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


Anonymous said...

I was curious about your thoughts, especially since you're a comedian. But I guess the joke's on me, since your lavender font on yellow background makes it all nearly impossible to read.

Richard T said...


Really interesting and a great analogy with the rose. I am constantly disheartened with those we feel we need to defend. And I say this as a lefty-left-lefterson liberal with a capital L. An bunch of bus stop ads for milk was taken down because it had a surface on it that smelled like cookies (to go along with the pictures of cookies). Seems that overweight people's rights groups got pissed off (to be fair: among others). Likewise, when do hecklers get defended by anyone? They need to be removed and sent home naked in a dirty cab with a couple of angry drunks so they know what it's like to be a standup. On the other hand, I have also heard that the men being verbally assaulted by Richards were just a bunch of low-class jerks who were just talking too loud during his act, and were not actually consciously attempting to disrupt. Still, most comics and fans of comedy have seen skillful comics verbally dismember hecklers without resorting to racial epithets. The man should have known better. Because Carlin is right -- it is ALL about context.

Dwhite Sanger said...

Michael Richards (Kramer) is innocent.
He acted within well-established comedy guidelines. The Laugh Factory video is deceptive, limited, and shows only one vantage point. It does not show how quickly the hecklers reached for dangerous epithets to hurl at Richards, and it provides no light on the background of the hecklers.

Unless you are a veteran, experienced comedian, you can't possibly appreciate the necessary split-second decision-making involved. Reacting too little or too slowly could mean severe comedy-career injury, or worse. And overreacting...well, the stage is a dangerous place.

Not enough has been told about the hecklers. They have a record of heckling as long as your forearm. They've been known to skip out on a two-drink minimum after the first drink. They have been caught stealing jokes and later passing them off as their own. After a string of severe heckling rampages, the pair were tagged among veteran comedians as "Heckle and Jeckle". One of them spawned an illegitimate routine with a stripper. Witnesses that night said they were acting jovial and upbeat, possibly high on Red Bull. This is what Michael Richards was up against.

The hecklers' race (colored Afro-American) had nothing to do with it. What the video doesn't show is how Michael Richards' vantage point afforded him a full-on view of an aspect of the hecklers that neither the audience nor the camera could see: their flared nostrils. Richards claimed one of the hecklers even flashed a colored afro wig -- a dangerous, obvious Homey The Clown distraction device. This all occurred in a neighborhood known for its very high heckling rate.

The video does not show the full exchange, and this is crucial to the incident. Prior to Michael Richards' measured and justifiable response, he received several devastating heckles. He was compared to a giant, curly-haired buzzard. Then he was called a "jive turkey". It was only after surviving this that he was hit with the insufferable tag "not funny".

Those who want to punish Michael Richards aren't appreciative of the high stakes here. His comedy life was at risk when he was forced to use lethal epithets like the "n" word. (Once in a fracas, adrenaline takes over and multiple "n" words can be fired off without knowing it.) The only way to have restored order was to clear the room by deploying a cultural dirty bomb: Michael Richards had no choice but to reference the ritualistic, terrorist mob murders that have historically been employed against those of the hecklers' background.

Comedians like Michael Richards are our last line of defense -- the only thing that stands between the clown element and the rest of us comedy-abiding audience members. If we tie the hands of Kramer, then any one of us could become the tragic victim of reckless heckling.

Finally, we shouldn't rush to judgment before all the facts are in. We have early assessments -- first, from the Seinfeld Report, then the Jackson Commission -- that indicate Richards was just a decent, hardworking comedian, trying to do his job, who deserves the benefit of the doubt. He should be allowed to remain at a paid desk job at Comedy Central until the Laugh Factory incident is resolved by proper comedy authorities.

Anonymous said...

How is it that in all of the magazine and television reports, the word that Mr. Racist, oops Mr. Richards said, is referred to as the "N" word or they bleep his rants. Yet, magazines, newspapers and television news organizations reporting on the homo-phobic statements of Isiah Washington use the FULL and spoken word "faggot" when reporting the incident? Are gay people just better at "taking it on the chin"? Are gay people less human than black people, so we don't mind insulting the "faggots" again and again? Where are civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton when someone is being treated like that in the media? Do they have to be black to be supported? Do they stand next to TR Knight and support him at a quickly orchestrated news conference? Not that I have seen. I guess civil rights and discrimation should be color blind, but I guess it's not.