Even after all these years, the TMZ video is notable for what it does and doesn’t bleep out. In November of 2006, Michael Richards, better known as the lanky, wired, unforgettably idiosyncratic Seinfeld character Kramer, performed a stand-up routine at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard. This, after several years of failing to capitalize on the culture-defining success of Seinfeld, which ended its decade-long, nine-season run in 1998. Such efforts included his own eponymous TV show (canceled within two months of airing) and a part in a made-for-TV adaptation of David Copperfield, followed by a dry spell for six years all the way up to Richards’ decision to return to stand-up comedy. The parlance du jour would situate Richards as one of the first celebrities to be truly canceled due to what happened next, a casualty of tabloid media and the speed of the internet to enable many, many people to see dumb shit that probably shouldn’t have any effect on their lives. As these things often do, the scope spiraled out of control.
It is, from certain vantage points, either incredibly sad or incredibly foolish to think that Richards could crawl out from under the shadow of Kramer, a lodestar of primetime physical comedy and line delivery, a walking meme whose every gesture and insane backstory detail burned itself into the culture for decades to come, and finally, a character so utterly inextricable from Richards himself that one fails to see anything other than Kramer in the actor’s other work. 1994’s Airheads features Richards sporting glasses and a mustache, along with Kramer’s trademark wide eyes, bumbling exasperation, and tendency to run into things. Richards’ short bit in So I Married An Axe Murderer, as the aptly named “Insensitive Man”, belligerently causing a scene before storming off, recapitulates another familiar tick. This raises the question of whether or not Richards himself knew how much he had to offer beyond the tailor-made bounds of the Seinfeld universe. The irony is that in another couple decades, the utter ubiquity of Seinfeld’s resurgence as a piece of ‘90s pop culture nostalgia could have given Richards a natural niche in which to return to the fore. The character of Kramer lives on to the delight of younger generations, but he’s been cleaved from Richards. Which takes us back to the Laugh Factory.
Fucks and motherfuckers and the like are papered over in the TMZ video but the word flies freely and hits squarely for how easily it comes out of Richards’ mouth. The rundown of the whole debacle is simple, almost mythic: a large group of people come to Richards’ set late, they distract him by talking loudly, and Richards homes in on them for heckling. “Look at the stupid Mexicans and Blacks being loud up there,” he yells. One member of the group says Richards isn’t funny. Then the slurs start. After several n-words, the crowd, which, in the video, is torn between laughing and gossiping, eventually settles into a rapt silence. “This shocks you,” Richards coos to the audience. “It shocks you to see what’s buried beneath you stupid motherfuckers.”
The TMZ video came out a few days after the Laugh Factory set (“What you are about to see is profane and racial”). From here, Richards’s career dies a slow, public death. Jerry Seinfeld, in a gesture of supreme generosity, went on Letterman partially to give Richards a chance to explain what happened. The apology itself, broadcast via satellite given that Richards wasn’t in the studio, is stunning. The actor sits in front of a dark green wall, one arm on the armrest of a chair, his demeanor so severely embarrassed and nervous that, combined with the direct lighting on him and the fact that talk-show television looks like a soap opera, one would be hard-pressed to believe any of this is real. That aforementioned inextricable linkage of Richards’ own personality with that of Kramer actively acts against him in this scenario. The audience laughs when he pauses for too long, when he repeatedly uses the term “Afro-American” (funny), when he is trying as hard as possible to stiffly and directly deliver his thoughts, when he mentions the possibility of racist hate ramping up because of his remarks (he brings up Katrina?). Seinfeld chides the audience for laughing, telling them it isn’t funny. Richards notes the audience’s laughter and questions whether or not this is the right format for his public apology. “I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this,” he cries, leaning towards the camera, eyes wide. The whole thing genuinely seems like a bit.
Things run away from Richards after Letterman: he goes on Reverend Jesse Jackson’s radio show; he calls Al Sharpton, who rejects his apology to the whole of the Black community; he does not apologize to the group his remarks were directed towards at the Laugh Factory (at least not publicly). Jackson and Congresswoman Maxine Waters launch a campaign urging people of all backgrounds to stop using the n-word and comedian Paul Mooney modestly follows suit. “Seeing the video put me in shock,” Mooney said. “And I’m not easily shocked. He cured me.” Richards became infamous overnight. Dave Chappelle, who, by contrast, has gone on to have a very normal and balanced relationship with his audience and marginalized communities, performed at the Laugh Factory not long after Richards’ implosion. “Every time I see this backdrop, I think about Kramer fucking up.” There’s that linkage again.
The parallax between what it meant to be canceled then versus now is a bit dizzying. These days, “cancel culture” is a club wielded by otherwise mainstream celebrities, conservative pundits, and similarly-minded idiots who have too much pride or too little sense to realize that what they’ve been called out for was wrong and deserving of ridicule. Particularly in the case of white men, controversy tends not to stick for long, instead being refashioned as comeback fodder and reactionary social commentary. The dust settles, a new beginning emerges. Which makes Richards a rare case. Given the belligerence of his Laugh Factory incident, it’s easy to imagine the actor might have hopped on the cancel culture bandwagon. After all, Jerry and other generational peers have spoken out against it. And who knows what kind of allies he might have had? But that’s all speculation.
Now 73, Richards has had four major appearances since 2006: in 2007’s Bee Movie (again, thanks to Jerry Seinfeld); in 2009, in a series of episodes in the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm featuring other cast members from Seinfeld, one of which lampoons the Laugh Factory incident; in an episode of, who else, Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee in 2012; and in the brief 2014 sitcom Kirstie, starring Kirstie Alley. For the most part though, Richards has laid low, semi-voluntarily ostracized, a cautionary tale from a different time, surely reaping the material benefits of Seinfeld’s long afterlife, yet unable to publicly enjoy them. In other words, gone but still alive.