Well, since Kid Fabulous brought it up...
This makes me very sad. As most people, especially my high school friends, know, I'm a huge fan of Seinfeld. I only recently realized that Michael Richards performs stand-up. In fact, just a few weeks ago a friend and I went to check out some stand-up at the Comedy Store, in part because he was supposedly on the bill, and I was curious to see what his stand-up would be like. As it turned out, he wasn't there after all, which is a shame, since now he will possibly never perform stand-up again. (Except for when the Laugh Factory had him back on Saturday, before the story broke.)
Actually, I managed to find an older clip of his stand-up on YouTube. It's okay. The material is nothing special, but his delivery and physicalizations manage to make it funny.
The video of Richards' outburst is startling. If it were just about the N-word, as it initially appears when you see the headlines, we could get into some kind of debate over whether it's ever okay for white comics to use the N-word. (My stance would be: Sometimes, if it's funny, but if you're white, chances are it won't be, so make sure you know what you're doing. If you're a female comic, you have a better shot at making it funny, possibly because you can yourself claim membership in a victimized group, and/or you are inherently less threatening. I saw a white woman comic at the Store use the N-word and she killed, but her whole persona was about being mean-spirited and hating everybody.) But when you watch the video, it's clear Richards is not using racial slurs in the context of a joke. He is screaming them like a man who has lost his cool and clearly snapped. It is angry, hateful and out of control. It is, at the very least, an unprofessional way to deal with a heckler.
Camera phones, huh? Wow. You seriously cannot do anything anymore that will not end up on the Internet somehow.
I wish we had more of an idea of what the hecklers were saying. Not that it would excuse Richards' appalling behavior--unmistakably that of a man who has lost it--but it might at least help to explain what pushed him over the edge. Heckling is something that comics have to deal with, but it is also something that is rude, inconsiderate, and ideally, shouldn't be happening.
One thing that we can infer is that the hecklers had probably been disruptive for a while, long enough to work Richards into a rage, and long enough that the audience is initially on Richards' side. It's amazing that when Richards references lynching at the beginning of the clip, the crowd laughs and cheers, which says that the hecklers must have been pretty annoying. It's only when he repeatedly busts out the N-word in the voice of a crazy man--and it becomes clear that there is no punchline coming, that the lynching thing is maybe not so ironical--that a hush falls over the room.
One could speculate that the heckling had some racial overtones, because it would at least make Richards' jump to racist invective a little more logical, although we can rule out them having called him a cracker, because when someone says it later Richards reacts as though it is the first time.
Just before shuffling off the stage, Richards tries to play it off like, "Look at the power these words have." It's not the words that shock me, it's the attitude, the unsettling level of rage on display. When you've shouted the N-word in a rage, that's when you've really created something ugly.
If I had to explain it and give Richards the benefit of the doubt, I would say that it's more about narcissism than racism. He is, of course, very talented, but if you've ever watched or read an interview with him, you can see that he takes his work, and unfortunately, himself, very seriously. My guess is that he's in his own world, which makes him overly sensitive to someone, such as a heckler, who dares to disrupt that world, and less cognizant of the normal human boundaries that a civilized person ought to live by. I think he felt he could say whatever he wanted, not recognizing the consequences. Certainly not recognizing the possibilities of camera phones and the Internet.
Is there racism in that little world of his? Obviously. I think an especially telling moment, one that the write-ups haven't quoted much, is where Richards says something like, "You see what's buried beneath, motherfucker?" which seems to acknowledge that he's uncorked some pent-up racial aggression. It would be hard for Richards to deny having racist feelings, having said that.
But I think this was much more about his ego. Consider Richards' reaction when a voice, possibly the heckler, tells him that he's an unfunny reject and that's why he hasn't had a success since Seinfeld. This is the moment that hurts. Richards resorts to the thing you say in the schoolyard when you've got no comeback because you've been cut to the bone: "Oh, you've got me there. You're absolutely right. I'm just a wash-up." He's got that wounded voice that's trying to sound sarcastic and unfazed, and it's pathetic in the truest sense of the word.
On the bright side, if he's this blatantly racist, that means it's only a matter of time before he finds himself saving his black hecklers from a burning car.