Wednesday, November 22, 2006

KKKramer's tirade

Who would have guessed that Mel Gibson and Michael Richards (aka Kramer) were the charter members of Hollywood's chapter of the KKK? Mel tried to bury his bigotry with woeful tales of a life long battle with alcohol but a blood alcohol analysis revealed that Mel was not drunk enough to justify hitting on Star Jones, let alone deliver a blistering anti-semitic tantrum. Mel was just buzzed enough to be put off at being hassled by the cops. He was outraged that his popularity had waned and in the midst of his anger he allowed his deep-seated venom to spew. Jews! He wasn't drunk, he threw a pampered celebrity tizzy that escalated into Mein Kampf. Even if you give Mel a pass, the fact that his father offered an impromptu history lesson on the Holocaust reaveals that Mel comes from a long line of bigots.

Michael Richards can't hide behind the booze. The washed up doofus who stumbled into temporary super stardom on the hit sitcom Seinfeld has been desperately trying to find a market for his talent which is rather limited. The talent and the market. The iron was hot about six years ago, now the series is losing its luster in syndication. Game over, Mike.

Unlike the rest of the cast, Richards was a nobody before he got a part in a fledgling sitcom many thought would bomb. It was a side project for Jerry and an easy, no risk gig for Dreyfus and Alexander as both had established themselves as capable actors. Seinfeld might have made them rich beyond their wildest dreams but they had rubbed elbows with big stars and had solid credentials. Richards had a bit part in a Weird Al film. Even though his counterparts have struggled to capitalize on the fame their roles in the greatest sitcom ever provided, Alexander and Dreyfus have been granted numerous opportunities to carry on and seem content to call Seinfeld the pinnacle of their careers. Richards had one shot in a poorly conceived show that shamelessly tried to rehash the slapstick aspect of Kramer and nothing since.

It's ironic. The brilliant physical comedy that Richards used to propel a peripheral character into a primary role has been the bane of the actor's career since the show ended its run. Without that shtick Kramer would have been a semi-recurring character along the lines of Wayne Knight's Neuman, but Richards is forever typecast as a character who lacks the depth to carry a show.

So Richards, desperate to stay viable, opted to roll the dice and give stand up a shot. He generated genuine laughs on the show, so why not clown around on stage? The problem is that on TV the real geniuses (if the show is good) are in a back room writing the jokes and layering the comedy. Richards executed his role with brilliant comedic precision but without writers and directors to hone his performance, capturing that same magic is difficult if not impossible. For an actor who spent the better part of a decade riding a wave of enormous singular popularity, the downward spiral of anonymity is painful. Nobody wants to be a has been.

Michael Richards took the stage full of anger, resentment and desperation. He was up there trying take back his fame, laughter was secondary. When members of the audience called him out for the washed up hack he has become, Richards snapped and let loose a string of racial epithets directed at the African Americans who allegedly heckled him.

Mind you, this wasn't a Don Rickles type of rant where racial epithets are bandied about in jest. Richards seemed to lament the passing of the era where black men were hung from trees and tortured by white oppressors. Funny would have been racially-charged jokes about black people not watching Seinfeld. Funny would have been having enough cultural awareness to drop a few Martin Lawrence references. Really funny would be taking the high road and employing a little self-deprecating humor about being a one trick pony. Jon Stewart mines his less than stellar acting career for big laughs every other night.

Richards and Mel Gibson went beyond the reaches of anger and revealed an ugly side of their personalities. At least Richards has a plausible reason for launching into a racial tirade...the hecklers were black. Had he limited his outburst to a quick epithet and moved on an apology would be sufficient but Richards elaborated and revealed a social philosophy. Michael Richards doesn't like black people. That makes him a racist. There's a big difference between calling somebody a nigger and telling them that 50 years ago they would have been hanging from a tree.

Sadly, this is another example of how deep-seated the racial problem is in this country. If the guy who played Kramer is harboring such unmitigated hatred toward blacks and Mel Gibson is sitting on a powder keg of anti-Semitism we have to assume that its a rampant problem. How many business owners feel the same way?

Even if these people make an effort to suspend their bigotry in public exchanges these feelings will have an impact on their daily decisions. That means a guy like Mel Gibson is going to subconsciously find faults in a Jewish applicant while he overlooks flaws in a Christian candidate. Michael Richards will cut a white employee slack for being 10 minutes late but come down on the black one for violating the attendance policy.

