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Michael Richards Has Made His Apology: Now Fans Have a Decision to Make

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I'm so angry with Michael Richards right now.

Not just because the former Seinfeld star was crazy enough to call a black audience member a nigger several times when he thought the guy was heckling him. But because now I have to decide something I don't really have enough information to conclude.

Do I remain a fan?

This happened earlier this year with Mel Gibson. I'd always been a fan of the guy -- for his fearless enthusiasm in directing Bravehart; his quiet competence in Signs; his scenery-chewing, action-guy theatrics in the Lethal Weapon movies.

Then he goes and shows off his anti-Semitic side in a drunken rant, and those days are suddenly over. I can't be down with somebody who hates someone simply because they are Jewish.

Richards is somebody I noticed a long time before Seinfeld. He was brilliant in this mid-'80s Saturday Night Live rip off on ABC called Fridays -- a late-night, live sketch comedy show which aired, well, you can guess when it aired. He would meet a guy named Larry David there who would eventually co-create one of the best urban comedies on TV.

Even then, Richards had a gift for physical comedy, playing this man-child who would try playing with plastic Army guys only to wind up covered in sand. He also had memorable moment picking a fight with guest host Andy Kaufman -- a prank that sparked a backstage brawl which reportedly only he and Kaufman knew was staged. Check one of his better stand-up gigs here.

So when I saw the footage on TMZ.com revealing the depth of Richards' explosion, it literally made me ill.

""Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a f------ fork up your ass," he said while on stage."You can talk, you can talk, you're brave now motherf------. Throw his ass out. He's a n-----! He's a n-----! He's a n-----! A n-----, look, there's a n-----!"

Though he dodged initial opportunities to apologize, Richards taped an apologetic appearance on David Letterman's Late Show Monday, appearing by satellite in an interview arranged by his friend Jerry Seinfeld in New York.

"For me to be at a comedy club and flip out and say this crap..." said Richards. "I'm deeply, deeply sorry."

But for people of color, trust comes hard. Life in 2006 already requires working far too hard to decide who you can trust on matters of race. But shrugging this off is not an option: judging the difference between trust and mere tolerance can be a matter of life and death for those of us who are darker than blue.

One advantage we had in the old days was that prejudice was in your face, like a thin skin of scum at the top of a putrid waterway. Now, its much harder to know who you can trust, and when the mask falls, it can be a shocking experience. (And please don't trot out that old defense that black people use the n-word, too. there's an obvious difference between people who are part of a group using a charged word and people outside that group using it; just think of the difference between a stranger calling your brother or sister an idiot and you doing it.)

Los Angeles journalist Nikki Finke has lamented that comedy clubs have become a haven for racist, sexist homophobic ideas. But that's nothing new; the unfortunate consequence of the success geniuses such as Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Bill Hicks have built on exploring the edgy explicit terrain of raw race and class issues, is that lesser lights will wind up trafficking in empty stereotypes and BS.

Already, I can't buy gas at Texaco, can't eat dinner at Denny's, can't watch Bob Schieffer on the news and can't watch a Lethal Weapon movie without fear of putting my hard-earned dollars in some racist's hands.

Now Richards wants that trust back. He wants people to assume that his tirade was some awkward slip of the tongue -- a lapse which can be papered over by an apology and an earnest face.

I don't think so, Kramer.

You can see Seinfeld's calculation in this as well. He's got a DVD collection of the show's seventh season hitting stores today, just in time for Christmas. And one of the few criticisms which constantly dogged the acclaimed series was its lack of black people in prominent roles -- despite its location in the most diverse town in America, New York City.

I would imagine his worst fear was Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton shouting "boycott Seinfeld!" four days before the biggest shopping day of the year. And let's not forget Letterman got a huge scoop for his show during an important ratings period.

But if this was really about apologizing, why didn't Richards just step in front of a TV camera in Los Angeles? Why do a taped interview by satellite to New York City that airs at 11 p.m. on a show few black people watch in a way that benefits two of your friends? Doesn't sound like much of an apology to me.

So what is this black fan of Richards and Seinfeld supposed to think now?

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