Why I still love Cosmo Kramer

Comedian Michael Richards might be a ranting ass, but that doesn’t mean we can never laugh at Seinfeld again.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Culture

Until last week, Michael Richards was best known as ‘the guy who played Kramer on Seinfeld’. Now he’s known as ‘the racist guy who played Kramer on Seinfeld’.

Richards lost his temper when two hecklers interrupted him during a stand-up gig in Los Angeles. He called them ‘niggers’ on stage and ‘Afro-Americans’ in a subsequent apology on the Late Show with David Letterman. Since then, Richards has embarked on a very public soul-searching journey to clear his name. But it seems his fictional character Cosmo Kramer – Jerry Seinfeld’s kooky, wild-haired neighbour in the popular TV series – is getting as much flak as Richards over this controversy.

Some dedicated fans have posted messages of support on Kramer’s MySpace page, but others have said they will never be able to watch Seinfeld in the same way again. One commentator said Seinfeld will always remind him of ‘the evil that lurks in the hearts of men’ (1). Another asked ‘will we ever be able to laugh at Kramer again?’ (2). Reverend Al Sharpton told Richards: ‘Here you are, somebody we had in our living room, you were Kramer. We were used to you and to come and see you say this is frightening to many Americans.’ (3) Meanwhile, Kenny Kramer, former neighbour of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David and the inspiration for Cosmo Kramer, has been inundated with calls from journalists wanting to know what he thinks of the real-life personality of his sitcom alter ego.

In his two-and-a-half-minute tirade, which was captured on a mobile phone camera, Richards used the ‘n-word’ seven times. ‘Throw his ass out, he’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! A nigger! Look, there’s a nigger!’ he said. He also made references to lynching: ‘Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass.’ It’s unpleasant stuff. When the audience laughter turned into boos, and people started walking out, Richards called them ‘motherfuckers’. It was hardly the best plug for the DVD release of the seventh season of Seinfeld the same week.

While ‘tasteless’ doesn’t come close to describing his outburst, the revisionist indictments of his performance on a TV show that ran for nine years – and which wasn’t even scripted by Richards – are wackier than Kramer himself. Judgement of the personal views and behaviour of an individual performer, whether they are expressed in private or in public, should not be confused with judgement of their work. Just as Mel Gibson’s films remained as unimpressive after he spouted anti-Semitic comments at a cop as they were before that incident, so Richards’ performance as Kramer remains brilliant after his moment of madness at that LA comedy club.

If deplorable sentiments come through in an actor’s or filmmaker’s work, then it is valid for critics or viewers to take them into account when passing judgement. But that is quite different from indicting someone’s work on the basis of their private views. A classic example of this tendency to confuse the private person with their public work can be seen in attitudes to the documentaries and photography of Leni Riefenstahl, whose artistry and political irresponsibility are widely condemned in the same stroke. Yet her links to Hitler have no bearing on her aesthetic sensibilities and camera skills.

It has been suggested that Seinfeld itself shows underhanded discrimination by having an all-white cast, even though it takes place in New York City. This accusation springs from the contemporary sensibilities of those who, in the name of inclusiveness, claim that failing to incorporate members of ethnic minorities in any situation – even if it amounts to little more than token representation – is evidence of racial discrimination.

Larry David pokes fun at this hypersensitivity in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Having, yet again, put his foot in it when his friend introduces him to his black dermatologist – ‘You trust him, with affirmative action and everything?’ – David later finds himself in a quandary when his wife urgently needs the doctor’s help. The joke, of course, had not gone down well with the doctor, and David’s only explanation is: ‘I just don’t know how to act around black people.’ He makes matters worse when he walks into the dermatologist’s dinner party where all the guests are successful black professionals and academics. He awkwardly makes amends, only to be slated by the guests for not including any African-Americans in Seinfeld.

David demonstrates that the social hypersensitivity over racial offensiveness often makes individuals overly self-reflexive, which means that being prejudiced becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Affirmative action or positive discrimination makes things even worse, as such policies accentuate, rather than eliminate, racial differences.

Richards is now trying to curb the rage of his black fellow citizens and colleagues (actor Jamie Foxx says Richards had better get himself ‘a private island somewhere’). He has hired public relations expert Howard Rubenstein to help him out. Just as Mel Gibson reached out to leaders in the Jewish community to help him on his ‘journey to recovery’, so Rubenstein has arranged for Richards to talk to black reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who believe the comedian needs ‘race sensibility training, and some psychiatric help’. ‘His anger is volatile and dangerous to himself and others’, said Jackson, who wants to ‘evaluate the use of the n-word and categorise it as hate speech, no matter who uses it’ (4). According to Rubenstein, Richards wants to ‘heal the tremendous wound that he’s inflicted on the American public, and on the African-American community’.

In his contrite satellite appearance on the Letterman show, Richards said: ‘I’m not a racist. That’s what’s so insane about this.’ Al Sharpton said the Letterman show was not the appropriate venue for an apology; instead he wants to take Richards to ‘somewhere like Harlem’ for a ‘serious dialogue about racism’. Later, Richards appeared on Reverend Jackson’s radio programme, Keep Hope Alive, where he talked with various politicians and a therapist. How long before he sets up a charity for celebrities in need of ‘racist hatred management’ or gives a tear-felt apology on Oprah?

Others have accused Richards of being anti-Semitic because he apparently lashed out at an audience member in another LA comedy club earlier this year, saying: ‘You fucking Jew. You people are the cause of Jesus dying.’ Rubenstein said this was just part of Richards’ act; he ‘was playing a role and poking fun at the rednecks’. So apparently it is okay to mock ‘rednecks’, those supposedly stupid Americans whom everyone assumes really are racist and anti-Semitic. That is one prejudice Richards will not have to apologise for.

Richards should take full responsibility for his onstage rant. But the tendency to demand soul-searching, public self-flagellation and healing processes from performers is more likely to inspire PR ploys and justify clampdowns on offensive speech – as already demanded by Reverend Jackson – than it is to eliminate any real racial discrimination. And the notion that his outburst reveals something of the American soul and something rotten in the hearts of men (especially those ‘rednecks’) looks like plain old misanthropy. The unguarded outburst of one comedian is used to judge and bash the American masses. It sometimes seems that the less public racism there is in society, the more people go looking for it, in order to blow every racist incident out of proportion as a lesson to the unthinkingly, apparently even unknowingly racist mob.

Richards’ time would be better spent learning to deal with hecklers rather than embarking on a PR stunt masquerading as a therapeutic racial awareness journey. And Cosmo Kramer should shoulder none of the blame for Richards’ crassness.

Nathalie Rothschild works in the editorial team at spiked.

(1) Someday I hope to laugh at Kramer again, Laurie Mustard, Winnipeg Sun, 24 November

(2) Sometimes it’s more about what isn’t on television, Victor Balta, The Herald, 23 November

(3) Sharpton: Comedian’s apology not enough, CNN, 23 November

(4) Michael Richards apologizes to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Examiner, 22 November

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