Tue Nov 21 2006
The Late Show with David Letterman is taped seven hours before it airs, but that didn't prevent Michael Richards's live-via-satellite apology for his now legendary onstage meltdown from being an amazing piece of spontaneous, unscripted television. We've become so accustomed to celebrities delivering trite, scripted mea culpas when they screw up in public that Richards's transparent discomfort made it hard to watch his statement without wincing. It also made it obvious that his request for forgiveness was entirely sincere.L'Affaire Richards may someday be seen as a classic case study in crisis-management PR: The video of his n-word-laden tirade was posted by TMZ.com around 8:30am Monday morning EST and was watercooler-conversation topic No. 1 at offices up and down the East Coast well before noon. Richards appeared on camera to make the apology at around 6pm EST—3pm in L.A.—and the segment was broadcast circa midnight. CBS didn't have time to mount the promotional push it might have liked (a sweeps-week win over Jay Leno would have been mighty sweet), but it did its best—the media didn't get a press release confirming the apology would be on The Late Show until 9:16pm, but video of Richards's statement was cannily made available to local news producers (themselves eager to rack up major sweeps numbers) in time for 11pm newscasts nationwide—many of them on stations affiliated with CBS's rivals—to include a de facto commercial for The Late Show.
Richards's apology was rolled into a previously scheduled interview of his old buddy Jerry Seinfeld, which served as a reminder that more than Richards's rep was at stake: Jerry was on the show to flack for the season 7 DVD release of Seinfeld, in stores today, which Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has sunk a gazillion bucks of advertising into, hoping for huge holiday gift sales. A hypothetical consumer boycott if Richards's apology didn't cut it would have cost a lot of people a lot of money, and while I'm sure Richards wanted to apologize, doing so as quickly and publicly as he did probably wasn't his idea.
Early reaction to Richards's statement has been a mite on the uncharitable side—some have pointed at his contrite use of the now-archaic term "Afro-American" as proof of insincerity (personally I just think it proves he's a 57-year-old guy who came of age when the phrase was considered appropriate). His rambling, occasionally inarticulate apology wasn't the kind of thing a guy trying to protect a potential windfall would deliver—it's what a man who'd been publicly humiliated before an audience of millions would do, and the evident depth of his shame and embarrassment made it far more affecting than the vast majority of celebrity mea culpas—in addition to making it too clear by comparison that his former costar's interview with Dave was entirely plastic and scripted.
While we're at it, TMZ deserve a hearty Bronx cheer for removing the profanity from Richards's tirade while leaving in the racist insults. If it wanted to gain publicity by letting broadcast news outlets show the clip, it should have let those guys bleep out the cussing themselves. The FCC doesn't have jurisdiction over the Internet, and if we can't find things like the Richards video in uncensored form online then, if you'll allow us a five-year-old joke, the terrorists will have won.