Catalogue Review: Michael Richards

Before beginning this catalogue review, there are a few things one should consider when they look into the complexities of an actor or comic’s career. Firstly, these performers are humans too. Humans make mistakes, and humans forgive each other for making mistakes when forgiveness is deserved. However, at the same time, when a human does make a mistake at their job, they are generally penalized for it. Again, performers should be treated differently. Another thing to always consider is that there is a certain pressure that comes along with fame. These pressures in the modern world for performers are the knowledge that they are always being watched, judged, typecasted, and many more fears that the average person doesn’t necessarily have to deal with. The constance of being viewed can easily lead one to do something terrible, and because it will become newsworthy, they can easily lose all credibility due to one mistake. Finally, a difficult question for any reviewer when doing a catalogue review is whether or not to consider the personal life of the performer they are reviewing. Personally, I feel it is necessary to at least look into the basics of their biographical life. After all, a catalogue review attempts to review a performer’s ography in full. In almost all cases, the performer’s choices will have affected how they ended up in certain roles. This is certainly the case with the actor and comedian Michael Richards.

Richards is obviously most famous for starring as Kramer on Seinfeld, but for this catalogue review it will look at his career from the beginning.

Richards began playing Dick on Billy Crystal’s cable special:

Richards’ first role was on Billy Crystals 1981 cable special Fridays, where Larry David was one of the writers. Richards played a small cast of characters in a few of the skits. In the linked one he plays a creepy man by the name of “Dick” trying to court his date. The character has a much slower, quieter demeanor than his famous Kramer character. Perhaps the most famous event from was when he was in a skit with actor Andy Kaufman. Kaufman, famous for taking his roles and characters very seriously, refused to deliver his lines. Richards then took Kaufman’s cue cards on screen to Kaufman, who responded to this by throwing his drink in Richard’s’ face on live television. The event was an interesting one and is an interesting start to the interesting career of Richards.

Richards having a drink thrown in his face by Andy Kaufman on television

Then in 1989 Richards had his next big role in Weird Al Yankovic’s zany comedy film UHF. In this film, he plays janitor Stanley Spadowski at a television station. In the film, Spadowski randomly transitions from lowly janitor to a TV star of the show “Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse” and eventually becomes a flagship star for the film’s television station, Channel 62. The film was a strange film that almost seemed like an all-star version of The Weird Al Show, with many more famous comedians. The film received mixed reviews and remains a cult classic.

After that in 1989 Richards got his big break with the role of Kramer in Seinfeld, a show created by Larry David and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. The show stars Seinfeld as a comic living in the Upper East side of Manhattan. Kramer, Richards’ character, is his wild neighbor. He has a very distinct 90’s hipster-esque style that revolves around loose high-waist pants, plaid blazers, and unkempt hair.  Along with that, he is an enigma of a character. The characters go the majority of the first few seasons not even knowing his first name despite the fact that they were his closest friends. His character has little regard for social norms. He bashes Seinfeld’s door or opens it constantly without knocking. He goes through Seinfeld’s fridge and steals food. Despite the fact that he never has a consistent job, he always seems to have a surplus of money coming in from various schemes and odd jobs. Kramer is an iconic character of American television in the 1990’s and sitcoms in general. It is the role Richards is loved for and is most well-known for. Seinfeld, like all sitcoms, finally came to an end nine years later in 1998, and Richards continued his career as a comedian and actor.

In 2000, trying to follow on the success of Seinfeld, Richards got an NBC program called the Michael Richards Show:

Richards played a lanky private detective, Vic Nardozza, who solves crimes in unconventional ways. The show was cancelled by NBC fairly quickly after the first season, because it  couldn’t seem to find its footing and got bad ratings. The show was strange. Richards seemed to be playing a character with similar movements to Kramer, but placed in much more serious and meaningful relationships. The show was just as fast-paced as Kramer, which could be part of why it failed. Watching it, it seems like whacky joke after whacky joke was being thrown at the audience. Part of why Kramer was so iconic was that he would carry out the wackiness of one joke for an entire episode. The Michael Richards Show couldn’t seem to carry that same flow.

