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Richards: “I’m not a racist”

November 21, 2006

Michael Richards was on Late Show with David Letterman Monday night to apologize for his racist tirade at a comedy club last Friday night. Jerry Seinfeld was the guest on the show, and said he had asked Richards to join him via satellite on the show to try to diffuse the situation and apologize. (Clip is available here on CBS’ site.)

Richards seemed very disjointed and shaken during the segment, and stammered around a bit to get his message across.

Some quotes from the AFP:

“I was at the comedy club trying to do my act and got heckled and I took it badly and went into a rage,” Richards said.

“I’m really busted up over this, and I’m very, very sorry to those people in the audience, the blacks, the Hispanics and the white, everybody who was there and took the brunt of that anger, and hate and rage and how it came through.”

Watching the clip online, what was intriguing to me was that the audience, at first, was laughing quietly as Richards started to stutter through his apology.

Seinfeld had to rebuke the audience once, telling them “Stop laughing, it’s not funny.” Letterman and Richards also had to address audience chuckles later in the interview, reminding them how serious this situation is and of the damage that was done by Richards’ tirade.

Maybe it’s the fact that Richards, Letterman and Seinfeld are all pillars of comedy, and audience members are so used to laughing at the three, that they just couldn’t NOT laugh at Richards’ attempt to apologize (or maybe it was the 60s “Afro-American” terminology Richards was using, not the more current terminology, African-American, that caused the laughs).

They see Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer trying to apologize, and are waiting for the big outrageous “I’M SOORRRRY!” that would have came out of the Richards’ character, not out of Richards, the inexperienced stand-up comedian.

Which makes me think … did the actual tirade make the n-word damaging to the community, or was it the release of the video clip that did the damage? Because some of the audience at Letterman’s show seemed to think this solemn attempt at repentance was a bit overboard.

The overboard apology making was started at the Comedy Store press conference earlier that day, when black press members and black comedians argued live on TV with club owner Paul Rodriguez whether he condoned the use of the n-word at his club and whether it should be acceptable anymore.

Rodriguez said he refuses to ban any word at his club because they respect the First Amendment, freedom of speech and so on, but would not come out and say that the n-word was abhorrent in all usage and context, mainly because black comedians use it in their acts there (Chris Rock has a famous segment using the word).

Rodriguez went on to say that many great comedians (invoking Richard Pryor) have used it in context, and did not offend their audiences. That started another shouting match over “context” and who decides acceptable context for a hateful word. And it was even more confusing when the head of security for the club, who was black, said that any comedian that offends the audience will not be asked back to the club anymore.

Huh? The thought of a hour-long Carrot Top performance offends me. Does that mean he can’t perform there anymore if I complain? (and if you’re not offended by Carrot Top, there’s something wrong with you.)

What this leaves us with: There is a double standard for the use of the n-word. And the standard is set on racial, societal and entertainment lines. This will not go away.

But, as long as someone is offended somewhere, the n-word will remain offensive in ANY context. Whether in rage, in “context”, in a salutation, or otherwise, it doesn’t matter.

It’s a word of ignorance and disrespect. And to make a case for “acceptable” usage of it just creates excuses for further ignorance and disrespect.

In his apology/interview, Richards said he has personal work to do before he can be OK with himself.

I hope he can recover from this, because after this disjointed, clumsy interview, there’s a lot of people that wonder if he’ll ever find the forgiveness he seeks. Or find work, for that matter.


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