Television

Kramer vs. Borat

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Here's video of Michael Richards, a.k.a. Seinfeld's Kramer, stinking up the joint recently at The Laugh Factory. Responding to a heckler, Richards goes on an n-word tear that starts out like a Lenny Bruce/Dick Gregory-ish bit that's trying to straddle off-color (literally) humor and social commentary but then never climbs above simple offensiveness. Proving that audiences really do run the world, the offended heckler gets off the best line in the exchange (which is not saying much, to be sure) when he makes fun of Richards' meager post-Seinfeld career.

Richards has already apologized for his rant (to his slim credit, he didn't blame alcohol), which has been called a career killer. Though that, pace the heckler, presumes that Richards was not already a Hollywood nosferatu.

A number of people I know have drawn parallels between Richards' yapping and the musings of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat, who trades in similarly offensive stereotypes and has freaked the shit of some observers even as he rules the nation's movie roost. Why is one considered awful while the other is dubbed comic and box-office gold (though to be sure, Borat has his detractors)?

I don't think it's too complicated: First and foremost, the audience is in on Borat's shtick. On some level, we can feel superior to the poor fools who are revealed as chumps. What makes the Borat stuff more interesting is that we often feel sympathy for the stooges, especially the ones who are trying to be polite to the crazy Kazakh and then get goaded into offensive or humiliating speech and behavior. In the end, I think Borat is in many ways a satire of American "friendliness" (every state in the Union, it seems, claims to be the friendliest of all), of our national willingness to want to respect the customs, traditions, and mores of foreign cultures (we're a pluralist melting pot and all that).  Perhaps most important, there's an unmistakable sense of control: Cohen knows what he's doing, it's planned out, etc. You never confuse Cohen the creator with his characters and hence, even if you don't find him funny, you know on some level you're brothers under the skin. Unless you're those South Carolina frat boys. Or the guy who beat Borat up in New York after thinking he was serious in a sexual advance (even more evidence that the audience has a mind of its own). Which is the point: Borat creates an in-group between him and his viewers, while Richards simply alienates his crowd.

Part of what is disturbing about Richards' performance is the palpable sense of flop sweat, of desperation. You see a guy who reaches first for the easiest comeback to an African-American heckler and then can't trade up to actually being funny, to pull himself out of a simple assertion of power (whether based on skin color or, tellingly, celebrity). In that failure–especially coming from the actor who was truly transcendent as the funniest next-door neighbor in sitcom history–you see an ugly pentimento of the worst sort of race relations.

Bonus: BetUs.com is laying 2-to-1 odds that Julia Louis Dreyfus will be the "next Seinfeld star to be racist." More here.

Double Bonus: Here's footage of Richards apologizing last night on Letterman with Seinfeld.

Triple Bonus: A "best of Kramer" clip reel at YouTube.

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  1. Didn’t joe play “Newman” on Seinfeld? I would guess that if anyone was going to freak out in a post-Seinfeld, flop-sweat-driven racial tirade, the guy whose last gig was a bit part in Jurassic Park…

    Just joshing, joe.

  2. This is what happens to you when you shave with butter. Your brain gets fried!

  3. Anyone else catch his pathetic performance on Letterman last night? Richards was stumbling for words, the audience starting laughing, and Seinfeld berated the audience. Quite surreal.

  4. I thought the key to disarming a heckler was to embarass him/her. Instead, he made the hecklers sympathetic figures.

  5. Yesterday’s news conference at the club was just as entertaining. There was much righteous indignation! Ban the “N-word”! We demand an apology! Enact censorship at the club! Ai carramba, what a spectacle!

  6. I was quite impressed how Richards managed to dance around the phrase “coked to the gills” during the apology.

  7. What truly baffles me is that Ritchards obviously has been doing stand-up for quite some time, both pre and post-Seinfeld. I would think stand-up 101 would entail knowing how to quickly and effectively deal with a heckler and then move on. The man totally loses control of his act and it’s bizarre to watch.

  8. Why do stars of hit sitcoms feel the need continually prove themselves? Just sit back and count yer money. If it’s not enough, do infomercials or movies on SciFi.

  9. I haven’t seen Borat or Richards latest scapades, but I think Borat may have simply picked a better minority to ridicule given the tone of the times. There were times it was okay to make fun of negroes in the US, but that time has passed. Someday, I believe the time will also pass on what Cohen does, and future generations will look at his work like we look at those old Warner Brothers cartoons about blacks and Japs. With some embarrassment for our ancestors, that is.

  10. Some things are saying he’s never really done much stand up comedy and some are saying he’s been doing standup since 1979. Seems like the latter is much more likely but I’m curious – has anyone here ever actually seen him do standup?

