Saturday, November 25, 2006

Meltdown in L.A.

“He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” a man shouts frantically from the stage, pointing at someone or someones in the audience. It is early in the tirade, one whose intensity eventually clears the room. It’s therefore not a speech at a Klan rally or the ravings of people in a neo-Nazi skinhead mosh pit. This is the city, Los Angeles, California, and on the stage of the Laugh Factory, a comedy club at 8001 West Sunset Boulevard, Michael Richards is apparently losing his mind.

The long-ago star of “Seinfeld,” in what appeared to be one step in the career reinvention that is common to Hollywood, had some kind of … meltdown on Friday, November 17, when he appeared at the club as a stand-up comic. Richards’ folly was captured on grainy, slightly shaky images taken on a cell-phone camera at the club; from there the images have made their way to the Web site, and from there onto the reigning information interstate, YouTube, and from there assuming a permanent place in the idiots’ division of the pop-cultural pantheon.

Richards exploded on two black patrons of the club, Kyle Doss and Frank McBride, who were taking their seats after ordering drinks as part of a group of about twenty other people. What started with Richards’ first salvo became an ugly exchange with the two, and others in the audience.

"Shut up!" Richards shouts. "Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a fuckin’ fork up your ass."

“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! A nigger, look, there’s a nigger!

Moderating his outburst at one instance, or perhaps himself realizing he was a man on the verge of a professional breakdown, Richards pulls back a little, telling the audience, "It shocks you, it shocks you" and making some oblique reference to "what lays buried."

◊ ◊ ◊

Watching this professional self-immolation, we considered for a fraction of a fraction of a second: Were we witnessing brilliance? Had Richards retrofit Kramer to make some broader, weightier sociological point about the power of language? It had been done before, most incisively in the legendary N-word monologue by Lenny Bruce, the comedian whose jocular but withering dissection of that word in the volatile ‘60s made an indelible, lacerating point about tolerance and American society, one that resonates today.

But no. Hell naw. Not this time. It’s clear after about three seconds of the cell-phone video that’s not the case. There was no grand strategy. The absence of context and vision speaks for itself. Richards, lashing out at the nearest target of opportunity, overdosing on the power of being the only one in the room with a microphone, just Went Off.

“A nigger! Look, there’s a nigger!” "They're going to arrest me for calling a black man a nigger!" It goes on and on, a self-destruction playing itself out to an increasingly empty room.

You knew it was, uh, an accident almost immediately, in pop-culcha time, when Richards performed a mea culpa by satellite. Three days later Richards had prevailed on Jerry Seinfeld, friend and fellow “Seinfeld” cast member, to let him issue an apology from a great height: a live satellite transmission broadcast on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” where Seinfeld was to be a guest that night.

On the broadcast, a clearly wan Richards was effusive with contrition:

“…You know, I’m really busted up over this and I’m very, very sorry to those people in the audience, the blacks, the Hispanics, whites – everyone that was there that took the brunt of that anger and hate and rage and how it came through, and I’m concerned about more hate and more rage and more anger coming through, not just towards me but towards a black/white conflict.

"There’s a great deal of disturbance in this country and how blacks feel about what happened in Katrina, and, you know, many of the comics, many performers are in Las Vegas and New Orleans trying to raise money for what happened there, and for this to happen, for me to be in a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, you know, I’m deeply, deeply sorry."

◊ ◊ ◊

How could this happen? Letterman asked him. "You know, I’m a performer. I push the envelope, I work in a very uncontrolled manner onstage," Richards said. "I do a lot of free association, it’s spontaneous, I go into character. I don’t know, in view of the situation and the act going where it was going, I don’t know, the rage did go all over the place."

Since the Letterman show Richards has gone on to seek counseling with Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and other arbiters of African American sensibilities. The Michael Richards Kum Ba Yah tour is likely to continue, in other venues, for weeks to come.

Jackson, who spoke with Richards, said on MSNBC that “my concern was that this fit of anger and rage went beyond use of the word ‘nigger.’

Jackson commented on what Richards told him. “He said, ‘I have this inner rage, and maybe it’s a feeling of inferiority, maybe I was compensating.’

“I said, ‘you need to see a psychiatrist. This requires you needing to get well.’”

Stepping away from the specifics of the Richards' moment, Jackson spoke of the word's wider use throughout America. And he mentioned how indifference to the suffering from Hurricane Katrina and the political resurrection of Sen. Trent Lott to a position of power after the Strom Thurmond debacle were examples of how you don’t have to use the N-word in order to communicate that which the word intends.

But for those who do use the word, some social observers are calling for a uniform moratorium on its word. Even among those who use it more than just about everyone else: black people.

“Words are not value neutral,” political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson said in his Political Report blog on Nov. 20. “They express concepts and ideas. Often, words reflect society's standards. If color-phobia is a deep-rooted standard in American life, then a word, as emotionally charged as ‘nigger,’ will always reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. It can’t be sanitized, cleansed, inverted, or redeemed as a culturally liberating word. ‘Nigger’ can’t and shouldn’t be made acceptable, no matter whose mouth it comes out of or what excuse is tossed out for using it.”

Hutchinson thus calls out the hiphop thug crews whose use of the word in the lexicon of the 'hood is a sadly astonishing eveyday thing.

Doss and McBride, the two objects of Richards’ fury, have retained counsel – none other than Gloria Allred, the attorney celebrated for recognizing a lucrative income on the backs of stars of various magnitudes. They want a personal apology and possibly some compensation. They hope to meet with a judge to negotiate the apology, and to let the judge decide on compensation, if any.

But you have to wonder, what will they sue for? Slander? Defamation of character? Public embarrassment? Because in that prolonged monster’s cry, there’s nothing, not one word, that black Americans don’t already have to contend with every day, anywhere in this country at any given moment.

Therein lies the fallacy of the Richards meltdown, and our insistence on that meltdown as an aberration of American conduct: It’s not so far off the charts of the way we act, black and white and others, all the time.

We’ve been here before and before: the action, the vehement and indignant reaction, the big-media contrition, the tendency to forget it all in the wash of a news cycle without end. Until it happens again.

Tongues will wag in the weeks to come about What This Says About America; but the initial hysteria will settle into background chatter, online murmurs increasingly lower on the page-view Richter scale. We’ll go back to our comfortable assumptions, our old habits about who we are and who they are. Until it happens again.

The lesson of the Michael Richards incident is how disinclined we are as a nation to learn lessons from things like the Michael Richards incident.

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