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Kramer's Biggest Pratfall
2006-11-26 20:15
by Scott Long
Notes:
Scott Long is now blogging at NSFWsports.com.
Will Carroll can still be found at Baseball Prospectus.

Say it isn't so, Cosmo.

Michael Richards was a part of the best sitcom in television history and might be the top physical comedy actor since Keaton and Chaplin. He is more successful in the entertainment business than I could ever dream of, but I don't consider him part of the same field that I am in. Michael Richards is a comedy actor, not a stand-up comic. Not saying one is a more noble title than the other, but let's be clear in mentioning they have little in common except in their ultimate result, laughter from an audience. While improv comedy performers have the word improv listed prominently next to their art form there is really little improvisation done.

When you see an improv troupe work their magic, they will take suggestions from the audience, making it seem like they came up with everything out of thin air. Not trying to be the guy telling how the magic tricks are done, but there is a basic script that is followed, with the improv troupe trained in how to deal with the suggestions they elicit from the crowd. Taking suggestions from the audience and being verbally harassed are not the same and generally the improv actor is not going to handle it well. It throws them out of their skit.

Stand-up comedy is different, as it all about flying solo, unlike the teamwork that is needed in improv. No matter what style of stand-up it is, the comic needs to project confidence to the audience. I've been traveling around the country for over 15 years, dealing with some drunk generally on a weekly basis, so I feel like this is one subject I have some expertise on.

Probably the most mistaken idea about stand-up comedy is that the comics want the audience to heckle them. We don't. Many times one of these idiots have come up after the show and said to me, "hey, I hope you weren't bothered with me heckling you, I was just trying to help the show."

My response is generally. "Are you delusional enough to think that there is anything interesting enough about you that would fit into my act?"

Now if you have seen me live, you might be surprised that I would feel this way, as I generally leave hecklers in a heap of their own bile, never to be the same again. I'm a good stand-up comic, but I'm world-class in dealing with hecklers. Some of my best shows have been when I have some idiot trying to interrupt my flow, as the attack mode I go on creates a different level of energy. Having said all this, I didn't get into the stand-up business to babysit a-holes, I did it because I have prepared things I want to share with an audience.

Put me in the high majority of comics who have such a large ego they think what they have to say should be heard by large groups of people and at the same time are so insecure they need other's constant approval. Hey, it's kind of like being a blogger. Wow, I am really self-absorbed, huh?

Very few people have the ability to do both improv comedy and stand-up comedy. As I mentioned before, they are really different crafts. Michael Richards is a guy who can create hilarious characters. I can only play the different personalities that inhabit me. Most stand-ups are not acting, but just having a conversation with the audience. Michael Richards is an actor who proved how ill-prepared he was to deal with the situation he found himself in.

I didn't see the act Richards was doing that night, but I have seen him on-stage at a comedy club before and I would probably agree with the two hecklers, as I don't think his material works in this setting. Kind of like me going on a sitcom and preaching my sanctimonious societal criticisms. Have you ever wondered why George Carlin, Dennis Miller, and Bill Maher look so ill at ease when acting in a movie? Just because you are a funny stand-up doesn't mean you can act and vice versa.

This is one of the big problems with the LA stand-up comedy scene. Most of the clubs are run as showcase rooms, with the acts doing 10-15 minutes sets. The ultimate goal for LA comics is not to make the audience laugh, but to be seen by the right casting agent who will make them a star. There is a reason that most comedy clubs in the country follow the format of having a MC do 10-15 minutes, a feature act do 25-30 minutes, and the headliner close the show out doing 45-55 minutes. There is a natural flow to how the general audience connects with stand-up comics and watching a lot of performers do short sets is jarring and inhabits the audience from truly bonding with the performer.

If you want to know my moral judgement on the incident, I felt Richards was an idiot for saying what he said. Now maybe these types of sentiments go over big at the Masonic Lodge, but as much as I'm a fan of cringe humor, it doesn't work when the humor part of the equation is left out.

As much as I felt what Richards said was offensive, the recipients of Kramer's verbal barrage deserve no monetary damages for what was inflicted upon them. From the accounts I read, they showed up late and started the verbal volleying. This doesn't mean they deserved what Richards offered back at them, but just because a guy has a lot of money and says some vile things, it doesn't allow you to seek some kind of financial retribution. Especially when you are at a comedy club. Judge Long rests.

Oh and let me finish up by mentioning that most stand-up comedy shows are conducted without any incidents of heckling. It is something that occasionally happens, but at the best comedy clubs, hecklers are told by a staff employee to put a pipe in it or they will be asked to leave. I wanted to mention this because some of you might be under the same pompous view that Nikki Fine wrote in her misinformed article about the state of comedy clubs in America. I generally like what Ms. Fine writes, but what she wrote in the Huffington Post sounded like a society page debutante breaking down ultimate fighting.

