I wrote this piece on Nov. 23, 2006. It was on the Cafe page for a couple of months. While no longer timely, it still expresses my feelings about the power of words.


Nov. 23, 2006. My take on the Michael Richards incident.

by Rick Shubb

I've seen the Michael Richards clip, and I've seen his apology. I've also read quite a few comments on both, almost all of which agree that he's the worst guy ever, and that his career (such as it was) is over. That might be true, but I've got a slightly different take on his tantrum than those I've read.

I think he was going for something, and he missed it so far that it's hard to tell what he was going for. He was really rattled by the hecklers, and he set out to quell them in the fashion of a rude, shock/insult comic. The problem was that he is so unskilled at the craft of standup comedy that he didn't come even close to pulling it off, and found himself in no-man's land.

If he had copped to this in his Letterman apology, it might have gone down better. If he'd said, "I was trying to be funny, but failed miserably, then I panicked and tried to power it through, but it just kept getting worse," it would have had the ring of truth. But the public doesn't like it when you look them in the eye and try to save ALL your bacon. It didn't work well for Nixon or Clinton. They'd have both done better to have admitted their human frailties, rather than trying to worm their way off the hook, and so would Richards. In his case, the sin he is unwilling to admit is not so much racism, as lack of professional ability. That, combined with a major error in judgment.

I think I understand the point of his confusion; what his essential mistake was. For the past few years, in venues such a live performances, comedians have been able to use just about any words they want. This option is still new enough that they use it like a new toy, and as a result, rather than seeming more adult, they seem like children being naughty. Every other word out of their mouths is the F-word, and everyone is addressed as M-F-. It's a cheap laugh. Audiences laugh nervously, not wanting to seem prudish or unhip. Even virtuoso comics like Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy will overuse these words to excess; they're still a new toy, and a guaranteed giggle.

Words that once had the power to shock have now had that power eroded. Those comedians who pioneered their use were working on the edge, pushing the envelope. So if it was OK for those guys to shock audiences by saying the then-powerful, now commonplace F-word, then (Richards' panicked mind reasoned) it will work now to use the only remaining word that still has power. Two mistakes here: one, the N-word is still way too powerful, one of the few remaining words that still packs a wallop. And two, he lacks the wit or composure to even consider messing with that kind of power. He's no Lenny Bruce. Hell, he's not even Don Rickles.

So Richards' career is a casualty; a monument to the power of a word. No real loss, as far as most of us are concerned. What I mourn is the loss of the power these other words once had.