Kramer vs. Kramer: Five Theories on Michael Richards

Explaining Kramer: being an intensive exegesis of the media theories of Michael Richards’ racist outburst. Sign Up For Our Daily

Explaining Kramer: being an intensive exegesis of the media theories of Michael Richards’ racist outburst.

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I know. You haven’t read enough about the subject, but reaction has been all over the map, and perhaps there’s a value in examining the contours of the map. Beginning with …

Theory No. 1 (my sentimental favorite): Blame Seinfeld, a.k.a. “the unleashed id” theory. I don’t want to say I told you so, but in my many critiques of Seinfeld and its simpering, self-congratulatory smugness in these pages (anyone remember the “Can’t Stand Seinfeld Society” I started?), I often mentioned the show’s smirking mockery of ethnics and foreigners, which amounted to “Ew, these people are so different from us.”

Different never meant interesting; different always meant stupid and laughable. Such comic genius! Always defended in a self-congratulatory way as a daring and brave “challenge to political correctness.” Could it be that it was somehow this matrix of mild mockery that gave license to Mr. Richards’ vicious rant?

Well, it’s a stretch, although this was just about my first thought after I heard about the incident. But it’s only fair to say that the first person I know of to put this theory into print—or online, anyway—was the writer Charles P. Pierce on The American Prospect’s Web log, TAPPED.

“I watched [Seinfeld] long enough,” Mr. Pierce wrote, “to realize that there was an awful lot of overdog bullying going on at the heart of the phenomenon—vaguely racist and xenophobic, with a mysterious sweet-tooth for Funny Cripple humor. We’re losers, but the world is full of bigger losers, and a lot of them look different. Ho, ho …. [W]hat I saw [in Richards’ racist rage] was the unleashed Id of the authentic television landmark of which Richards was a part” (italics mine).

Well said, I thought, although still a bit of a stretch. It’s true there was the racial-verging-on-racist caricature of Johnnie Cochran. It’s not that you can’t caricature Johnnie Cochran, but this was written in a simpleminded and lame Amos ’n’ Andy way. (And as one of the TAPPED commenters added, there was the testimony of the Hispanic comedian Danny Hoch about being asked to be on Seinfeld and being told to make his accent more clownish and pejoratively stereotyped.)

Of course, it must be said that Michael Richards himself didn’t write the sneering-at-ethnics episodes. They were mostly the product of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David (who continues to practice this self-congratulatory, “daring” ridicule of ethnics ever so blithely and smugly on his own show). Mr. Pierce’s Kramer-the-unleashed-id-of-Seinfeld theory implies that Mr. Richards—a blameless naif, like Kramer—somehow absorbed or internalized the self-satisfied culture of contempt for ethnics that pervaded the show’s writing. And that it was just a slippery slope to the racist outburst at the Laugh Factory.

This would really entail ….

Theory No. 1/Subpart A: Blame Jerry and Larry David. This has a certain appeal to me (since I keep hearing back that Mr. David has a thin skin when reacting to my critiques of his “genius”). But in a way, this Subpart A theory robs Mr. Richards of personal moral responsibility for his hate speech. Makes him a mere puppet, a mouthpiece for the dark side of Seinfeldian culture.

By the way, before we leave Theory No. 1 and No. 1/Subpart A, there was an ironic twist to the reaction to Mr. Pierce’s post that raised provocative questions about the cultural reception of certain kinds of comedy. It had to do with the way Mr. Pierce framed his attack on Seinfeld.

He explained his loathing of the program in cultural/historical terms by saying: “Back when the late Sam Kinison was prowling the stages and scaring people … it was Jerry whom the culture warriors brought out to soothe their maidenly vapors,” by making safe jokes about cereal and the like.

While I might take issue with this vision of some Secret Council of Cultural Hegemonists determining what people will be directed to find funny, the attack on Mr. Pierce came from another direction. He was called out by two women on the Prospect blog (Garance Franke-Ruta and Adele M. Stan) as an example of misogyny on the left—because he used the term “maidenly vapors,” and because he seemed to praise Sam Kinison. (They say comedy is dangerous, but commenting on comedy is really dangerous.)

The case for this critique of Mr. Pierce’s comments seemed to rest on two assumptions: that Kinison’s comedy was misogynist rather than being about misogyny, even a critique of misogyny. (Kinison’s raving, drooling, unhinged fat-slob persona was not the most attractive role model.) The other assumption is that whether or not misogyny was promoted or critiqued in Kinison’s act, Mr. Pierce must somehow be a misogynist himself for laughing at it, or for implicitly praising Kinison by calling him scary and dangerous compared to the “maidenly” Seinfeld.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that Mr. Pierce was praising Kinison because he enjoyed the misogyny rather than, say, ruefully enjoying the ridicule of misogyny.

There’s a case for viewing Kinison’s comedy as critique: Does anyone believe he really wanted to “kill the homeless”? Indeed, one could view Kinison through the same lens that the feminist artist Barbara Kruger viewed Howard Stern: Like it or not, here’s someone telling (at least part of) the ugly truth about men.

