Until his racist rant at a Los Angeles comedy club threw his faltering standup comedy career onto a bonfire of insanity, Michael Richards was best known to millions as The Guy Who Used to Play Cosmo Kramer on "Seinfeld," which was one of the most popular shows in TV history. Now he's known as the mixed-up weirdo who gave Americans something besides sports and the mid-term elections to talk about over Thanksgiving dinners.
By now you know the story: A raging Richards was caught on somebody's video camera spewing the N-bomb and making obscene references to lynching in response to some black alleged hecklers in his audience on a recent Friday at Hollywood's Laugh Factory.
When the remorseful Richards later apologized ("I'm very, very sorry") on CBS' "Late Night with David Letterman," even he seemed to disbelieve his own denials of racism. "I'm not a racist, that's what so insane about this," he said in a rambling satellite interview. "And yet it is said. It comes through, it fires out of me and even now in the passion that's here as I confront myself." His passive voice ("…It is said.…") sounded as unconvincing as President Ronald Reagan's saying, "mistakes were made" to disassociate himself from the Iran-Contra fiasco. Richards sound like a man trying desperately to disconnect himself from something for which he and only he stands accountable.
His apology to "Afro-Americans," a term not much heard since the 1960s, revealed a man oddly out of touch with cultural currents, especially for an aspiring standup comedian. Yet, if being out of touch on race were a crime, the world would not have enough jails to hold all of the offenders.
With that in mind, one hopes that Richards will not be alone in using this incident as a learning experience, although I'm not expecting miracles. The progress we have made from the era of lynchings to the era of racial bridge-builders like Bill Cosby, Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey fools too many people into thinking our racial divide has been closed until an ugly surprise like Richards' toxic tirade erupts.
Instead of a learning experience, celebrities caught in such eruptions tend to do what Richards has done: They hire a spin doctor.
Richards has hired Howard Rubinstein, a big-time crisis manager aptly described by The Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes as "The go-to guy for celebrities who have really stepped in it." Rubinstein, in turn, helped arrange apologetic phone calls by Richards to the go-to guys for big-time black rage, the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Rev. Jackson has been talking to members of Congress about prohibiting the use of hate language in mass media, according to CBS-owned WBBM-TV in Chicago. If so, let us hope those talks don't get far. It's easy to agree with Jackson that hate speech divides society and can lead to violence, but if we let Congress decide which speech is hateful and what isn't, a lot of comedy clubs would be put out of business.
And that's not all. Everything offends somebody. Imagine the repercussions for TV shows like BET's "Comic View" or HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" that feature black standup comedians. I've heard from readers, for example, who are offended when black standup comics on TV poke fun at whites, Hispanics or Asians in their audiences. From the black cultural point of view, such a good-natured call-out can defuse racial tensions. But, to some white folks and others viewing at home, it's hate speech.
The same caution should greet the looming legal actions that two alleged black male targets of Richards' wrath might take. They've hired celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, the go-to woman for newsmakers with an actionable gripe. In a CNN appearance with her clients, Allred said they deserve compensation for the emotional pain they suffered. If so, I shudder to think where that could end. Current hate-crime laws add penalties to assault and other serious crimes if the offender's speech indicates they were motivated by hate. But, if abusive speech is grounds for a lawsuit without physical damage, the biggest laughs will be coming from lawyers.
Meanwhile, Richards is living with his own punishment, properly condemned by the court of public opinion. Even his hip and edgy comrades in comedy are acknowledging that there still are lines of decency that none of us should cross.
Among the offended is the real Kenny Kramer, on whom Richard's character was based. "Use some of that 'Seinfeld' money to buy yourself an act!," he advised. Right. Try some anger-management therapy, too.