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.