Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Last Three Minutes of Michael Richards' Career

Don't hit 'play' unless you want to watch a racist rant and a celebrity nervous breakdown.

I can imagine that dealing with hecklers is hard. No matter how funny your prepared material, intrusions from the audience force you to think on your feet, which is a pretty good sign of your true sense of humor. It is also a test of your ability to command an audience, which is essential to the performer's role as a temporary leader of the group's shared psychological state. A really good comedian could have made those people miserable that they had said anything. Of course, a really good comedian would also very carefully control how much of him or herself was exposed onstage, and that's Richards' real problem.

Book CoverComedian Andy Kaufman often left audiences puzzled, uncomfortable, even angry - in his brilliant filmed performance art piece I'm From Hollywood, Kaufman played himself as a misogynist pig who wrestled women to "prove" their inferiority - and won. The joke was on the audience who believed him, and because Kaufman put himself in an uncomfortable personal place to mine for comedy, it was sort of on him too. But he preserved control because he was the only one who really knew what was going on, and played through the role even after the game was up, always reserving his right to make more comedy from territory he had already covered, and preserving a mystique about his opinions and personality that kept audiences rapt.

Others, like the multi-talented Crispin Glover, like to keep us guessing as to whether they really are who they say they are or not. His "performance" on David Letterman in 1987 is a great example of this. Personally (and I consider this a personal weakness) I find such antics funny only when I am confident that I'm in on the joke - unless, of course, there is fake karate kicking involved. That's pretty much a trump card.

Richards, on the other hand, if ever he were a friend to ambiguity, to nuance and insinuation, no longer has that option. And that is a comedy killer, unless you're a great comedian. Ironically, his outburst both closed that avenue and proved that he wasn't a talented enough stage presence to overcome it.

I'm not much of one to follow the comedy circuit, but I have to wonder if it would be a breach of some unwritten code for comedians to take up this sorry spectacle as a source of humor. Lenny Bruce certainly would - Richards' outburst is the perfect exemplar of the buried racism Bruce skewered in many of his own sketches. Bruce mocked the white middle class' smiling confusion at accommodating blacks and made deep psychological comedy out of the undercurrents of mistrust, exoticism, and narcissism that lay underneath. Unfortunately for Michael Richards, he has simply proven Bruce's continued relevance. And it's sad to see this proven so blindly.

Richards has now prostrated himself and apologized on cable television, live via satellite while Jerry Seinfeld sat solemnly in the visitor's chair on David Letterman. (After initially refusing to apologize publicly, he was threatened with being banned from the club in question and had a long session with Seinfeld, who convinced him to try to turn the situation around with a public apology.) Would the public reaction, and Richards' handling of the situation, have been different if it had not been recorded by an audience member? Is this the end of Richards' already hanging-by-a-thread career in show business? Would Mel Gibson's career have been over if a recording had been released?

What do you think? Hecklers welcome.

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