Michael Richards Lost the Funny
By Ritch Shydner

In defense of Michael Richards, he just wasn't a very good standup comedian. I use the past tense because other than performing at biker rallies and Idaho survivalist compounds, his standup career is probably finished.

Michael is a very funny comedic actor, but standup requires a different skill set. The standup comic writes, performs, directs, and edits while controlling a room full of strangers, all of whom are ingesting various amounts of stimulants and depressants. Some nights the comic forms a mind meld with the crowd, floating on waves of laughter. Other nights the standup can't find the level of the room, laboring over jagged laughs. One night he's surfing. The next night, mountain climbing. And this despite going onstage with material or props. Michael always seemed to roam the stage hoping for the Gods of Standup to strike him funny. His act was not much more than an invitation to heckle.

Like baseball's high inside fastball, heckling is a rough but accepted part of the game of standup comedy. On that fateful night in L.A., Michael Richards struck out, threw the bat at the pitcher, then pulled out a gun and shot the umpire and a few fans.

Standup comedy is different from other performing arts such as theater or music. In those the audience is a passive observer. It's nice if the audience is appreciative, but actually the show can go on without them. If the crowd is lame, the band can just crank up the amps and play for their own enjoyment.

In standup comedy the audience is part of the band. What's more, every night the standup must perform with a different band, for the first and only time. No auditions. No rehearsals. Just do the show. The crowd's participation, the laughter, is required for the show to proceed. No laughter, no show.

Most heckling is simply the other members in the band wanting to know if you're alive and in the moment, or just phoning it in, reciting the same jokes in the same order every night. The test is usually a friendly shout-out from the darkness and a soft jab, "Hey, man. Love you." Any snappy comeback will get laughs and the right to move on, "I love you too. Now go wait in the truck."

There are those hecklers who come at the comedian with intentions to disrupt. Whether drunk or sober, the poor fools don't realize they're walking into an ambush. The comic has the microphone, the stage and a bag of stock putdowns - "Is this what happens when first cousins marry?" A nimble standup can quickly conjure an original line to dispatch a challenger. In our just published book I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America's Top Comics, comedian Natasha Leggero tells of the night someone yelled, "Uh, don't you think you're a little attractive to be a comedian?" Natasha answered, "Don't you think you're a little ugly to be talking to me?" It was a clean blow, leaving nothing but laughter and a suddenly meek opponent. The crowd relaxed, secure in the knowledge they were in the hands of a pro.

Possibly the most insidious form of heckling is the audience talking among themselves. They've given up on the comedian and quit the band. Nothing kills a joke as brutally as indifference. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld from his introduction to our book, "In a room of several hundred people, only one person gets the lights and the microphone, so he or she had better justify that arrangement real quick, or there's going to be trouble." Most comedians have about a minute from the moment they take the microphone to get a laugh. A name comedian, like Michael Richards, might get another thirty seconds of grace time before the audience gets antsy. But celebrity or not, if someone's up there yapping and the audience isn't laughing then discomfort will flood the room faster than a thunderstorm fills a rat hole.

Whether he was actively heckled, or ignored for not being funny, Michael Richards committed the comic's mortal sin: he lost his temper. Acting angry can be funny; actually expressing anger onstage is worse than surrender. It poisons the room. As soon as he felt the adrenalin rev his anger, Michael should have retreated from the stage, cutting his losses to clown another day. But when anger shows, reason goes. So, instead of passing the microphone to a fresh joker, Michael decided to enter the last circle of comedy hell by spraying racial epithets like air kisses at the Oscars.

At one point in Michael's piece of anti-comedy, it looked like he tried to turn his anger into a bit about hurtful words. Instead he gave a demonstration of how words can hurt. The art of standup comedy is so ephemeral, such a fragile magic. It's impossible to pinpoint why an audience finds one person funnier than another. Plenty of hard working, conscientious practitioners have mysteriously lost the touch. Michael tossed his composure away in a fit. He lost the funny and may never find it again.

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