Comedians Michael Richards

I recently highlighted Jerry Seinfeld’s relatively new online show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and I promised to follow-up with a post dedicated to the episode featuring Michael Richards, who played Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld. This episode stands out above the rest for me so far because of a poignant moment toward the end in which Seinfeld and Richards thoughtfully address Richards’ unfortunate racist outburst during a stand-up comedy set seven years ago when he used the “n-word” (among many other things) to address heckling audience members. Like Paula Deen and her current downward spiral, Richards found himself bottoming out after this incident, and in many ways—as can be seen in the Comedians episode—he is still broken down. But he also appears to be on a journey toward redemption, albeit not one of his own making.

Richards has been so effected by this one very public moment of disgrace that he has done no stand-up comedy and very little acting ever since. He admits that even though he would like to do stand-up again, “Inside [the incident] still kicks me around a bit.” Nonetheless, through some personal work and the help of friends like Seinfeld, Richards has learned an important lesson in the years since about the nature of comedic performance that I found worth sharing here:

I think I worked selfishly, not selflessly. It’s not about me. It’s about them [the audience]. That’s the lesson I learned seven years ago when I blew it in the comedy club and lost my temper because somebody interrupted my act and said some things that hurt me and I lashed out in anger. I should have been working selflessly at that time. … I busted up after that event. It broke me down. It was a selfish response, I took it too personally. I should have said [to the hecklers], ‘You’re absolutely right, I’m not funny, I’m going to go home.’

Unfortunately, after Richards said all of this, Seinfeld had a pat response that sounds helpful on the surface, but it is also impossibly defeating: “That’s up to you. It’s up to you to say ‘I’ve been carrying this bag long enough, I’m going to put it down.’” I love Seinfeld, but I mostly disagree with him here. I find that when we are haunted by something, it can be very difficult to stop carrying the bag of hurt and put it down without some much needed assistance. I can hardly blame Seinfeld though: In such sensitive moments, it can be difficult to find the right words to say.

Someone like Richards is so ripe for hearing the Gospel though—the Good News that no, actually, it is not up to us to save ourselves. When I see folks like the Michael-Richardses or Paula-Deens of the world publicly falling apart, I admittedly get somewhat excited for them. I realize this statement could sound terrible at first blush. But when folks like Richards or Deen hit absolute bottom after falling from such great heights, the bottoming-out could open them up to the possibility of external redemption. As a result, we might even begin to see the true artist shine through—the one who was hiding behind and protecting some facade of fame. Hopefully the recovering Richards will do stand-up again. Such a humbling and liberating experience, leading to his realization of the importance of selflessness in comedy and art, has the potential to yield some form of newfound creativity. But are there any venues that will forgive him and risk letting him perform again? More importantly, will he be able to accept such absolution. I certainly hope so for his sake and ours.

Thankfully, over the past seven years Seinfeld has continued to associate with Richards despite the disgrace—he has been something of a recovery sponsor, at least publicly. You can watch the brief excerpt of the Comedians episode I quoted above here, but I have included the full episode below. I also highly recommend watching Richards’ attempt at repentance brokered by Seinfeld on Late Show with David Letterman shortly after the original incident back in 2006.