  11. “I was quite impressed how Richards managed to dance around the phrase ‘coked to the gills’ during the apology.” – joe

    Heh… I thought he looked a little glassy-eyed, now that you mention it.

    “Cocaine is god’s way of telling you that you make way too much money.” – Robin Williams

  12. Sam Franklin,

    If you see the Richards clip, you’ll see that he actually doesn’t make hardly any jokes, he just calls the heckler “a nigger” and complains that he was talking too much. I think you can still get away with racist and ethnic humor, but it has to consist of jokes; “Look, a nigger!” isn’t really a joke. Richards tries to save himself with the “Look at how much power we allow these words to have over us,” schtick, but it seems like just a lame after thought, and then he sort of staggers off stage, totally defeated.

  13. If you see the Richards clip, you’ll see that he actually doesn’t make hardly any jokes, he just calls the heckler “a nigger” and complains that he was talking too much. I think you can still get away with racist and ethnic humor, but it has to consist of jokes; “Look, a nigger!” isn’t really a joke.

    yeah, Richards act probably never would have been considered funny by a non-KKK audience. My point was more that Borat will come to be regarded like that 1940s cartoon (Lazytown?, Sleepytown?) where the light skinned black woman visits a town of lazy African Americans who do hilarious things like eat melons and have big lips. When Internet piracy made me able to view such a thing, all I could think was: how uncivilized the audience must have been back in the 1940s. I suspect Borat has a similar future in store.

  14. Big difference between offensive humor and simply being offensive for its own sake.

    Julia Louis Dreyfus is too hot to be racist.

  15. Richards would be comparable to Borat only if he put on black face and portrayed “Negros” as primitive and backward. That’s what Borat did to East Europeans. It’s such a common bigotry that most don’t even see it.

  16. every state in the Union, it seems, claims to be the friendliest of all

    Nah, just those goofy midwestern and southern states. In northern New England, at the other extreme, friendliness is highly suspect behavior. Randomly smiling at strangers may mean that means that you’re a tourist, a Jehovah’s Witness, or otherwise ‘off’ and to be avoided.

    And I’m pretty sure, say, New York has never placed its self-image chips on ‘friendliness’…

  17. “Look, a nigger!” isn’t really a joke.

    Oh, it seemed to work in “Blazing Saddles,” in which 50% of the humor was the use of the n-word. (The other 50% was the use of the word “shit.” I guess we were just more easily amused in the early 70s.)

  18. That’s what Borat did to East Europeans.

    He’s one actor portraying one character in an over-the-top piece of satire. How can he be portraying “East Europeans”? Stereotypes are statistics for the lazy-minded.

  19. Didn’t Richards freak out at Andy Kaufman when Andy appeared on that sketch comedy show circa 1980 (Fridays?) and ruined one of the skits? Nick would be remiss if he didn’t link to that clip.

  20. Enormously excessive money does some strange things to people. I’ll still love Kramer, though. (Some blogs are filled with people saying they’ll never watch Seinfeld again, etc.)

  21. Borat may be skewering a certain ethnicity, but it isn’t “East Europeans”.

    Kazakhstan is a long way away from Eastern Europe. Or did I miss something?

  22. “Kazakhstan is a long way away from Eastern Europe. Or did I miss something?”

    Kazakhstan can reasonably be considered Eastern Europe. Not that this matters, but they’re in the European confed in Soccer.

  23. Seamus,

    In Blazing Saddles, it was the people using the term who were the butt of the joke. The movie made fun of racists, not black people.

    I kept expecting Richards to bring his act back to some kind of self-effacing humor – what an idiot I am for saying something like this – but he didn’t.

  24. I guess we were just more easily amused in the early 70s

    No. Blazing Saddles is still funny because its satire hit the mark.

  25. Does anyone else find it hilarious that the audience was offended by “nigger” but not the direct reference to hanging/lynching? The LAUGHED at the hanging/lynching reference for god’s sake!

  26. Julia Louis Dreyfus is too hot to be racist.(emphasis added)

    NOT!

  27. TPG,

    I think the audience, like me, assumed that the humor was going somewhere. They stopped laughing pretty quickly when it became apparent that it wasn’t.

  28. BP,

    Richards and Larry David were in on the joke when Kaufman appeared on Fridays.

  29. Thomas Paine’s Goiter,

    I think the reference to lynching was taken, reasonably so, as a sort of attack on practices and attitudes of people in the U.S. in the past, and/or as Richard’s doing a character, a parody of racists. Doesn’t he say the hanging thing before he says “nigger?”

    I think, as joe suggests, if Richards had said “nigger” while making himself the butt of the joke or portraying a racist character who was the butt of jokes, most people would have accepted it.

