As the public reacts to the story of Michael Richard's tirade, I've read and heard more than one person say that they will no longer be able to enjoy Seinfeld reruns because everytime they see Kramer, they will think of Richard's racist rant.
That's understandable and a petty part of me wants to say to liberal friends who feel this way that now they have some idea of what conservatives have to do virtually everytime they go to a movie or concert. We need to forget all the hateful crap spewed by the idiot savants that populate Hollywood.
But racism is different and Richard's outburst is harder to ignore. There is no way to defend what he did, but I can offer this little bit in the event that it preserves Seinfeld for anyone.
It is probably wrong to expect that Richards would react to heckling in the same way that most of us would or that what comes out of his mouth can be interpreted in quite the same way that we can for the sane population. The guy is weird. He is Andy Kaufman odd.
I remember Richards from his work on the show Fridays in the early '80s. He was often hilarious but always seemed to be off in some alternate universe. His "Battle Boy" character was one of the stranger things I have seen on network television. His impersonation of Frank Zappa as a "mystery music critic" bled venom. I was surprised at how little he did until Seinfeld came around (and since Seinfeld) but my guess is that whatever drives his skewed experience of the world and makes him very funny is also very difficult to control.
So it may be that he is not racist in the sense that we generally use that word, i.e. he doesn't hate black people or believe them to be inferior. It may be that he was off in some kind of weird character or was making some point about the way in which the heckler's boorish behavior feeds racial stereotypes and prejudices.
I don't know and, on most levels, it doesn't matter. Given America's racial history, people are not going to cut you slack on that type of thing. We need to put that stuff behind us and even the ironic use of racial epithets is pretty much off limits.
I suspect that Richards will pay a heavy price for this.
But maybe we can still manage to watch Seinfeld.