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.