I'm the first to admit that the stand-up comedy world has it fair share of hacks and posers. In its defense, it just might be the last place where truly politically incorrect thoughts are disseminated to audiences all over the country, no matter if they are blue or red states. While it might not provide the high cultural value of a Beckett or Beethoven, anything that brings all socio-economic classes together to listen to one person pour out entertaining ideas shouldn't just be laughed at.

Comments
2006-11-26 23:29:49
1.   StolenMonkey86
Well said, and probably the most useful commentary on the incident I have read anywhere.
2006-11-27 04:23:20
2.   dianagramr
Ditto on the "well said".

I've done stand-up (pretty well for an amateur ... I had a pro come up to me and say he liked my stuff). I've tried my hand at improv .... and whoa is it a TOTALLY different world.

I can free associate with the best of them, and I am very creative on the fly, but improvs such as Ryan Stiles and Greg Proops and the "Whose Line" cast (British version please) just leave me in awe.

If I could actually "act" .... I could do improv ...

I do feel bad for Richards .... its obvious he has some issues.

2006-11-27 06:49:10
3.   Daniel Zappala
I didn't know Michael Richards was on Cheers.
2006-11-27 08:02:19
4.   jakewoods
i feel more bad for kramer because the more he keeps apologizing the bigger a loser he looks like

hes a comic for christsakes. man up. say sorry once and get over it. u think any black person cares at this point?

hes a comic. not a politician.

2006-11-27 12:57:59
5.   Xeifrank
Nice post. I didn't know you were a comedian. That explains alot of things. :)
Also, there is a flip side to the heckling coin. I've been in the audience of a stand-up comedy act where the comedian has picked me out of the audience, asked me some questions and then basically made fun of me. Yeah it was funny, people laughed. I laughed too. But I've also seen people not respond to this very well, by getting really embarrassed, upset to the point that they heckle back, or upset to the point that they get up and leave. So yes, heckling of the comic is probably not a good thing, but every coin has two sides. Perhaps you don't single out audience members, but keep in mind that others do. vr, Xei
2006-11-27 15:51:37
6.   rbj
Applause, applause.

The overwhelming majority of us in the audience is there to hear the comic/singer/band/improv troupe/what have you do their thing. We aren't there to hear hecklers. Hey Mr. Heckler, if you're so good why aren't you on stage?
Lastly, if a guy isn't a good standup comic, some polite applause is all that's needed. Plus a word to the manager "he's no good, we aren't coming back to watch him."

2006-11-27 22:10:07
7.   Scott Long
I really try hard not to go after anyone in the audience who doesn't heckle me. The only things that might change that is if you never crack a smile (I'm very competitive and confrontational) or you are wearing some ridiculous piece of clothing or hairstyle.

I make it a point to mention to the people sitting up at the front during the beginning of my set that I will not be picking on them, as I go after the pussies in the back. I do this, as I feel too many comics are lazy and only talk to the first couple rows. This is partially done because the lights are very bright on-stage and it's hard to see very far back, but I believe in making the effort.

2006-11-28 17:42:52
8.   Suffering Bruin
A very engaging read, Scott.
2006-11-28 21:51:08
9.   thewebb
Usually when I see a post this long on any site I move on. Glad I didn't on this one. Great post.
2006-11-29 17:31:30
10.   Benaiah
I don't think you can ever shake the racist tag unfortunately, so Mel and Michael will have that one moment forever linked with them, while someone like Snoop Dogg wouldn't be thought of immediately as a felon (until he got arrested again this week). No matter how mad I got, I hope and expect I would go racist. As someone (Walter Chaw I think) once said, "I have met people who are so sincerely goodhearted that they have managed to deeply repress their own innate racism." Maybe Kramer's vinear of civility was just cracked on that unfortunate night.

On the other hand, I definitely agree with you that those guys don't deserve any money (maybe a refund on their tickets at most). If a poor person calls someone the N word they probably just get their assed kicked, they certainly don't get taken to court. It is prosterous that those two guys suffered some trauma so grevious that they deserve the thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars they will no doubt seek. It was an embarassing display, but I think Jesse Jackson having Richards on his show only to later organize a boycott of Seinfeld DVD is no less shameful. I wonder if he was happy when he heard about the incident because he knew that it was an opportunity for him to get some airplay.

2006-12-01 09:21:23
11.   Todd S
I just wanted to give a shout out to (the late) John Ritter. I thought he did an excellent job of executing physical comedy (which is underappreciated by the way; not the easiest thing to pull off). Also, Jim Carrey and Chevy Chase probably deserve a mention. Keaton/Chaplin to Richards seems like too big of a gap.
2006-12-04 14:16:11
12.   Tangotiger
I agree with Todd. Jim Carrey is a genius.

*

I think it's ok for a comic to go after an audience member, but only if it's not mean (i.e., being a bully). We had a good comic who picked on us, and we all laughed. He did it in a very engaging way. Another time, a comic picked on this guy, emasculated him in front of his girlfriend, but we gave the comic a huge disapproving howl.

The "laugh with/at him" line is pretty clear.

*

I like this article that I linked, that discusses racist words exposes an inner demon that is not necessarily racism:
http://tinyurl.com/ymyfd4

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