Monday, November 27, 2006

The now-famous video of Michael Richards' racist tirade at some black hecklers has provoked a lot of shock, disgust and disappointment from people who wonder how such an entertaining comedian could express such ugly hatred. My reaction is very different: I'm not only not shocked--I'm not even convinced Richards has demonstrated himself to be a racist. Rather, his rant struck me as a totally normal explosion of the seething rage that exists inside many, perhaps most, stand-up comics.

A large fraction of comedians are deeply damaged people, filled with obsessive, solipsistic self-loathing (as one female comic explained it, "I'm a piece of crap that the world revolves around") and incapable of normal social interaction, let alone emotional intimacy. As a result, they find themselves so desperately lonely that they will gladly accept the humiliation of making fools of themselves in front of a large audience of strangers--just so long as those strangers are willing to listen to them. In a way, their comedy is a form of payment to the audience, with which they buy the attention and acceptance they crave, and cannot get otherwise.

Of course, such an intense need inevitably stokes equally intense bitterness and resentment towards that same audience, further fueled by a searing sense of rejection when their acts occasionally (or, at the beginning, frequently) bomb. So when a small group of hecklers, by talking during Richards' act, reminded him just how much he needed them to listen to him, and how little his need was reciprocated, they caused him more pain than they could possibly have imagined, and he naturally lashed out in the most vicious, hurtful way he could think of.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if Richards bears no hostility against blacks in general. (In the past, apparently, he's resorted to anti-Semitic slurs, as well, when heckled. Is he really likely to hate all the Jews involved with Seinfeld?) But for those particular blacks who on that one night exposed his greatest weakness and most shameful pathological need, his hatred knew no bounds, and no insult would have been too harsh.

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