Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Thoughts on Michael Richards.

On September 30th of this year I celebrated the twentieth anniversary of my very first stand up set. As I said before in CHILD OF TELEVISION: Milestones stand up comedy is my first love as a performer. I describe that love for the art this way; I had to do it. From the first day I stepped foot on that stage at the world famous Laugh Factory, I was hooked. As corny as it may sound to some, I felt alive on stage. There were times when I was really broke and dinner was a twenty-five cent package of generic ramin noodles because I needed to spend what little money I had on gas so I could drive to several different clubs a night. I even lost a day job as a tele-marketer because I kept oversleeping since I was out all night going from club to club. Every night I would hope against hope that I could get five minutes of stage time in front of what usually turned out to be three drunks. The good time slots were given to the actor who used to play the wacky neighbor on a sitcom (NOTE: Michael Richards did Stand Up prior to Seinfeld), or the guy who is in that series of stupid TV commercials. I understand that club owners want a household name on their marquee because they will put butts in seats.

I made sacrifices for my art knowing that some day the sacrifices would pay off. Love, even love of your art, makes you do stupid things. To pay the rent I took many day jobs. Without mentioning any names, there are many companies in town that hire creative people, like comedians and other performers, to use their talents and personalities to do the company's bidding. If any of my coworkers or I got too creative, overzealous or crossed the line we were told, "You are not in a comedy club". Sadly it looks like comedy clubs are less like comedy clubs and more like factories. Some rooms judge if a comedian is funny by listening for a big laugh every twenty seconds and not listening to what the comedian has to say. Some rooms don't want comedians to talk about current events, because although the material might be funny this week it has no shelf life and how do they know you will be funny next week. Some rooms promote as themselves as having "Clean Comedy" meaning no profanity while others have a ban on certain subject matter. I understand that the comedian sees things from the artistic point of view while advocating free speech, however the club owner or the person who books the room sees things from a business point of view. The battle between art and commerce is nothing new, you just have to know how to choose your battles.

Since Michael Richards went off on a raciest rant at on stage at a local comedy club, I have been doing a great deal of thinking about my craft. In the last couple of weeks I have had many conversations with comedians and ex-comedians about the incident and have read articles and blogs on the matter. I have been very hesitant to write about this subject for fear that my perspective, although coming from the heart and with no malice of intent, might not be popular with some people, and may even offend. But isn't that part of free speech? I have no way of knowing what is in Mr. Richards' heart and mind. I can only speculate and speculation alone is useless and may even be harmful. I am not exactly going out on a limb when I say what Michael Richards did was wrong. It was wrong for many reasons including not being funny. Not only was it unprofessional it was socially unacceptable and considering what comedians can get away with on stage that says a lot. That being said I want to look at the big picture, beyond the video we have all seen online or edited on the TV news. The media has dedicated a lot of airtime to this issue, more than it may deserve. What I have been seeing in the media is either talking heads trying to figure out what is in Michael Richard's head or, various parties involved in the incident doing damage control (Mr. Richards making great efforts to prove that he is not a racist or the owner of the club establishing a policy that any comedian using the "N" word will be fined). The issue should not be the use of that word, it is that he called a heckler that word. This is the part where I fear that some people might take offence and that is my problem with presenting the hecklers as victims. This may be my own prejudice as a comedian but I feel that there is something wrong with hecklers needing a victim rights advocate. I fear that a Pandora’s box has been opened. Instead of just dealing with the individual solely responsible for the incident, they censor everyone. They drew a line that represents acceptability and said, "Don't cross it". You don’t do that with comedians because they will see it as a challenge and they will always have the last laugh in the end. Personally I don’t use that word. I have written material where I mock those who do use that word. Then again I don’t own that word but who am I to say who can and can’t use that word. George Carlin used it skillfully on his Parental Advisory Album. I hardly use the words I do own, but that is me. I have a reputation of being a nice guy who works clean (Even though I do use profanity subtly and in context).

We comedians, writers and storytellers paint pictures with words. Saying that a comedian can't use a certain word is like telling an artist who is painting a rose that he can't use red paint because another artist did something very wrong with red paint. The best comedy is based in truth. One of the great things that the art of Comedy can do is shed an honest light on things. We reflect who people are, point out life’s absurdities to people who would otherwise accept the absurdities as normal. We say what people feel but can’t articulate. When people outside the club stop using that word that’s when people inside the club will move on to something new.

To quote George Carlin in his Parental Advisory Album, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those words in and of themselves. They're only words. It's the context that counts. It's the user. It's the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent. I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit! It's the context that makes them good or bad. The context. That makes them good or bad. For instance, you take the word "Nigger." There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word "Nigger" in and of itself. It's the racist asshole who's using it that you ought to be concerned about".

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

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