  30. “Borat creates an in-group between him and his viewers, while Richards simply alienates his crowd.”

    Borat also has the advantage of editing after the fact. Richards didn’t get a change to steer the act back into safer waters before the crowd got disgusted.

    “I kept expecting Richards to bring his act back to some kind of self-effacing humor – what an idiot I am for saying something like this – but he didn’t.”

    I think he was about to,(one phrase seemed to suggest he was starting to) just as one audience member yelled back at him. He then continued the racist riff back at the audience member.

    That’s the biggest mistake. Talking back to an unruly audience memeber should either bring him back to the comic’s side, or at worst, alienate him from the rest of the audience. Richards pissed this guy off more, and put the audience where they either sided with the guy shouting back. At the very least the audience realized that this wasn’t going to be fun anymore, but uncomfortable at the least.

    I give Richards the benefit of the doubt as to racist intent. Sometimes standup comedy is like working without a net. But you usually find what works and what doesn’t before you do something in front of a camera. Unfortunatly for Richards, an audience member brought in a camera.

    “Does anyone else find it hilarious that the audience was offended by “nigger” but not the direct reference to hanging/lynching? The LAUGHED at the hanging/lynching reference for god’s sake!”

    Audiences want to be entertained, and will often laugh at what “feels” like a punch line. It gives a comic a bit of leeway, allowing them to drift into controversial topics so long as there’s an ultimate payoff. Richards never paid off on that investment of audience goodwill.

  31. I was ambivalent about my own wish to defend Richards’ onstage rant until Seamus used it to condemn the classic film Blazing Saddles. Then I knew for certain which side of the controversy I was on. Although Richards’ moment of ethnic transgression lacked Sarah Silverman’s finesse, I found myself laughing along in a spirit similar to my laughter at her work.

    Call me evil, but I was somewhat disappointed to see Richards apologize with such painful contrition on Letterman. I felt sorrier for him than for anyone he offended. In a protest yesterday, one activist said, “These kind of comments hurt all of us.” Well, how, exactly? Considering how unified blacks, whites, and Latinos have been in shaming him, race relations in America don’t seem to have been adversely affected by his words. Maybe the dreaded n-word doesn’t have such power to twist our souls after all. Maybe no word does.

  32. Sarah Silverman’s

    I finally just saw tat Sarah Silverman standup movie. She is better in smaller doeses, for sure.

    I recommend her in MESI (Most Extraorinary Space Investigations, Internet tv show 2005). That was where she really shone. And it was sci fi.

  33. In Blazing Saddles, it was the people using the term who were the butt of the joke. The movie made fun of racists, not black people.

    As with Borat. He’s a fish out of water, and he’s got to be *from* somewhere, but it doesn’t really matter where because it’s not the point of the joke.

    In northern New England, at the other extreme, friendliness is highly suspect behavior.

    I must be secretly from northern NE because this is exactly what I believe.

  34. Blazing Saddles is still funny because its satire hit the mark.

    Not the “Family Channel” version. Blazing Saddles for eight-year-olds? What the hell is the world coming to?

  35. Actually, Richard’s real-life performance was eerily reminiscent of the last few seconds of the last episode of Seinfeld. At Richards, unlike that episode, didn’t have a heckler scream, “I’m Gonna Shank You!!”

  36. Michael Richards’s big crime was not being funny. If he’s funny, the slurs don’t matter for some bizarre reason.

  37. Kramer: Impromptu racist remarks for make benefit glorious hecklers of New York comedy club.

  38. Got it. Jokes about hanging n-word are funny. Saying “n word” is not.

  39. The best offensive comedians are effective because they loathe themselves as much as they loathe everyone else. Whereas the Michael Richards thing doesn’t come off that way.

  40. I’ve read bloggers call Richards “KKKramer”. Pretty damned funny.

    I’m sure Trent Lott has this riff loaded as a ringtone at this point.

  41. Kennedy
    King
    Kennedy

    Hmm….

  42. Comedians probably have the greatest freedom in society today to be “transgressive,” but only as long as the audience understands and agrees that the material is intended to be humorous. By extension, everything in a comedy is supposed to be funny even if it isn’t. At least the audience knows that the lines are scripted. (Then again, so for the most part are most stand-up routines however much they may give the false impression of extensive improvisation.)

    I’d be interested in seeing more of the Richards routine before he lost it (and lost it he did, big time) with the black audience members who (you can’t really tell from the clip) may not even have actually been heckling, they may only have been talking during his act.

    The Letterman show apology was especially odd to watch because for a while members of the audience thought it was a bit. (It is, after all, the Letterman show.)

