November 24, 2006

Hitting the delete button

Something Like Life
Nov. 24, 2006

OKAY, I’m a little pissed right now. I’ve just seen on YouTube the tirade of Michael Richards against African-Americans in a comedy club, and I feel so sorry for this comic who brilliantly played Kramer on Seinfeld. YouTube has the video of his racial outburst, along with all the outraged reactions posted (and still counting). He really tried to get out of the mess. You could almost see the sweat beads forming on his face as he persisted in turning around the slurs to make it a comic commentary on racism and such. But sadly, the audience didn’t buy it. They were just too upset. Poor, poor Kramer.

A few days after the incident, Richards appeared on David Letterman’s late-night show through a satellite feed, apologizing for what happened but uncomfortably still getting laughs after saying, “Afro-Americans.” Richards was obviously blasted by the whole experience and had to grope for the right words for an apology that would sound absolutely sincere to the audience in and outside the studio. Fellow comic and friend Jerry Seinfeld, who was also a guest, tried to help him along, supporting him by admonishing the audience about laughing while Richards was making the apology. It was Jerry, in fact, who had encouraged Richards to air his apology on the Letterman show.

But it was more than just another “bad night” at a comedy club. It’s probably one of those nights when all Richards wanted to do was hit some virtual delete button in his life and make the event disappear, as if it never happened.

I’m sure there have been times when we’ve felt that way…when all we wanted to do was crawl in bed after a really unnerving day or a terrible event, and wake up the next morning with no memory of the previous day. And that, hopefully, no one else remembers what happened either. It can be really tragic, like a death in the family perhaps, or a bad breakup with someone you really love, or a screwed-up presentation in front of your boss and your clients.

At times we can see the end coming as soon as the incident begins. We just have that feeling of dread. And while the whole experience is unfolding, the brain is cursing all over the place, voices debating in our head what we should do next and how we should handle the situation. We berate ourselves for being stupid to have been in such a situation in the first place while another voice tries to calm us and tries to talk us through a good solution. Then all too suddenly, we find ourselves detached from our bodies and it’s as if we can watch ourselves disjointedly having a meltdown. Who is that girl?!?!

No matter how fast the brain processes the difficulty and tries to find the possible resolution to our predicament, our mouths and our bodies can’t cope quickly enough. What we say or do just hammers more nails in our coffin. Then we’re officially dead. Goodbye, cruel world!

When it’s all over, we just stare in disbelief. We are shocked and speechless. We don’t know what hit us. A speeding bullet train, a garbage truck (because we really really feel trashy and trashed right away), a plane on takeoff. After realizing what happened, we just want to disappear, to be swallowed up by the earth or sucked up by a black hole into an eternal nothingness. The brain has shut down completely and we walk around dazed and numb. Crash alert!

When we manage to catch our breaths, the brain mysteriously and magically reboots itself, but then that’s when the disgusting replays start. We go over the event, breaking it into little gestures, words and thoughts, and a rush of feelings suddenly surfaces. We feel even more pissed or humiliated then depressed—the feelings just alternating—as we rewind the event over and over again in our heads.

When we are able to make our tongues work finally, we can’t stop talking about it. We go on and on and abuse our friends by discussing the incident to death. It’s like we’re ill-equipped lawyers trying to make an intelligent case out of something utterly defenseless, hopping from one court to another, just forum-shopping. We further dissect and analyze the event of the day trying to make sense where we went wrong. Or perhaps look for someone else to blame for what happened.

All we need really is to hear the sincere words of comfort from our friends. We ache for some support, soothing phrases and comforting messages to massage our ego. We just need an assurance that we will still rise from the tragedy. Our pride has been shot and we are in pieces. “If anyone can recover from a tragic event, you can!” we are told. Can we really?

Richards tried to “get back on the saddle,” as he said over Letterman. That same bad night at the comedy club, he went back onstage and apologized to his audience for his rage. Then he tried his routine again. It was unclear from his interview with Dave whether he got the audience to laugh at him again.

The way Richards spoke, he still sounded shell-shocked by the entire incident. He started rambling on and on about how Hurricane Katrina hit the black communities the hardest, and how the comics have been banding together to raise funds for the victims by putting on shows. It’s as if by identifying himself with how other comics were doing charity work in the name of the victims of Katrina, he was trying to erase the notion that he was a racist. And he did cry out, not just once or twice, but all throughout the interview, that what was so unfortunate about the whole incident was that he wasn’t a racist!

Richards, who hasn’t had a show since Seinfeld, will take a long time to recover from this experience, for sure. It’s disappointing to see someone absolutely loved and admired for his superb comic timing falling from grace. Many actually thought he would have his own spinoff after Seinfeld bowed out of the TV screens. (Of course, reruns are still on the air, still funny after all these years.) Unfortunately, that Kramer spinoff never materialized. Which could be why Richards has been harboring a lot of anger with enough steam to vent. Or maybe he’s really a racist? Dang! Where’s my frigging delete button?!

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of BusinessMirror.)

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