An open letter to Michael Richards:
First, Mr. Richards, in case you don’t already know, this is in response to your “performance” Friday night at the Laugh Factory. If you were looking to “wow” the audience, then congratulations! There’s nothing like spewing racial epithets to wake up that two-drink-minimum crowd. But remember, getting their attention is only half the job. You also want to entertain, and maybe keep your career intact, too. Well, what’s left of it. While that can be a challenge in the face of pesky hecklers, surely there’s a good way to handle it. Perhaps less of the angry racist insults and more of the funny standup routine, for starters.
This is just a guess, but most people go to the comedy club for a fun night out. In particular, when they see you, what they really want is Kramer. They want you to slide onto the stage, act startled, and play the oddball. And there’s your first problem. Kramer wouldn’t respond to an unexpected outburst with a lynching reference. It just wouldn’t happen. He might get jumpy and stare bug-eyed at the offender, but he wouldn’t fling the n-word around.
Sure, you’re not actually Kramer. We get that. But when the pressure is on, don’t default to intolerance. You could have gone with the standard, “Hey pal, do I come to your work and tell you how to make a Happy Meal?” But you chose exorcising your demons in a fairly unattractive way, and that really sticks with an audience.
Add to the humor not the horrorFor future reference, the appropriate response to hecklers should, in fact, be to add to humor to the show rather than leaving the audience in abject horror. May I suggest reaching into your bag of comedy chestnuts and leaving the deeply disturbing bigoted tirades to a minimum? Basically you just need to keep your inner Mel Gibson in check. And speaking of Mel, you’ve got to give him credit; even he didn’t lose it in front of an audience. Say what you will, but slobbering drunk on the roadside is a better venue for this sort of ugliness.
Whatever your excuse is, don’t go saying that comedians have been doing racial humor on stage forever. You weren’t borrowing from a Don Rickles Borscht Belt routine, or even from a new schooler like Sarah Silverman. They’ve been making people uncomfortable for ages without crossing the line. But then again, it’s part of their act, not a personal meltdown.
While they poke fun at the topic of race, you may have noticed they never actually point out members of the audience and say, “Shut up! Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a [expletive] fork up your [expletive],” as you did. Is that the key to their successes? Could be.
In short, other comedians, and most decent people, don’t “go there.” If you absolutely can’t resist a racial slur, you might want to keep in mind the unwritten rule: only sling mud at your own race. Sure it’s safe. Sure it’s easy. And you risk treading into the horrible, “Did you ever notice white guys walk like this?” territory, but, you know, did I mention the safe part?
‘Is this thing on?’And what about that awkward moment that comes after you realize you went too far? Heck, even Krusty the Clown from “The Simpsons” knows that a faceplant like the one you took requires some finesse. When an offhand comment from a child launches him into one of his requisite horrifying screeds, he turns to bow tie pulling and a quick “is this thing on?” to the mic.
Sad to say, but a cartoon clown knows more about this than you do. Continuing to engage the folks you just insulted is off the table. That only serves to remind the audience that you are completely out of control, and possibly wacked out of your gourd. Minimize the alarming behavior by moving on and pretending it’s all part of the act. The really shocking and ill-conceived act.
Maybe you saw all this as a career opportunity. The post-“Seinfeld” days haven’t been kind to you, granted. Remember “The Michael Richards Show?” Yeah, we don’t either. But if you were hoping for some new work to accompany all this media attention, think again.
The behavior you displayed will only lead to a job for the guy who plays you in the “Law & Order: Ripped From the Headlines” episode. And really, the thinly veiled Kramer-esque character won’t fare too well in that one. You can count of it. I’m seeing a washed up comedian found dead behind the club after losing it on stage. Who did it? Was it the object of his on-stage attack? No, in the end it’s his manager (who we totally didn’t expect). His motive? The comedian killed the manager’s future earnings when he lost it on stage, so he had to kill you, I mean the comedian.
For now, just sit back and reflect on all of this. Or give Mel a call — you two could start a celebrity tolerance workshop. Don’t worry; you’ll have time to work on all your issues before your next big gig. Plenty of time.
Ree Hines is a writer in Tampa.