I’d concede there were people—butt-head frat-boy types—who laughed at Kinison for the “wrong” reasons. But must one police an artist for the responses of some of his fans? Does one avoid comedy like this because there’s a risk that someone can laugh at it for the wrong reasons? Still, one can’t deny that those people criticizing Kinison may have genuinely felt hurt by the idea that some people found him funny, and feelings are facts, as they say. So there’s no easy answer, but Mr. Pierce had touched off an interesting and, I’d argue, important debate.

Still, I think the comparison of Michael Richards to Sam Kinison is unfair to Kinison, although that’s what …

Theory No. 2 involves: basically, that Mr. Richards was being (or attempting to be) Sam Kinison, but that, essentially, he botched the joke. This theory would have us believe that Mr. Richards was playing on and exposing racism rather than practicing it. I find this to be a dicey, often disingenuous excuse (see my chapter on The Merchant of Venice in The Shakespeare Wars, in which I discuss the contention that the play is not anti-Semitic but rather “about anti-Semitism”).

It’s just not going to work for Mr. Richards (who tried to claim on Letterman that he was doing some sort of jujitsu with the N-word). Not after you’ve seen the YouTube clip of his Laugh Factory meltdown, with the rancid racial hostility that sure doesn’t look like “shtick,” that doesn’t seem like something being parodied but rather enacted with deadly seriousness.

But what about Theory No. 3, the David Letterman Thesis: “Blame Borat.” In his monologue on the night that he had Jerry Seinfeld on and Mr. Seinfeld arranged for Mr. Richards to make his pale, ghostly, satellite-beamed-apology appearance, Mr. Letterman cracked: “I blame it on Borat.”

I think what he was getting at was that Borat, the movie, had somehow created a permissive climate for the expression of all kind of slurs, racial, religious and sexual, that are somehow taken as good-natured send-ups of slurs, thus legitimizing their use, and that Mr. Richards’ outburst was an expression of this presumably unhealthy climate. (“I blame it on Borat.”) Either that or Mr. Letterman was making fun of that whole rather prudish fear-of-Borat mindset. Or both. Hard to tell when Dave is at his ambiguous best.

There may be something to the permissive-climate argument, although I think Sacha Baron Cohen clearly seeks to make bigots look bad—or at least incredibly stupid—with his persona, while Mr. Richards’ outburst seemed to come straight from the heart, with no “persona” involved—it was really, simply who he was. Unless you want to believe …

Theory No. 4: Self-Borating. The premise of what might be called “Borating” is that the comedian/ trickster finds a way to reveal the ugly, racist or sexist sentiments that lurk beneath the benign surface of ordinary, otherwise nice-seeming folk. Self-Borating would be a way of provoking the exposure, consciously or inadvertently, of the ugly truth about oneself.

What Mr. Richards was saying in his initial post-outburst statements—remarks about how shocking it is to find this within and how “it fires out of me” and “the way this came through me was like a freight train”—was that he had done to himself what Borat had done, say, to the compliant Arizona bar folk he got to sing “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” They weren’t anti-Semites on the surface, but scratch that surface and something they were unaware lurked within them emerges. Self-Borating means that Mr. Richards was scratching his own surface. Borating himself out. Still a kind of evasion of his own responsibility.

I don’t buy it. But I do think there’s a metaphorical variation on it that might say something true about the incident. That would be …

Theory No. 5: Blame Jerry’s Unlocked Door. This was something my friend Stanley Mieses brought up in a phone conversation: “If only Jerry hadn’t kept his door unlocked,” Stanley said. He was referring to Mr. Richards’ signature shtick on Seinfeld: Kramer bursting unannounced through Jerry’s unlocked apartment door.

That is, Stanley explained, Kramer wouldn’t have been Kramer—and Mr. Richards wouldn’t have been the kind of big-shot star who thinks he’s above heckling at a comedy club—if it hadn’t been for that “bursting-through-Jerry’s-door shtick.”

For some reason, most of America decided to agree that Kramer’s door-bursting entrances were super-super-hilarious. Look, the funny man is bursting through the door again! I personally always cringed at these irritating entrances and Kramer’s supposedly wacky persona, but I was in a minority. Clearly, Mr. Richards’ entire existence, his life and fortune, was—up to the racist incident—defined by his allegedly hilarious bursting through an unlocked door.

And looked at metaphorically, Stanley’s theory suggests, what happened on the stage of that comedy club was racism bursting through an unlocked door. Unlocked doors are good, supposedly—betokening a lack of inhibition. Maybe that’s what Mr. Richards was doing—disinhibition—consciously or unconsciously: letting the rancid thoughts within burst through a door left unlocked.

But maybe unlocked doors aren’t always a good thing. Maybe there are some things that deserve to be inhibited by a lock. The lesson some have drawn from Mr. Richards’ rant is that we all have racist thoughts in some dank room that we keep under lock and key. I don’t necessarily agree, but I think it’s maybe a good idea to keep that door locked anyway.

Kramer vs. Kramer: Five Theories on Michael Richards