COMEDY, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and there was a rather prominent six-letter hole in the air at the Laugh Factory on Sunday night. It was the West Hollywood club's weekly showcase of mostly African American comedians -- the first "Chocolate Sundaes" show since the club banned the N-word after Michael "Kramer" Richards' now-infamous vocabulary malfunction.
At least there was a hole until comedian-actor Damon Wayans took the stage.
"Give yourselves a big round of applause for coming down and supporting ' ... Night,' " Wayans said, using the word itself, to gasps and laughs. The producers "tried to prep me backstage -- 'Don't say the N-word.' They're going to fine me." Wayans sprinkled folded bills across the stage floor, green confetti at his feet. "How much you want?" he asked, looking at club owner Jamie Masada, who sat with his head in his hands at his table in a back corner of the intimate room's main floor.
Anger bubbled just beneath the surface.
"I'll be damned if the white man uses that word last," Wayans said, then he went on to use the word 15 more times during a 20-minute routine that suggested Richards apologize personally to O.J. Simpson -- "If I Killed Michael Richards, This Is How I Did It" -- envisioned Jesus Christ as ethnic stereotypes, cracked offensive jokes about gays in church, lambasted the Iraq war as another fight by whites against dark-skinned people and mocked white celebrities who adopt black children. If they really want to help, he said, "give the ... father some money" to improve the family's life.
But Wayans also poked at the truth underlying the debate over the N-word since Richards' now-infamous meltdown. Like the opening of Pandora's box, the evil has already escaped.
"This is part of our culture now," said Wayans, who spent most of the show at Masada's table. "Don't take that from us."
Wayans' routine earned him a $20 fine for each use of the word and a three-month performance ban, Masada said Monday.
But it also showed that few words have been as nettlesome to American society as the N-word. Conceived in white prejudice, nurtured by hatred and finally kidnapped by those it is intended to demean, the word in recent years has settled into a sort of detente, its use largely forbidden to whites but embraced as an ironic endearment by many blacks.
Richards' verbal assault on four African American hecklers at the Laugh Factory Nov. 17 crashed through that usage barrier and has fueled fresh calls from some entertainers, and such African American leaders as Rev. Jesse Jackson and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), for black performers to drop the word from their routines.
There's precedent. In the 28-year-old Laugh Factory's early days, comedian Richard Pryor made the word an integral part of his routine over Masada's objections, arguing that he hoped "to take the poison away" by co-opting its racist core, Masada recalled. It didn't work. A few years later, during a trip to Africa, Pryor had an epiphany and left the word out of future routines. But few followed his example.
"I think it is more poison than ever," Masada said, adding that he has been dismayed by the number of e-mails the club has received saying that what Richards "did was great." Carloads of young white males have occasionally driven past the Sunset Strip club yelling racial epithets out the windows. At the New York City club last week, he said, a small group of young white men walked up to the front of the club, snapped the Nazi salute and chanted the N-word a number of times before moving on.
"I want to throw up," Masada said. "I just don't know what to do. It comes to the point, what do we do?"
A 'generational divide'
HE decided the ban might help persuade comedians to drop the word, but the plan got off to a slow start Sunday night. One comedian slipped it in twice out of habit, unlike Wayans' direct challenge, and one of the hosts said he had trouble getting through his part of the show. Elsewhere, Hollywood's Comedy Union club is urging comedians to use the word at least once in their routines during a special show Friday.
"What I find fascinating is the generational divide among many African Americans over their concern about the use of this word and its potential for derogatory interpretation," said John Baugh, a linguistics expert at Washington University in St. Louis, who drew the pronunciation distinction between the traditional "er" ending and the street slang "ah" ending. The latter pronunciation, when used by blacks among their peers, makes it a term of insider acknowledgment by turning a slur on its head, much like gays addressing each other as "queers."
"But that linguistic nuance is going to be lost on those who have a hateful use of the word," Baugh said. "The N-word is linguistic nitro. It's volatile and has to be handled with great care, and personal awareness of self and context."
A ban -- forced or voluntary -- isn't likely to have much real effect, especially since you can't ban the emotions that fuel its use, from the passion of hatred to the affection of inclusion, he believes. Ban the N-word and another linguistic shorthand will arise to take its place, its historical symbolism still intact.
"Words have their own linguistic inertia," Baugh said.
Outside the club after Sunday's 8 p.m. early show, some patrons took up that argument, describing the word as an integral part of the language among younger African Americans.
"You're never going to ban it," said patron Scott Raines. "It's never going to happen."
Raines and his companion, Amy Brown, said they didn't think that the ban hurt the quality of the night's humor. And it did nothing to curtail ethnic jokes and stereotypes in general, as the comedians did bits about hardworking Mexicans with leaf blowers strapped to their backs, caricatures of prissy white people, gay references and an insult-gag about the size of Armenians' eyebrows.
Richards himself came in for a parody as host Chris Spencer set up a skit about what would have happened had Richards, who appeared on a Friday night, hurled his epithets during a "Chocolate Sundaes" show.
A lanky white comedian took the stage and, after an exaggerated impersonation of Richards' bumbling "Seinfeld" Kramer character, a plant in the audience yelled out an insult. As the comedian began shouting back at the faux heckler, a la Richards, gunshots rang out and the Richards figure collapsed to the stage floor.
"Comedy is comedy," Brown said after the show. "You can't pick and choose what they can and can't say."
At least not without throwing the comedians off stride. Ocean Glapion, who opened the show, launched into a routine that seemed destined to draw a club fine as he noted the healthy size of the white minority in the audience. "On the count of three," he said, "we're going to lock all the doors and turn them into slaves."
Before Glapion could mine that vein more deeply, Loni Mackay, who manages the show's stage traffic, ran to the front and pulled Glapion aside.
"I can't say the N-word," Glapion reported back to the crowd. "So they're making sure.... Now I got to edit myself."
Later, Glapion admitted that wasn't easy.
"Tonight I felt like I struggled," Glapion said. "I found myself thinking about it on stage." And he subscribes to the "slippery slope" theory. "Once you start censoring that, you start censoring every other word."
Yet comedians already self-censor when they make the leap from Masada's stage in front of the familiar Laugh Factory logo over a bright yellow-orange sun, to late-night television shows hosted by comedians such as David Letterman and Jay Leno. "You've got to be able to do those same jokes on TV," Glapion said. "You have to be able to censor yourself."
Another comedian who goes only by her first name, Leslie, slipped up twice during her routine and was simultaneously disappointed in her failed discipline and frustrated that she had to drop a word she uses in her daily personal conversations and that has become part of the rhythm of her delivery.
"These are my people," Leslie said, as the club changed over for the late show. "If this was a white audience, it would have been easy for me to avoid it. I do a different set for a mainstream crowd."
Excising the word has been difficult even for Masada. On Monday, a week after Masada announced his ban, the Laugh Factory's website still included a recorded bit by comedian Tony Rock imagining a black president. "I'm not talking about one of those nice guy, Colin Powell-, Jesse Jackson-type brothers," Rock says. "We need a ... [who's] just got out of jail."
Masada said late Monday morning he didn't realize the routine was posted on the site. "I'm going to take it off right now," he said.