Michael Richards' racist rant: Career-killer or career-reviver?

114640__richards_lTMZ’s expletive-laden clip of Seinfeld alum Michael Richards’ weekend set at The Laugh Factory is, in a word, upsetting. (Click here to see it.) From what I can tell, there’s not really a "joke" (or a setup to a joke) anywhere in sight, just the comic best known as "Kramer" spouting the N-word and engaging in increasingly belligerent banter with his audience before finally walking off the stage. What’s depressing to me — beyond the obvious ick factor of watching a popular comic actor spewing racial epithets — is how, potentially, this ugly incident might pay off for Richards, an actor whose career has sagged mightily since his Seinfeld glory days. Think I’m crazy? Try this scenario on for size.

Richards performs his despicable routine, and of course, it’s videotaped. Footage gets quickly distributed throughout the blogosphere (hi, PopWatch!), and eventually winds up on six o’clock newscasts everywhere. Richards’ publicist releases a statement saying the actor’s remarks were taken out of context, or, as my colleague Dalton Ross is guessing, that said remarks were meant to "’challenge people to think about racial stereotypes’…or some crap like that." By the weekend, there’ll be the inevitable trip to rehab, for addiction to alcohol or painkillers or racial slurs. Next up, a "ripped from the headlines" episode of Law & Order (and maybe a flavor of CSI, too), followed — just in time for February sweeps — by the Conciliatory Interview Tour of Larry King, Diane Sawyer, Today, and (if she’ll have him), Oprah. Sure, there’ll be plenty of folks who won’t ever buy what Richards is selling, but if the goal is to be talked about, to get his name back in the limelight (and on the lips of even a handful of casting directors), won’t Richards end up further ahead, career wise, than he was last Friday morning?

addCredit(“Michael Richards: Mike Guastella/WireImage.com”)

I’m not sure what the solution is here, either. If you watch theclip of Richards’ set, it’s hard to avoid discussing it, to express toa friend or a colleague or a family member (or a blog message board)how upsetting it is to hear that kind of language coming from a publicfigure. It can’t just be ignored. But on the other hand, if buzz (good,bad, or repulsive) is the endgame, couldn’t we be on the cusp of a daywhen publicists plan hate-speech incidents or assaults on servicepeople as last-ditch attempts at salvaging careers? If Naomi Campbellslaps her assistant, and no one hears it, does she have to punch hertwice as hard the next time around?

Then again, maybe I’m overreacting. As my colleague Jeff Jensenpoints out, playing devil’s advocate, "we’re mulling coverage of anout-of-context piece of videophone film, which is certainly offensiveon its own, but is also posted on a celeb gossip site with a deeplyinvested interest in capturing famous people at their worst. It wasalso recorded at a comedy club, where ‘comedians’ say the darndestthings all the time, and often blur the lines between performance andreality. Do we have any idea of the full context of the routine, ifRichards uses audience plants, or if Richards is the kind of comedianwith a performance-art background and an interest in the power oflanguage and Borat-esque audience engagement and all that avant gardestuff? Because I want to say when I did a piece on his ill-fated sitcoma couple years ago, that came up. It could very well that the worst sinRichards has committed here is performing a comedy act that just didn’twork."

Interesting stuff to think about, PopWatchers. I leave it to you to continue the discussion.

Comments (122 total) Add your comment
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  • David

    But more than likely, Slezak’s guess is closest to what will actually happen.

  • Ed

    I thought this was interesting too since Mel Gibson appears to have been forgiven by the public for what he’s said.
    This behavior doesn’t surprise me, ever since sex tapes became the new way to get attention, the bar has been lowered for how celebs get publicity.

  • Eric Crossley

    Wow, ugly and sad to say the least. Clearly Richards went way off the deep end and showed a truly disgusting racist side of himself. I don’t see how you can explain your way out of this one. I am surprised he wasn’t attacked for this sickening display.

  • MJ

    If this was an edgy comedy stunt and not an unfortunate public meltdown, how ironic that Richards employed a tactic similar to the one Andy Kaufman used on “Fridays” where Richards was a player. As I recall, he and Kaufman almost got into an unscripted fistfight in the middle of a sketch.
    Say, isn’t there a Seinfeld DVD coming out tomorrow?

