Michael Richard: Unconscious Racism
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The controversial remarks made recently by comedian Michael Richard during a stand-up performance at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood have reignited sensitive issues of race and racism in America. Though Richard maintains that his comments were simply a matter of comedic improvisation, a lawsuit has been filed by the alleged targets of his on-stage tirade, the specifics of which seem overtly racist, as well as insulting to the parties in question.
While offering an apology for the incident during a closed-circuit appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, Richard attempted to explain his comments in light of his on-stage, improvisational technique. ““It may have happened. It may have happened. You know, I’m a performer. I push the envelope, I work in a very uncontrolled manner onstage. I do a lot of free association, it’s spontaneous, I go into character. I don’t know, in view of the situation and the act going where it was going, I don’t know, the rage did go all over the place.”
Richard’s reference to “free association” begs the question of whether or not, and despite claims of performance anxiety or extemporaneous comedic composition, the comic harbors an unconscious racism and violence toward minorities: specifically, African Americans. Richard freely admits the “rage” component of his tirade, which was allegedly incited by the heckling of his act by either a single African American, a group of African Americans in the audience. Prior to examining the potential clinical, psychological motivations and explanation for his outburst, a summation of his remarks should be given.
The most startlingly racist comment made by Richard recalled the “Jim Crow” and lynching eras of American history: ““Fifty years ago we would’ve had you upside down with a f***** fork up your a**” The expletives here mark Richard’s uncontrolled fury were quickly embellished by the repetitive use of the most racially charged word in the English language:
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“Throw his ass out. He’s a N*****. He’s a n*****. He’s a n*****.” Shortly thereafter, Richard remarked ““That’s what happens when you interrupt the white man. Don’t you know?” And finally, seeming to realize his horrible mistake, he remarked: “They’re gong to arrest me for calling a black man a n******.”
Freudian psychology makes ample provision for the type of free-associative humor that Richard claims to have been offering during his act. Richard himself, during his outburst, gave an indication that his free-association may have revealed a hitherto repressed racism when he said to the audience: “It shocks you. It shocks you to see what’s buried underneath you stupid mother f***** s.”
Freud noted that jokes, as well as errors and mistakes, are often thinly-masked projections of repressed emotion or desire; “Goethe said of Lichtenberg: “Where he cracks a joke, there lies a concealed problem.” Similarly we can affirm of these passages cited from my book: back of every error is a repression. More accurately stated: the error conceals a falsehood, a disfigurement which is ultimately based on repressed material. (Freud 251) In the case of Richard, it would seem his tirade gave vent to repressed hatred and condescension to racial minorities, specifically African Americans. His allusion to the history of lynching as well as his repeated use of sobriquets and racially charged insults point to a diminished sense of self-worth which according to Freud occasions an inflation of the ego, which accordingly sought release and power through the vocalized insults and violence. “Humor is a way of expressing human needs in a socially accepted manner. In Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious ( 1905), Freud wrote about the ways humor can deal with social taboos. The two great social taboos are aggression and sexuality, and most humor expresses needs in these two areas”(Ziv x).
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In America, racist humor has been a long-accepted tradition of institutionalized prejudice and racism, through humor, often has given release to feelings of powerlessness or fear that the racial majority (white) projects onto those of different racial or cultural backgrounds. “Racist humor has been popular because it makes the joke teller feel smart and therefore superior. For the majority, it relieves tensions and fears over whether the newcomers will compete for the best housing and jobs. In some ways it keeps these dreaded events from occurring because by passing on the prejudices of one generation to another it keeps minorities “in their place.” (Ziv 159)
In the case of Richard, it seems obvious that his racially charged tirade partakes of a repressed feeling of powerlessness and diminished self-worth, perhaps stemming form his downwardly spiraling career. When one the victims of his verbal assault remarked that Richard was finished as performer that he wasn’t funny and that he would never be on television again, Richard responded with a line that is probably the most perceptive statement he made that night, corroborating the theory that a diminished self-esteem paved the way for his prejudicial monologue: “I’m just a wash-up. Gotta stand on the stage.”
Freud, Sigmund. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. New York: Macmillan, 1916.
Ziv, Avner, ed. National Styles of Humor. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.