Richards continued as a comedian, performing at various popular clubs from 2001 to 2006, and also appeared on television shows as a guest star occasionally. This eventually led to his second most-iconic moment as a performer, the famous Laugh Factory Incident. For those who haven’t seen the incident, please be aware it is a video containing graphically offensive language. To give an easy summary of what happened, basically Richards was performing standup at a club called the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood. After being haggled by a black member  the audience who told him he didn’t find him funny of, Richards began to scream racial slurs at the audience member. This included him calling the audience member a “nigger” and eventually making references to the fact that in the past he would have been lynched.

Michael Richards at the Laugh Factory performing a comic bit that went too far. WARNING GRAPHIC LANGUAGE:

He obviously received massive amounts of backlash from the bit. Almost immediately after, he requested to apologize on The Late Show With David Letterman while his friend Jerry Seinfeld was a guest. The apology is a strange thing to watch. It falls somewhere in between an awkward man trying to come up with an apology for something he doesn’t understand and a broken man trying to comprehend how he could do something so vile. It’s a little hard to watch. At some points Letterman’s audience actually laughs at his awkwardly crafted apology (like the use of the words Afromericans) to which Seinfeld responds that “it’s not funny”. Its up to the viewers discretion whether Richards is trying to save face or if he actually is deeply disturbed by his own performance. Personally, when I watch this, I see a man who let his rage control him and was heartbroken by it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t cover up the racial evil that came out of Richards’ mouth. Perhaps my perception is skewed as I am a Seinfeld lover and fan. Richards himself states that it was supposed to be a bit, relying on shock factor but it went too far and brought out a terrible rage within him. It seems like he tries to say it was an attack on the heckler and had nothing to do with his beliefs. “I am not a racist” he says and that he has to do “personal work” to move forward.

Michael Richards apologizing on David Letterman’s show:

In 2009 Richards, still with the event haunting him, appeared as a guest on Larry Davids’ HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he actually appears as himself and parodies the Laugh Factory event. In the episode however, Richards is entirely justified in his rage at an African-American, Leon,  who has tried to con him. However, when Richards approaches the man outside and claims he wishes there was a “terrible name” he could call Leon, he noticed a series of people with cameras recording the event. The scene is a risky one. Obviously, one could view it as a terrible thing that Larry David and Richards tried to make humor out of such a terrible event. On the other hand, one could view it as an attempt to make art out of a terrible situation. After all, this is one of the primary goals of comedians. Personally, I view it as an attempt at a metaphor for the whole situation, where Richards was caught in a moment that didn’t represent his character, but rather simply presented a small part of him in the spotlight. This is part of the issue with the spotlight that comes with fame. Extremity is so evil and easy  to highlight that the majority of one’s personality could be totally forgotten about.

Richards parodying his own event years later:

Once again, this acknowledgement of the incident does not make it an acceptable way to approach comedy. Besides that guest appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Richards had an unusually quiet career from 2007-2012. He had a very minor role in Seinfeld’s animated 2007 project The Bee Movie as well. Besides those collaborations with his old friend, he remained fairly quiet. However, in 2012, he appeared on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, where he speaks seriously on the incident. In the show, he admits that the event haunts him to that day and it played a large role in why he ended up signing off comedy and stopped doing stand-up. His time away is another attempt at making amends for the terrible incident, and that he can’t go on stage with an empty conscious anymore.

There isn’t much else to say on the issue, other than to reiterate that the racist remarks by Richards were terrible, and that it’s entirely up to the individual if they accept his reparations. Personally, when I see Michael Richards, I don’t see an incredibly racist stand-up comic, but rather a performer who played the character of Kramer perfectly and proceeded to say some horrible things. I don’t know if I necessarily forgive Richards for what he said, but I do accept that this event doesn’t affect my opinion of his performance in the show Seinfeld.

That’s essentially the end of Richards’ relatively quiet career, but there is one last positive note. After his appearance on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Richards appeared as a main character in Kirstie, a 2013 TV-Land series. Despite the fact that the show was cancelled after its first season, it still does represent a bit of a rebirth for Michael Richards as a performer. It seems that (even if audiences hasn’t) he has finally managed to make peace with the rage that caused the Laugh Factory incident and can begin to make a reappearance in modern television. The show starred Kirstey Alley as an actress whose son (who she gave up at birth) shows up in her life. Richards plays Kirstie’s driver, who acts as one of the voices Kirstie gets advice about motherhood from and participates in other various antics. The show was mediocre and a bit confusingly performed, but for Richards it may have more meaning as a role to move forward than as a performer.

A scene from Kirstie:

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