I rarely comment on the overdone topic du jour on this blog but the disaster that is Michael Richards' "nigger" rant is interesting to me on a number of levels. First, although I never intended it, I've become a bit of a target for racists on YouTube because I made a couple of anti-racist videos. Second, I have some aspirations to being a comedic performer and this spectacular cock-up by Richards will, I believe, ultimately come to be seen as the quintessential example of what a stand-up comedian MUST NOT DO.
Rule one for comedians: when faced with a heckler, do not lose your shit. Rule two for comedians: when faced with a heckler DO NOT LOSE YOUR SHIT! And just for Richards, I'll throw in rule three: if you're going to use racial epithets, make sure you know where you're going with the routine. After having watched the video of Richards, I came to two conclusions. One; he certainly has racist tendencies. He may not have overt racist tendencies in his day to day life and he may even consider himself not to be racist at all, but at the very least, significant amounts of latent racism came spewing out of him. Two; he really isn't a very good stand-up comedian.
For those who like to watch videos, here he is:
For those who don't watch videos, here are the lowlights. The video is taken on someone's camera phone - they seem to be a quick thinker who realises that Richards is losing it and they start videoing after he has already started screaming. The video starts with him yelling:
"Shut up! 50 years ago we'd have you hanging upside down with a fucking fork up your ass!"
To my mind, this is the most racist thing he says. He really sounds like he's missing the good old days when white folks would simply string up any uppity niggers. He then continues in the following vein:
"You can talk, you can talk, you can talk! You're brave now motherfucker! Throw his ass out! He's a nigger, He's a nigger, he's a nigger! (at this point you hear the holder of the camera say "oh my god!") A nigger! Look, there's a nigger!"
At this point the recipient of the abuse (and the audience generally) seem stunned by the tirade and Richards continues:
"Ooooh, oooh. All right, see? This shocks you, it shocks you to see what's buried beneath you stupid motherfuckers?"
At this point, someone in the audience (it seems like it's the target of Richards' abuse) responds:
Audience Member: "That was uncalled for."
Richards: "What was uncalled for? It's uncalled for for you to interrupt my ass you cheap motherfucker! You guys have been talking and talking and talking. I don't know, I don't know, I don't know."
There is still laughter at this point. Some nervous, some seems genuine and some seems to be laughing at the spectacle of Richards self-destructing. The holder of the camera says "This guy is going nuts."
Richards: (said in a gentle tone of voice) "What's the matter? Is this too much for you to handle?" (the video cuts at this point and then continues - I don't know why.) "They're going to arrest me for calling a black man a nigger?"
Right about here the audience seriously turns on him. You can hear quite a few angry voices and people start to leave, one saying "That was uncalled for you fucking cracker-ass motherfucker," on the way out. This is actually how I respond to the racists on YouTube, I'm always calling them hillbilly crackers. This seems to be pretty much the exact response Richards wanted and now it looks as if he's trying to make a point:
"Cracker ass? You calling me cracker ass, nigger?"
There's a bit of back and forth until the audience member hits Richards with the ultimate insult, the truth:
Audience Member: "You're just not funny. That why you're a reject, never had no shows, never had no movies, 'Seinfeld' - that's it."
Richards: "Oh I guess you got me there, you're absolutely right. I'm just a wash-up, gotta stand on the stage."
Audience: "That's un-fucking-called for. That aint necessary."
Richards: "Well, you interrupted me pal. That's what happens when you interrupt the white man, don't you know? You see? You see, there's still those words, those words, those words."
At this point, Richards simply gives up and walks off stage. The whole thing stunned not so much because he repeatedly said nigger but because he didn't know where to go once he'd done it. He clearly thought he was saying something funny, then saying something insightful. But he was nowhere near good enough to carry it off. Any sort of performance is a risk and the higher the risk of your act, the better you have to be to carry it off. If you're walking a tightrope one foot off the ground, it doesn't really matter if you're no good. If you fall you won't be seriously hurt. But if you're 100 metres up with no net you'd better be fucking good because if you screw up, the results will be catastrophic.
Plus, can someone explain to me why he always says things three times? I think he should go with Tourette's Syndrome as a defence. Richards undoubtedly knows the following Lenny Bruce routine (he wishes he was good enough to shine Bruce's shoes). In what is probably Bruce's most famous routine, he underlaid his monologue with a character, an imaginary audience member:
"The reason I don't get hung up with, well, say, integration, is that by the time Bob Newhart is integrated, I'm bigoted. And anyway, Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin are geniuses, the battle's won. By the way, are there any niggers here tonight?
(Outraged whisper) "What did he say?'Are there any niggers here tonight?' Jesus Christ! Does he have to get that low for laughs? Wow! Have I ever talked about the Schwarzes when the Schwarzes had gone home? Or spoken about the Moulonjohns when they'd left? Or placated some Southerner by absence of voice when he ranted and raved about nigger nigger nigger?
Are there any niggers here tonight? I know that one nigger who works here, I see him back there. Oh, there's two niggers, customers, and, ah, aha! Between those two niggers sits one kike-- man, thank God for the kike! Uh, two kikes. That's two kikes, and three niggers, and one spic. One spic-- two, three spics. One mick. One mick, one spic, one hick, thick, funcky, spunky boogey. And there's another kike. Three kikes. Three kikes, one guinea, one greaseball. Three greaseballs, two guineas. Two guineas, one hunky funky lace-curtain Irish mick. That mick spic hunky funky boogey. Two guineas plus three greaseballs and four boogies makes usually three spics. Minus two Yid spic Polack funky spunky Polacks.
AUCTIONEER: Five more niggers! Five more niggers!
GAMBLER: I pass with six niggers and eight micks and four spics.
The point? That the word's suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, "Tonight I'd like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet,: and he yelled "nig- gerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggergigger" at every nigger he saw, "boogeyboogeyboogeyboogeyboogey,nig-gerniggerniggernigger" till nigger didn't mean anything any more, till nigger lost its meaning-- you'd never make any four-year-old "nigger" cry when he came home from school."
The routine of Bruce's is doubly audacious when you realise he did it about 40 years ago. When you really look at what Richards said, I think it's safe to say he's probably no more than halfway up the racism scale for white people (a lot of latent racism but he'd be very unlikely to act in an overtly racist way in his day to day life). Stress has a way of revealing what you're really thinking. Driving is often a good measure of how tolerant you really are - if you can drive through heavy traffic without ever hurling a racist or sexist epithet, you're doing fairly well.
Apparently, Richards actually went back onstage in the same club the next night. That would take some balls, mostly because he has to realise that he got himself in this position because he's really not a very good stand-up comedian. His rather shell-shocked attempt at an apology on Letterman is quite revealing too. He never once tries to justify what he said (good for him) but he doesn't say anything particularly coherent. Letterman keeps feeding him lines to respond to but he's too dazed to properly take advantage of the opportunities offered.
I found it quite revealing watching Jerry Seinfeld during this exchange. Seinfeld is clear that he thinks Richards deserves the chance to make amends but he never once utters the old chestnut "I know he isn't racist." Seinfeld seem really uncomfortable, even pissed off by the whole thing. I wouldn't be surprised if he feels tainted by association. It seems like he's saying "Here's your platform to make amends but that's all I'm doing. You're on your own with this one, buddy."
All I know is that it would be very unlikely for me to call someone a nigger onstage in any circumstances. And I certainly wouldn't attempt a similar riff to Bruce's without a shitload of rehearsal. Having said this, here a video response to the situation I did last night: