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Andrew Gumbel Headshot

Kramer the Anti-dentite

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So Michael Richards goes on stage at the Laugh Factory, makes a few jokes that fall flat, yada yada yada, he can never work in show business again.

Funny, isn't it, how some people seem to be having a hard time getting their head around the idea that Michael Richards might be a flaming racist? If it weren't for that pesky video cell phone recording, perhaps they wouldn't have to. They could think back fondly on Kramer rallying to the defense of dentists everywhere ("They came to this country just like everybody else, in search of a dream!") and accusing Jerry of being a rabid anti-dentite. "Oh, it starts with a few jokes and slurs," Kramer says in gloriously outraged tones. "Next thing you know, you're saying they should have their own schools!"

Now it turns out that Kramer is the anti-dentite, and a lot more besides. Is that really so hard to grasp? Apparently so, certainly to judge by the cable news stations who have devoted hour after hour to the story, interviewing every comedian and pundit and, um, black person they can lay their hands on to confirm that, yes, Richards' remarks were indeed beyond the pale and no, this isn't standard procedure for stand-up artists confronted by Friday night hecklers.

I have no intention of defending Richards, but at the same time there's something about the sheer banality of the mass media pile-on that leaves me distinctly queasy. What does it say about a society, especially one with as bad a racial conscience as the United States, that it feels compelled to say over and over that Richards' repeated use of the n-word was offensive? Could it be that there isn't quite as much unanimity on the matter as everyone would like to pretend?

Why is it that show host after show host, on channel after channel, has felt compelled to ask why it was okay for black performers to say the word "nigger" but not for white performers? The first time I heard the question asked, I thought it was just a clumsy way of addressing an issue of at least tangential validity. By the third time, though, it just sounded like an excuse for a bunch of white men under the studio lights to vent their own latent racism and embarrass their black guests.

Here's the brutal truth of the matter. Richards, for whatever reason, flew off the handle. Despite popular delusions to the contrary, he is not Kramer and Kramer is not him. He scripts his own thoughts; Larry David and Peter Mehlman don't script them for him.

The Laugh Factory management clearly thought it could contain the furor, which explains why Richards was back on stage the following night. Woops! Without the cell phone recording, the world would never have been the wiser. With it, the broadcast media and the blogosphere could adopt its favorite mode, sanctimonious outrage, reap the ratings reward and quietly deny its own tendencies to (more subtly expressed) racial prejudice.

As Kramer once said, "Mother Nature is a mad scientist, Jerry!" Yup, and Michael Richards is far from the only freak around here.