Backlash of the 'Borat' effect

Times Staff Writer

Two big-time media operations came correct on the same day -- Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which claimed Monday to be listening to America's outrage when it canceled the "If I Did It" book and TV publicity stunt starring O.J. Simpson, and Jerry Seinfeld's "Seinfeld," which brought off a bizarre and discomfiting public apology Monday night for cast member Michael Richards, a.k.a. Kramer, who appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman" to express contrition for a racist tirade onstage Friday at the Laugh Factory.

The "Seinfeld" apology -- Seinfeld in studio with Dave, Richards via satellite from what appeared to be a therapist's waiting room in L.A., identified as Television City -- looked for all the world like a bit.

Indeed, the studio audience (at least those who, having queued up all afternoon for the Letterman taping, hadn't seen or heard about the cellphone video making the rounds on the Internet and cable TV) tittered and guffawed as Richards apologized for saying "some pretty nasty things to some Afro-Americans."

"Stop laughing; it's not funny," Seinfeld could be heard admonishing the audience.

"I'm not even sure this is where I should be addressing the situation," Richards said, referring to the unintentional laughs his deadpan was getting.

CBS was sure. The appearance was teased on the local news and then on "CBS Evening News With Katie Couric," with the "Late Show" getting its highest ratings since last year's Oprah visit, according to the network.

Richards did look properly in turmoil about it all, even though there was no way to avoid the uncomfortable spectacle of "The Late Show" having become some bizarro "Primetime Live." And here, perhaps, was the first recorded incident of the "Borat" effect: guerrilla comedy intertwining with reality until it's a shoelace you can't undo.

You couldn't exactly blame the studio audience, conditioned to think comedy first, reality second, for receiving it all as a gag. Richards, like Sacha Baron Cohen, is more intense character actor than stand-up, with the not-insignificant difference that Cohen's comedy is character-specific, a projection outward to get everyone's guard down and expose a bigoted culture, whereas Richards, if you see the video, was just projectile vomiting, revealing only his own lack of judgment on Friday night.

Naked without an alcohol problem to fall back on, Richards had to attempt a different kind of revisionism, casting the source of his outburst as some combination of bad improv and an anger-management issue. The latter was a risky disclosure that he then broadened to a societal condition (oh no) of corrosive trash-talking, "whether or not it's between me and a couple of hecklers in the audience or between this country and another nation."

Call it "Cultural Learnings of Kramer to Make Benefit Wounds of America."

Richards might be a bad stand-up, a racist pig or both: That wasn't where this interview was going to go. While I have not seen Richards' act, I have been to the Laugh Factory many times; it's a "Mind of Mencia" hotbed, where you can make fun of, say, the mentally retarded with impunity, and immigrant-on-immigrant insults are well within the rules of engagement.

Richards, though, was not only the victim of his stupidity and temper, he also got doubly stung by the speedy distribution of citizen video, which can turn a bad night onstage into the boss' potential problem.

Indeed, it was surprising at first that Seinfeld commented at all on the brewing scandal, because the comedian has never been political in his act and seems generally to dislike stepping outside the burnished world of his career to comment on current events.

To that end, the whole point of "Seinfeld" is that it's a timeless show about self-involvement and uncomfortable confrontation, unlike, say, fellow classics "MASH" or "All in the Family," which are timepieces, connected to sociopolitical eras of American history.

That Seinfeld was helping out a friend on a night when he was supposed to be plugging the DVD release of Season 7 of "Seinfeld" seemed, of course, less than coincidental. As Letterman noted, "Seinfeld" is one of a handful of sitcoms that will be running on TV as long as there is TV, which contextualized the Richards scandal as comparable to Fred Mertz of "I Love Lucy" showing up on YouTube.com in a candid moment, berating his gardener.

"I know how shattered he is about this," Seinfeld said of Richards. "He deserves a chance to apologize."

In the insular stand-up world Seinfeld still uses to define himself, the Richards incident would probably not have escaped the clique of comedians at the bar, waiting to go on. But audiences today have cellphone cameras and know how to use them.

On "The Late Show," Seinfeld also plugged a book called "I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America's Top Comics," a series of first-person stories about life in the trenches of the comedy club world. Seinfeld, who contributed the foreword, told of the night he had a glass thrown at him at Catch a Rising Star. It was a sweet story about the old days that Seinfeld told with ease, and everyone in the audience, you could tell, felt a little better afterward.

paul.brownfield@latimes.com

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