Michael Richards, that bundle of uninhibited energy and endearing brusqueness in the classic sitcom 'Seinfeld,' found himself in Mel Gibson territory on Friday night (US time) when he let loose a torrent of racial epithets at a couple of hecklers while performing a stand-up routine at a comedy club.
"Shut up! Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a f--kin' fork up your ass!," he said. The men were African-Americans.
Unfortunately for him, the brief but appalling episode was captured on a celfone camera, and thanks to YouTube, it immediately made the rounds of the Web. Here it is: (Warning: contains obscenities, though blipped out; not for children and delicate ears)
Mr. Richards' public meltdown is at once horrifying and fascinating to watch--the perfect train wreck. The raging bile he unleashed is just unbelievable, and you can see it in the shocked reaction of the crowd, many of whom stood up and began walking out of the club, or furiously upbraided Mr. Richards for his tirade. Incredibly, Mr. Richards, perhaps realizing the terrible fix he was in, simply dropped his microphone and stomped off the stage. Priceless. This episode should be required viewing for psychiatrists and mental health practitioners.
Jerry Seinfeld tried to bail out his friend by begging "The Late Show with David Letterman," where he was previously booked for a guesting, to give Mr. Richards a few minutes of on-air time so he could own up to his actions and apologize. Mr. Richards did, and the "awkward, disturbing, and yet completely arresting television," as the New York Times put it, "was one of those things that are a little difficult to watch, but you can’t stop watching." You're welcome to sit through his halting, sort-of apology without wincing.
Moral of the story? The same lesson that Mel Gibson learned too late, and that Justice Isagani Cruz, to the end, resisted learning from the objects of his hate: Words have power. Words can hurt, maim, slash, draw blood. Call a black person a "nigger" and you summon the entire horrific history of human slavery and the excesses of the Western colonialist enterprise. Call gays "pansies" and "fairies" and you chant the mantras of intolerance invariably used to vilify and burn their kind down the centuries. Speak ill of the Jews, and not only do you conjure images of the swastika and the Holocaust, you also end up a Hollywood washout.
I've a suggestion for Mr. Richards: Announce that you're an alcoholic, and check yourself into rehab. And for added pop cache, follow the example of another disgraced public figure, former Florida Rep. Mark Foley. Claim that you were abused by a priest.
Read the complete New York Times report here.