Tuesday, November 21

Confusing Comedy


The ancient Greeks knew it best. Tragedy is the essence of all comedy.

The pratfall is a fine example. Someone falling is tragic. Yet, the pratfall, staged or not, remains a comic classic.

Unfortunately for Michael Richards, best known as Kramer from Seinfeld, he opted to forgo the pratfall and chose tragic racial material for his comedic routine, which spiraled out of control when he let an obnoxious heckler get under his skin.

From the video, Richards at the TMZ, it is difficult to discern whether or not Richards was heckled for racial material in his routine to begin with or chose racial epithets simply to attack the heckler. What is clear is that his digs were directed at an individual and not an underlying racial agenda aimed at demoralizing people based on their heritage.

Comedians frequently attack hecklers with generalizations: weight, appearance, fashion, and yes, race. Chris Rock does, though his characterizations are generally aimed at Caucasians, which is largely accepted and tolerated in America. (Personally, I find Chris Rock funny most of the time.)

What Richards did wrong that Rock has never done wrong is apologize. Rock would have looked you straight in the eye and said “Hello, it's comedy ... commmm ... eeeee ... dddeyyy. Comedy."

Richards publicly apologized on "The Tonight Show" to the people who took "the brunt" of his abuse, saying he was "really busted up," but then went on a strange tangent on race relations, saying he was "concerned about hate and rage" and about a "great deal of disturbance between blacks and whites" after Hurricane Katrina.

What he probably meant to say was: race relations after Katrina have been a travesty, and he was shining a comedic light on the tragedy of the situation as comedians do. By in large, that is what comedians are supposed to do, release the tension created by tragic events in the forum of a comedy club.

Certainly, not for a minute, can I condone what Richards said, but neither do I think he should be burned at the stake. I can also say, with certainty, that he needs a new publicist.

As I have often posted, the downward spiral of public perception is never in the action, but in how one handles the action after the fact. As noted, Rock is a master at handling his own racial material after the fact. He never gives an inch.

In this instance, Richards would have been better off simply apologizing for losing his cool with the heckler (which is not the mark of a leading comedian), perhaps noting that hecklers, regardless of heritage, aim only to steal the spotlight at the expense of other audience members and it is the fundamental job of a comedian to shut them down and get on with the routine.

Now was not the time to discuss the truth, no matter how painfully obvious, that there are some racial tensions still being stirred in New Orleans or that there exists, sometimes, a double standard in defining racism.

As someone who writes comedy on occasion, I generally avoid all subject matter revolving around race or heritage because I don't really find racial stereotypes all that funny. But I can also be somewhat sympathetic to comedy clubs that will soon be forced to put signs on their doors that "some content might offend some audience members.”
Censoring comedic routines, good or bad. Not funny.

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