Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The context is the key: Michael Richards as a racist asshole

Here was the YouTube what-the-f'ck moment of the season... maybe the year: Kosmo Kramer goes racially ballistic. I'm sure you've all heard about this. I hope you've seen it, too. Actually watching it is a different from the second-hand experience. It's surreal and disturbing, like some sort of celebrity Real World meets Aronofsky shit.

It's ridiculous and unpredictable, but believe it or not, things can get weirder. After all, we can just write Michael Richards' outburst off as another insane celebrity, like Tom Cruise the Scientologist, or Mel Gibson the raving weirdo. But a few days later, Richards went on Letterman to apologize, and that's when it gets REALLY hard to process.

The guy on Letterman isn't a PR afficianado, nor a racist creep, nor a short-spoken apologist making a last grasp at credibility. He looks like a man on the verge of a complete breakdown. He absolutely can't explain the person on stage yelling "Nigga" (as it's spelled in the video subtitle)... he doesn't even seem to know who that guy is. Michael Richards claims he's not a racist, and he thanks the country for confronting him... he claims that he has to confront himself (and, to be more specific, to "do personal work")... he says he doesn't even know where that rage came from. He apologizes to people of all races, knowing that he hasn't just offended a few black activists. He's not even sure he should be on Letterman, because he's afraid he won't come across right.

He also says this: "Yeah, I tried to... I tried to do that [diffuse his own remarks by making them outrageous]. You don't have the whole thing there in what they're showing, everyone. I tried to jujitsu that..."

This, my friends, though subtle, is important. I actually tried to find an extended clip, so I could see the part of the routine leading up to the outburst. It's nowhere to be found, and I think it might have an effect on how the situation is interpreted. After all, what we're seeing is overt racism, angry, directed at an uncooperative audience member. It's the kind of violent racism that's been phased almost entirely out of popular culture. But when you take a clip like this out of context, you lose what a friend wisely referred to as "meta-messages."

In light of our culture's approach to racial and identity issues, meta-messages are hard to navigate these days. Dave Chapelle's show was clearly a satire on racial relations, a series of parodic stereotypes offered up by a black man that functioned as a comment on his own culture's self-perception. Compare this with Carlos Mencia, whose humor has taken some flack for being offensive without being funny. Or with South Park's questionable use of stereotypes in character casting. Or to Abercrombie's ill-advised Asian stereotype t-shirts.

Some of these examples make their meta-messages work: Dave Chapelle is clearly using assimilation and self-parody to frame his offensive remarks, and this is an accepted way to drain the power of out a stereotype (just ask the "queer" community). South Park employs a healthy dose of irony... Token's status as "sole black character" is obviously ironic, and it becomes a statement on racial identity when you realize that Token's parents are some of the wealthiest parents in South Park.

Other meta-messages don't work. Mencia tries to frame his offensive remarks in serious treatments of national issues, but he doesn't bring any complexity to the jokes he's making. At best, his rants about national identity are just fluff for his racial stereotypes, and at worst, he actually makes his stereotypes sound sincere and his explanations sound ironic. Not the best idea ever. Abercrombie also failed to make any constructive statement with their racially-motivated humor... with no nod or wink, the race became the punchline, rather than the stupidity of the stereotype, and that's why we call it "racism" rather than "irony."

Michael Richards lost his meta-message, too, and that's the danger of being a comedian in a racially volatile country. Was he building up to his offensive remarks? Maybe, but clearly the crowd got pissed, so they didn't get that, or they didn't care. Maybe he just stepped over a comedic line, to the point where the irony no longer justified the joke.

Or maybe it wasn't a problem with communication... maybe Kramer lost the meta-message in his own head. Maybe that's why he seems so shaken on Letterman, and why he has to confront himself. As a comedian, he's spent years learning to manipulate subtexts and meta-messages, and as an actor, he's spent years creating characters and manufacturing personalities. It seems like, for a moment, he forgot how to frame his thoughts in a protective barrier of self-mockery and sarcasm. Suddenly, the irreverent white boy became a volatile racist, and it scared him as much as it scared us.

"I'm a performer. I push the envelope."

I'm sorry you lost yourself, Michael Richards, but do yourself a favor and get that personal development taken care of.