Well, partially as a way of replying to some comments about the matter, as well as following up on some reactions to the Michael Richards incident, I'll lead off with comedian Paul Mooney's words on the matter.
What do I think about the apology? I think that it's one thing if you slip up and accidentally say something offensive that people call you out for and come back with, "I'm sorry, dude. Fucked up." That's fine with me, and most reasonable people would be fine with that, too.
But come on – that's not what happened here. He went on and on on a racist tirade, first berating a heckler in the audience, then in response to the man in the audience saying that his initial tirade was "uncalled for" – he went on another racist tirade, at which point the man in the audience really got in his face (and with just reason) and basically called Richards a washed-up has-been, which pretty much describes the behavior he was displaying. Richards is talking about the "white man" this, we woulda had you hanging upside-down from a tree 50 years ago that – that's not an "oops, sorry" kind of comment taken in a way different from the way it was intended – it was him taking off part of his public face and showing a part of his real, buried thoughts.
Do I care if Michael Richards is a racist? No – not any more than I care if my car mechanic's a racist, my baker's a racist, or the guy running the register at the 7/11 is a racist. I don't care if my lawyer's a racist, my doctor, or my priest is, either – as long as they keep it out of their job and squarely in the realm of the private, where it belongs.
Of course, such clear separation is tough to maintain and is purely theoretical, but I think it helps me make my point.
Richards is a comedian and works on a stage in front of people. What people think of him matters. It's his bread and butter. Even on my darkest day, in a fog of the dirtiest and most embarrassing of thoughts that might flash across my mind, I'd never say to an annoying Jewish person, "You fucking kike! I guess Hitler missed your family with the ovens! 50 years ago, they had a place for people like you, and you Jew bastards would be showing the 'real' white man some respect! Fucking Christ killing, gefilte fish-eating Jew!"
Would that be the end of my singing career? Shouldn't it be? Yeah, apparently Mel Gibson was spewing off all sorts of filth in a drunken haze, but he wasn't dumb enough to do it on stage, on camera, into a mike. However you call it, Richards did all of those things, and his career is suffering. As well it should.
Why are we taking the burden of proof off of Richards to show that he's NOT a racist, when he so clearly has given us damning, shocking evidence that he not only harbors the thoughts that enabled him to go on such a sustained tirade, but that it was obviously simmering just below the surface, and all it took was a single black heckler to set him off – a heckler, I might add, who didn't seem at all belligerent or difficult to handle.
"That was uncalled for!" was the heckler's comeback, before he had another exchange in which he called Richard a "cracker." Oooooh. Such historical and institutional power behind the word "cracker." Even in a black person's most indignant rage, the best semantic weapon we can even come back with is "cracker." I think that fact speaks for itself.
And I think Mooney makes his point – whatever you want to say about race, or the use of race in comedy – the reason people found him so utterly offensive was the fact that he soooo was not joking, in both senses of that phrase.
Yes, he had left the realm of the comedic rip and had entered that of pure racist rant, and he had also seemed to be channeling a deep, deep bed of pre-existing racist anger, since the reaction was clearly incommensurate to the perceived provocation, and so vicious and long-lasting.
It was coming from somewhere. It was built up over time. He obviously has some conflicted and even hateful emotional baggage about blackness or black people. It's as obvious as hell.
An apology? Fuck an apology.
Give a chunk of money to a needy organization helping inner city youth and go give the check in person, in a sincere gesture of contrition.
Or like Mooney said, go perform in the Apollo and meet the challenge of being funny as you explain yourself and make the sincere, ongoing gesture of reconciling with the community you just angered and alienated.
Richards might even have given his career a boost, had he done it right. I mean, who even knew "Michael Richards" before this incident? He was just "Kramer from Seinfeld" before this. But he won't do the PR juijitsu and turn this negative energy into something positive – because I don't think this is just a slipup. I think the man has some serious anger issues and he's got some issues with black people. Period. Why are we so quick to assume the opposite, when he has done little to earn me changing those assumptions?
It's not like anyone thought anything bad of Richards before, or he's getting some kind of unfair rep here. He dug his own hole. It's his responsibility to convince me, not my responsibility to give him the benefit of the doubt after he got in the face of an entire race of people and just called things even the Y2K Klan doesn't utter these days. Hang me "upside down from a tree?"
You just don't say "sorry" for shit like that and move on like nothing's happened. And for better or for worse, he's torpedoed his career. And the only person responsible is him. I mean, it's not like he's an investment banker or a chimney sweep. He's a public figure. And a comedian, to boot. "Nigger." Haha. Very funny.
So getting pushed by Seinfeld into apologizing on Letterman and talking about "the anger" as some mysterious 3rd-party force or a demon that took over his body isn't the way to go. That's not taking responsibility – that's passing the psychological buck in a new-age, "it wasn't me but 'the rage'" kind of thinking.
Want to compare with a black comedian who tells race jokes and reads race straight? Paul Mooney's act is better known these days, and he sometimes shows visible anger in his face when he talks about race. But even at his most biting, he has a punchline, and moreover, a point.
If all Mooney was doing was calling white people "honkeys" and "crackers" or just ranting and raving about killing all white people, nobody – black or white or otherwise – would have ever found him funny. And it's not coincidence, obviously, that Mooney's writing was a part of Richard Pryor's rise to stardom, largely based on his straight talk about race.
I like Mooney's humor because he takes a step back from the bullshit and sees things big picture. And a well-liked comedian who digs himself into a hole and does what anyone would expect him to be obligated to do in order for him get himself out of it – well, he'll get off my shit list when he takes himself off it. Let's remember that he did a all the work of getting on it in the first place.