There's not much we can do about it. Mel Gibson is who he is because he was raised in a culture of anti-Semitism and as an adult he has chosen to foster those feelings. Michael Richards is one of those angry white guys who sees the leveling of the playing field as an infringement on his rights. Both of these men resent the object of their rage. When Mel Gibson sees Jon Stewart and Billy Crystal hosting the Oscars he believes that it is an example of the tremendous power Jews have in Hollywood. When Michael Richards sees Dave Chappelle inking a 100 million dollar deal to perform bad sketch comedy he thinks it's because of affirmative action.

Guys like Mike and Mel see the world in US verses THEM terms. They don't want to accept that beyond race, culture and creed we are all just people and there is an extensive amount of common ground that can be exploited for personal gain in the entertainment field. Gibson could have enlisted the assistance of Hebrew theologians to consult with him on Passion. Richards could have combined comedy and his experience in Hollywood to probe the depths of racism in the casting office. While the success both have attained demonstrates that these men aren't exactly idiots, they are just ignorant enough to let their prejudice trip up their careers.

Racism is alive, well and a lot closer to home than anybody cares to admit.

Monday, November 13, 2006

What Americans Fear.

Al Jazeera.

What comes to mind when you see that name? Most Americans immediately think of terrorists and raving fundamentalists. That might be because most Americans can't tell you the difference between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda. Those who know that Al Jazeera is actually an Arab news network mistakenly characterize it as a propaganda tool of extremists. Apparently American military strategists see it as easy pickings. Al Jazeera has had its offices bombed by American forces. Twice. Oops.

Ironically it's the extremists who seem to despise Al Jazeera the most. While certain totalitarian-leaning western conservatives believe that Al Jazeera expresses a view that is sympathetic to Al Qaeda, it's the fundamentalist leaders of Islamic nations who see Al Jazeera as a serious threat to their power. Funded primarily by the progressive emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Al Jazeera provides the Arab world unrestricted access to information, a thorn in the side of zealous leaders who relish complete control over their people. Knowledge is power and once a despot loses control of the information, he loses control of the people. Even though Al Jazeera's reporters infuriate western leaders by getting close to suspected terrorists who elude international authorities, the journalists seem motivated by a desire to offer the other side of the story. A side that most Americans don't want to hear.

Al Jazeera represents hope...the hope that the West and the Middle East aren't as divided by culture and creed as many believe. Organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda don't see themselves as terrorists but as liberators who are fighting an enemy too powerful to confront by traditional means. While no westerner in his right mind could justify the attacks perpetrated by these organizations, the fact remains that there are people in other parts of the world who can. Al Jazeera offers some insight into the circumstances people in these parts of the world face and that understanding can help us find find common ground. It's worth pointing out that it wasn't all that long ago British leaders described Colonial militants as terrorists. Our history books list those same men as patriots. Perspective is a funny thing.

Assuming that Al Qaeda is alone in despising American influence throughout the Middle East is undoubtedly erroneous but concluding that everybody in the Middle East wants all Americans dead is preposterous. We're being arrogant if we actually believe that Osama Bin Laden is out to get us because he disapproves of Desperate Housewives and bacon, the reality is that his issue is the heavy-handed manner in which the west has treated the Middle East. Al Jazeera simply communicates that point. Just because they present a side of the story we don't like doesn't mean they aren't unbiased.

Al Jazeera simply offers a global perspective that isn't readily available through domestic outlets. Even though CNN makes an effort to be worldly and the BBC has an uncanny knack for digging up hard to find news items from around the world, western networks are prone to self-aggrandizing and the story often gets lost in egos of those reporting the news. Christiane Amanpour is a prime example of an international reporter who has allowed her personality to become bigger than the news. We need a fresh perspective.

Al Jazeera recently opened up a Washington Bureau and will be launching an English language broadcast later this week. In spite of massive efforts to find outlets in the US, most cable providers have been reluctant to pick up the channel. It's ironic that a country so proud of its free press would see fit to stifle a voice simply because of ignorant misconceptions. The CEO's will offer up financial concerns as the reason they won't pick up Al Jazeera. They'll claim that there isn't enough of a market to justify offering up a channel, but with space being made for inane offerings like ESPN U and VH1 Classic, it would appear that barring Al Jazeera has more to do with good old fashioned American bigotry than it does free market economics.

Al Jazeera provides information.

What are we afraid of?