It’s been nearly three years since “Seinfeld” star Michael Richards’ ugly meltdown in a comedy club when he became almost unrecognizable, consumed with anger as he spewed racial slurs – an image that’s become no less cringe-worthy with time.
After battling his demons privately for the most part, Richards confronted them publically Sunday night with a gutsy, dangerous burst of comedy on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is nearing the end of a season-long storyline centering on a fictional “Seinfeld” reunion.
Like “Seinfeld,” the silly and often-serpentine plots on “Curb” require a little explaining: Richards may have Groats Disease, which is distracting him from the reunion special. Larry David, who based a past “Curb” episode around the fictional affliction, tells him not to worry, and agrees to introduce Richards to Danny Duberstein, an acquaintance living with the disease.
When Larry learns Duberstein died two months earlier, he convinces his African-American houseguest, Leon (J.B. Smoove), to pose as the Jewish Groats victim and reassure Richards. The scheme backfires, and Richards loudly rips into Leon, dressed in a Louis Farrakhan-like outfit, outside the TV studio.
“If only there were a horrible name that I could call you that would make you as angry as I am!” he screams at Leon, after cursing him out and threatening him.
Richards then turns around to see a crowd of onlookers pulling out mini-video cameras – his real-life racist rant was captured on amateur video – and gives a cry of helpless, déjà vu-driven agony.
To be sure, a few laughs aren’t going to make the stupidity and hurtful nature of Richards’ 2006 disgrace disappear. But give him – and David – credit for confronting the elephant on the set.
In some respects, this confrontation was a classic Larry David moment. Much of his humor derives from his saying what people may be thinking – or least what he’s thinking – during uncomfortable situations. He’s also mined his life for material – no more so than this season, in a multi-meta fashion: his real-life divorce is apparent fodder for his “Curb” divorce, even as his “Seinfeld” stand-in George Costanza’s divorce plays a key role in the “reunion” show.
If you have trouble keeping that straight, just imagine what the “Curb” actors go through improvising scenes around David’s loose show outline. One wonders how much of Richards’ tirade against Leon was scripted.
The “Curb” appearances have marked a comeback of sorts for Richards, who is known less these days as the wacky neighbor Kramer, and more as the comedian with anger issues. Of all the “Seinfeld” cast members, he has the most to gain or lose by participating in the fictional reunion, which will play out in this Sunday’s finale.
He may be a long way from redemption, but Richards is at least next-door to making us laugh again – even if it’s at him, rather than with him.
Video, via The Hollywood Reporter, NSFW
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.