Monday, September 28, 2009

On recovery, rehabilitation and redemption

My last post on public image rehabilitation following moral lapses has had me thinking about Michael Richards’ quest to restore his name after a racist outburst at a comedy club in 2006.

Michael Richards played Kramer on Seinfeld for its entire run from 1990 to 1998, and was a key element of the ensemble show’s enormous appeal. The show, which its producers and stars insisted was “about nothing,” was nevertheless able to ridicule appalling social realities ranging from racism to homophobia, using a light but intelligent, comfortable, comedic environment.

That enlightened wit is part of what set Seinfeld apart from its peers, and what made Michael Richards’ racist tirade against a couple of comedy club hecklers particularly upsetting to some of his fans.

The cellphone video of Richards’ outburst was played ad nauseam in the days and weeks after it happened. I’m not posting it here; you can find it on YouTube if you’d like. What interests me from a PR perspective, though, is whether Richards has, in the three years since the incident, been able to live it down. Will his fans put it behind them when he joins the cast of Seinfeld for a reunion on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm this season?

Richards would appear to have done all the right things:

1) He quickly and (apparently, anyway) sincerely apologized for the outburst.

2) He did a number of appearances and interviews related to opening a dialogue about racism, notably Jesse Jackson’s syndicated radio program, Keep Hope Alive.

3) He disappeared for a while, presumably in the hopes of giving American audiences a chance to remember his decade of brilliant work more prominently than one evening’s outburst. (He may have had some help with this one – I’m not sure the offers continued to pour in in the immediate aftermath.)

But will it be enough?

When politicians are able to come back from sex scandals, I think it’s because their audiences accept their apologies, and consciously decide to accept that their politicians are capable of poor personal judgment. I think they also consciously decide that poor personal judgment has a limited impact on professional decisions – or, “he/she’s not perfect, but I can accept these flaws because they’re not related to what I need him/her to do for me.”

When celebrities spew hate speech, it can be more difficult to separate the personal behaviour from the job they do; their job is to entertain us, and it can be harder to be entertained by someone you think is a jerk.

With the Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm this season, it'll be interesting to see whether audiences are able to get past Michael Richards' one terrible night – or at least, believe that’s all it was. As Extra reported, Larry David, creator of both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, indicated that even three years later, Richards wanted to address the issue on the show:

"He wanted to," David explained when asked if Richards felt comfortable addressing the drama onscreen. "He made a terrible mistake." David added that Richards deserves a second chance after being shunned in Tinseltown the past three years."

Is racism a tarnish that can be polished away over time? We'll see.

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