    By the way, were there any black people on “Seinfeld” in any repeating characters? I don’t recall any, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

  43. Lamar,

    “Michael Richards’s big crime was not being funny. If he’s funny, the slurs don’t matter for some bizarre reason.”

    Not quite. The reason he wasn’t funny was because of the meaning his use of the slurs coveyed. Making fun of people for being racists is funny. Making fun of people for being black is not. When you use the n-word to do the former, it’s funny. When you use it to do the latter, it’s not.

    The point isn’t the use of magical words; the point is the meaning someone’s words convey.

  44. I want to know what the heckler was saying. Some people have said he was calling Richards a cracker and white boy. That’s why he came back with nigger. Once again the video doesn’t show the whole story. Did he lose it? Sure. Was it that horrible? No.

  45. What’s the problem here again?

  46. By the way, were there any black people on “Seinfeld” in any repeating characters? I don’t recall any, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

    The only one who comes to mind is Kramer’s lawyer.

    I always figured Costanza would turn out to be the racist. He did, after all, pretend to be neo-nazi leader O’Brian.

  47. There was also George’s boss, Mr. Morgan, as well as Jerry’s exterminator who George used to prove to Mr. Morgan that George had black friends.

    And the randomly-named character who popped up at an employee at various places, “Rebecca de Mornay”

    Also Elaine once dated a guy she thought was black. He [i]did[/i] closely resemble Harold Ford, it should be noted.

  48. I wonder if there is any vidio of a black comic handling a white heckler in a similar manner?

  49. I wonder if there is any vidio of a black comic handling a white heckler in a similar manner?

    I couldn’t help think of the last episode where they heckle the fat guy on video and then get in trouble for it.

  50. Oooh… CBS took their clip of Richards’ apology on Letterman off of YouTube and went home.

  51. And prints of the “The Kramer” will be shrouded in black cloth across the land . . .

  52. Last night someone on Something Awful posted a version of “The Kramer” with a Klan hood over Kramer’s head. Dead-on.

    This whole thing would have gone exactly nowhere without the video of the argument getting hosted all over the Internet…

  53. Is it all possible he was trying his own version of an Andy Kaufman prank that went awry? We are talking about a guy who had disappeared into relative obscurity and is now making national news.

  54. How long before it turns out that Richards and the “heckler” planned this as an elaborate meta-performance stunt…

    …and that the heckler is really Andy Kaufman in blackface?

  55. I think it’s ridiculous for people to think Michael Richards should’ve apologized. It’s a comedy act, you’re not supposed to take any of it seriously, including the heckling and the response to the heckling. And then it was even more ridiculoous for Mr. Richards to actually apologize and be backed up by Jerry Seinfeld; it was as if they’d turned into Larry David’s “Jerry Seinfeld” and Kramer.

    Now, how will Kenny Kramer figure out a way to try to capitalize on all this?

    BTW, I used to think “Andy Kauffman” was a character made up by Elvis Presley.

  56. From tomorrow’s Variety

    Los Angeles, CA: Actor Mel Gibson, former Seinfeld star Michael Richards and retired football pro O.J. Simpson announced today that they are forming a new studio to be called G.R.O.S. Productions. According to the founders, this studio will focus on topics deemed too controversial or risqu? by other mainstream studios.

    They announced that the studio’s first production will be a remake of the acclaimed 1915 classic Birth of a Nation followed by an animated feature based on The Turner Diaries. Gibson also expressed interest in directing an adaptation of the novel Mein Kampf

  57. One of the shameful “Damage Control” techniques used by Richards in his Late Night-apology hosted by Jerry Seinfeld, was Richards using hurricane Katrina as a way to push off his racism onto white America. You know, it’s not my problem? it’s OUR problem. This is the way Michael Richards’ supporters are supporting him. We’re all racist? remember! No, actually we’re trying to forget. One thing we know for sure is there are millions of dollars at stake here, – DVD sales, plus a reputation for the best comedy show ever. But turning the spotlight off Richards act, and placing it on whites or hecklers is shameful. I’m a white guy from NY. I never use the N word. My friends don’t use the N word. If they used the N word they would not be my friends.

    And the fork thing? Where did that come from?

  58. Well, George Wallace said he accepted his apology, so I guess I do too.

  59. Was Richards holding the dvd sales of Seinfeld 7 hostage, maybe he demanded some money, got told t.s., so he threatend to do “something” about it and with nothing to lose career wise did his shtick. Then he would get a big payoff to apologize on Lettermen to save the dvd sales. Don’t be fooled, the timing was no accident and no one is that stupid.

  60. look its one thing laughing and cutting up with your friends about racial slurs but to get up there in a live audience that is rather distasteful let me ask you this what if your wannabe future wife is of a diferent ethnic origin?

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