Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Everybody Vs. Kramer

There's been nothing more dumbfounding to me this year than the fact that the "Kramer rant" is still in the news after all this time. I thought the story was dying before Thanksgiving, and yet here we are on December 5th and I still see it everywhere. It's hard to imagine something of less consequence receiving more attention, though there's always the career of Paris Hilton, I suppose.

I remember an old episode of "Seinfeld" (in fact, it was the famous "yada yada" episode) in which a goyishe dentist had apparently converted to Judaism in order to be able to make Jewish jokes. "And this offends you as a Jew?" asks a priest to whom Jerry had expressed his umbrage. "No," Jerry tells him, "it offends me as a comedian."

I feel a bit the same about Michael Richards' outburst. I don't think he's a racist. I think he's a bad comedian. What happened on that stage wasn't a personal meltdown, it was a comedic meltdown.

This is something I have a little, tiny modicum of knowledge and understanding about. As hard as it might be to believe or imagine, I did a little bit of standup comedy when I was in college (and even a few times afterward). I may not have done it particularly well, but I scraped together a few bucks doing comedy clubs, college parties, and the like. Doing standup is like doing a high wire act. It's just you and the microphone in front of that crowd. There's nowhere to hide. One wrong step can ruin the whole thing. One crack in the armor is deadly in front of an audience. Every comic, if he's going to get to even his second gig, has to learn to deal with hecklers. If some clown in the audience starts to get the best of you, even for a moment, you're toast. That's just the way it works. In the venal world of standup, comics see hecklers as the lowest form of life--they're trying to take food out of your mouth. It's as if you're the Ice Capades, and they're trying to throw banana peels out onto the rink. If the audience thinks you're afraid, or not fast enough, or not in full control of the situation, you lose them. The audience loses confidence in you, and a nervous, cowed comedian is not funny.

An effective heckler putdown (and by the way, I'm not advocating any of this--it was a former life, and I'm just telling you how it works) has to be quick and it has to be devastating. Your one and only goal is to shut the loser down so ruthlessly that the audience erupts in your favor and he's afraid to open his mouth again. Most comedians will have some stock lines ready for just such occasions. Sometimes they improvise. Keeping in mind that a heckler put-down has to be quick and devastating, an improvised retort will usually seize on whatever is most immediately obvious. If the guy is fat, you make fun of his fatness. If he's bald, that's what you go for. If he's not with a date, you hammer him on it. And if he's black (or Japanese, or Samoan, or whatever), you just might go for that. It's obvious, it's easy, and it's fast. This has been going on in comedy clubs since the first brick wall background was invented.

So Michael Richards did what has always been done. He didn't do it particularly well. His approach was obviously ill-advised. But if you listen to the tape, you'll see that--at first--the audience laughs. As offensive as his comments may be, the audience is with him. Is it because they're all vicious racists? No (though dopey liberals--like this typical twit in TIME magazine--will relentlessly try to interpret such things as symptoms of the virulent racial hatred that supposedly lies within all of us). It's because everyone hates hecklers and likes to see them get their comeuppance. They know how it works, and they know that just about everything--including race--is fair game on a comedy stage. Richards loses them when he refuses to let up--he just runs with it. He goes from controlling the situation (however ineptly) to savagely attacking. The audience's loyalty shifts if it feels someone--even a heckler--is being brutalized. It was the disproportionality of the response that turned them against Richards.

Was what Richards said from the stage right? No? Should he have said it? No. But this isn't much different from what's been going on in comedy clubs for generations. The difference is that now we have the Internet. Something I read in a book about baseball guru Bill James made me think about this (believe it or not). James said that most major scandals are not about a sudden departure from acceptable behavior, but about a sudden change in standards. I'm not sure he's entirely right, but I do think there's more than a grain of truth to what he says. Watergate, says James (who is a Democrat), was not about an administration misbehaving in some uncharted new way, but rather about a new set of standards suddenly being imposed on behavior that had previously been commonplace. The baseball steroid scandals are not so much about players suddenly starting to use performance-enhancing substances as it is about a new standard suddenly being applied to old behavior. Again, James may not be right in every instance, but I think that is, in many ways, what has happened to Michael Richards in the comedy world. The distribution of video from a comedy club setting has suddenly held his not-wildly-unusual stage behavior up to a societal standard that usually doesn't apply in a comedy club.

Eddie Murphy, who is both black (obviously) and a comic said, "Back in the old days in comedy clubs, you could do anything on stage. I'm not saying what the guy said was cool, but in the old days you would've never saw that on the news." I've seen worse than what Richards did in comedy clubs before. That doesn't excuse it, but it does mean that he's not some frightening, inhuman comic anomaly. Now, comedians in general may be frightening and inhuman (and I'm telling you--that's a world you wouldn't want to live in), but every comedian understands exactly what happened up on that stage, which is why so few of them have castigated Richards for his remarks.

If Richards were smart (which is a dubious proposition), he'd stop letting the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons drag this thing out. They'll do it forever, because it's how they make their living. He ought to say, "Hey, there was a loudmouth, boorish punk in the audience who mistakenly thought people paid to see him. He offended me, and I put him down as comedians always put down hecklers. I did get carried away, for which I'm sorry. If the guy had been fat, I'd have unleashed a torrent of fat jokes and none of us would be even sitting here talking about this today. As it happens, the guy was black. I'm a good guy who had an off night as a comedian. It happens. I'm sorry to everyone I offended. Next." That would be much better than letting the race hustlers inflict a thousand deaths on him.

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