could feel – I’m not a racist, that’s what so insane about this, and yet it’s said, it comes through, it fires out of me and even now in the passion that’s here as I confront myself.”Hecklers are probably as old as the first joke told by a caveman around a campfire (and, yes, Geico guy, I recognize the contributions of cavemen).There are time-tested, crude-but-effective ways of dealing with them, including references to their relatives combined with various anatomical impossibilities and delivered with language that would make a sailor with impulse-control issues blush. There is no justification for Richard's choice of weapon. Period.I'll admit that the Comedy Central roast of William Shatner opened my eyes to what comedy can get away with, even on TV, but this had no punch line. Just a rhetorical punch in the face to an entire race.The comedian appeared to be so angry that he wanted to say the absolute most hurtful thing possible. He did, but the hurt was mostly self-inflicted.I talked only a week or so ago about my sadness that O.J. had soiled all those memories of his race to 2000 yards, or the tough days in freezing Buffalo holding on to a ball that must have felt like a rock.Now, whenever I see Richards, I fear his unalloyed goofiness will have been tainted by all this. It already has.By John Eggerton
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