Surreal: probably the most suitable word to describe the Michael Richards incident.
Considering the history of this country (slavery, segregation, rampant and widespread racism/prejudice for centuries), it is needless to say that there are certain words that are absolutely loaded with venom. Without flinching, Richards uttered what many considered to be the most venomous word as it pertains to race in America. He didn’t just say it a couple of times either; he completely went off and hatefully shouted the word repeatedly.
When confronted with adversity in the form of an insult, a moral compass has a tendency to become revealed in defensive person’s response to antagonism. That is at the heart of the reason why so many couldn’t get past Richards’ behavior.
Easily the whale of all comedian meltdowns, this one almost seems like a made-up story or a tale outlandishly exaggerated for dramatic effect. The whole thing could very well serve as proof that racism in the U.S. still lingers in the back of many American minds. Here is a scenario with a seemingly nice guy trying to do his standup routine with a couple of hecklers ragging on him (ones that happen to be black).
Only Richards doesn’t handle them like a couple of random hecklers, he handles them like an ignorant racist would, cursing out and taking a shot at an entire ethnicity that has undoubtedly changed standup comedy for the better in virtually every conceivable way (Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, there are a lot more and just too many to list).
Richards may have been one of the first standup comedians to fall victim to the power of a cellphone camera in such a colossally detrimental way. The whole world saw his bigotry-filled tirade either on YouTube or every single media/news source imaginable. His already dwindling career was destroyed in an instant; there was just no coming back from what happened during his set.
Much like the aforementioned Carlos Mencia meltdown, if your notoriety carries you to be the subject of an episode of “South Park,” you are finished (“With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”).
Michael Richards didn’t give up without a fight though. He set up a public apology on “Late Night with David Letterman” that many thought didn’t go that well. There honestly was probably never a chance for redemption for Richards, but the apology came off disingenuous and Richards came off more like a man upset about screwing the pooch rather than a man humbled by a mistake.
Watch Michael Richards' go over the edge.
There is only one common goal that every standup comedian harbors in their artistic pursuit: they simply want to get a laugh out of you.
That is the whole reason the art form even exists in the first place. Every single comedian on this list is a beyond-accomplished standup act that knew exactly how to do that but simply couldn’t one extremely unfortunate night. Furthermore, most of these comedians neglected to uphold their basic duties as standup comics: control the crowd, maintain composure and always go for laughs. Thus, in most instances these comics suffered an ultimate public humiliation: personal and professional failures most of us can’t even conceive or comprehend, and there were indeed a few names on this list didn’t make it out without a deceased career.
Most of the incidents happened in the post-2000 age, a posterity-filled era in which virtually every cell phone is equipped with a high-quality camera, ready to record at the push of a button. Like Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” That is becoming more of literal truth with every passing year — there is no hiding anymore and there certainly is no privacy for anyone, whether they are in the limelight or not. The heightened amplification of public reception, the Internet and the always-accelerating video camera technology have cohesively bred a fuel that will without a doubt continuously feed the already out-of-control fire. It has created a much more extended memory of a collective audience — people just don’t forget as easily nowadays and personal mistakes/lapses in judgment can easily become a matter of public record to be viewed by anyone with Internet access.
These well-documented events (most of which have video evidence on the Internet) that took place in this manner changed the way the public viewed comedy as well as the complicated people who perform it while also spawning a few different stories worthy of being legendary parables — all the devices of any good story are there — villains, heroes, low points, redemption, heartbreak, etc. Even though there were a few needless and undeserved downfalls in these tales of comedic woe, the point could be argued that it is in the long run a beneficial thing for standup comedy. On the heels of these “meltodwns,” the average person may become privy to the immense difficulty it is to undertake the long- underappreciated craft of standup comedy. Maybe more people will come to respect the skill and moxy it takes to perform standup without totally falling apart during times of turbulence and cringe-worthy sets that would break the spirit of any average everyman.
After closely examining these crazy moments in which time seemed to stand still for a performer who was merely in search of a smile, all that can really be said is this: How strangely profound it is to see comedy become so serious — the exact opposite outcome of its one and only intention.
“I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” - George Carlin