  • MJ

    If this was an edgy comedy stunt and not an unfortunate public meltdown, how ironic that Richards employed a tactic similar to the one Andy Kaufman used on “Fridays” where Richards was a player. As I recall, he and Kaufman almost got into an unscripted fistfight in the middle of a sketch.
    Say, isn’t there a Seinfeld DVD coming out tomorrow?

  • Ep Sato

    I first saw this on CNN this morning, and was shocked. Let me premise this by saying that I do not believe that in his heart Mr. Richards is a racist man. Most comedians work in diverse environments and Mr. Richards was on this tour with comedian Paul Rodriguez.
    That said, the N word has gained an all new mysticism since the days when guys like Richard Pryor began to “take back” the word. Suddenly, what was once taboo was a term that was within some limits considered okay to be used within the African American community. And while African American style, music and language has continued to draw the interest of all of America, there’s one place that most folks aren’t allowed to go. Hence the mysticism and maybe even a desire to say the n word has suddenly rissen. On Chappelle’s show they make a joke about that in the Clayton Bigsby (the Black white supremacist) episode. The british guy says “by N word, I mean N*gger. There, I said it”.
    Now, many years later, despite the increasing use of the word on tv (The Boondocks drops that word like it’s someone’s last name), intellectual discussion about the word and it’s origins on tv (on a very special episode of Boston Public), frequent use in music and public settings, it seems that no protocols have been established about who or when it is appropriate to use this word, if ever.
    The concept of the word having a certain “mysticism” also stems from the Show “Black and White” where the African American dad noticed how “free” the white dad felt using the word once he had the “Black face” on.
    Among the many difficult and frank discussions this country needs to have about race, IMHO this has to be one of the first issues taken off the board.
    Finally, Richards would be best served by offering up a public apology. He should be honest about it, admit that it was an unintentional slip, and offer to take sensitivity training or to meet with leaders in the LA African American community to make amends.

  • Gerald Barker

    I don’t see this as any PR plan. Just a guy who had a meltdown on stage, maybe thinking he was being funny or edgy. A very sad spectacle.

  • SJ

    I saw the clip this morning and was horrified. The guy was talking about lynchings! What was even more horrifying was that there were some people clapping and cheering him on.
    It may be a stunt to gather attention, but I doubt it. Nobody does that just for shock value.
    It kinda makes me laugh because the one of the few black guys on Seinfeld was Kramer’s lawyer.

  • Ron

    Stealing a line from Kanye West,Michael Richards don’t care about black people. Disturbing.

  • junior

    First up, I’m black and I didn’t really find that video offensive because I didn’t know whether he was drunk or doing a piece of performance art or had a death wish to yell the “N” word out in a crowd with black people in it. It sounded like he was trying to make a point of how certain words have an effect on people in society, which is true, but he could have also been high, in which case I can’t really value his potential commentary on popular culture. It could have also been a case of ‘I wanna say anything I want,’ which is this disease that people get from time to time when they forget that political correctness is based in respect and that’s why you can’t going around saying anything. It’s separate from racism, which could be the case also.
    Lastly, doesn’t anyone think that Michael Richard’s isn’t a big enough star to warrant this kind of discussion? Although I said all that above, my first reaction was “and I should care about this, because?”

  • Dan

    I kind of wish EW and CNN would exercise better judgement and NOT cover this. I may be hopelessly idealistic and naive, but unless we stop giving so much camera time to the extremist morons of this world, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll ever move forward.

  • Will H

    well….that pretty much ruined Seinfeld for me

  • kinglouieXVIII

    I think it’s such a double standard when people make a huge deal about a white person using the N word, but black people throw around everyday and that’s ok? That’s BS. That word is rooted in so much racial hatred that dates to one of the ugliest periods in American history.
    I’m not black, but I feel insulted when anybody–no matter what their color is–uses it. It makes me think that America hasn’t really grown since the days of the Southern plantations, and I refuse to believe that.
    As for Mr. Richards, I have no idea what prompted this little outburst. I doubt that a heart to heart with Diane Sawyer or Oprah can do much to save what’s left of his career. The main difference between him and Mel Gibson is that Mel is an artist with a large fan base (including me) who can look past his actions and focus solely on his work. I don’t think the same can be said for Kramer. (cue Debbie Downer music)

  • dma69

    Career-killer? I thought that TV show he did about a quirky detective that lasted about a millisecond killed his career.

  • brandonk

    I just read “I Killed,” a book of anecdotes from comedians, and I gather that this sort of exchange between a comedian and hecklers is not uncommon and that much worse things have been done and said.

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