Giving in to your impulses is a good way to start a posting, but it’s a lousy way to finish it
It was the greatest feeling: Blogging. Vrooooom! An idea struck me and with nary a thought I had posted it on the Intrenet. Fifteen minutes, at best, from conceptualization to birth.
And therein lay my lesson.
In addition to posting randomly on newsthinking.com, I am a contributor to a nifty Los Angeles-centric site called laobserved.com, administered by former L.A. Times reporter and editor Kevin Roderick. A few months ago Kevin recruited a dozen or so unpaid contributors, myself included, to blog on his site when the notion struck us. He calls this part of his site Native Intelligence.
I posted a few entries at the start, but then got caught up in other projects and had not blogged on Kevin’s site for probably four weeks when The Funny Idea struck.
It was a couple nights after Michael Richards had made himself more famous as a Klansman than a comedian by firing off the N-word at some black hecklers in a comedy club. I figured Richards would soon do what so many celebs do when they are found to be lacking good sense: They find a way to claim righteous motivation sabotaged by poor execution.
And so, figuring I’d beat reality to the punch, I typed a letter from a made-up crisis-management P.R. agency to Richards:
November 21, 2006
From: Elliot Forget, senior partner, Dodge & Retreat Consulting
To: Michael Richards
Re: Your follow-up apology
Dear Mr. Richards,
In response to your phone call today expressing a desire for “a broader, more populist response to the unfortunate incident,” I have drafted the following. We suggest releasing it to the media at 10 a.m. Wednesday so that its broadcast on Thanksgiving Eve and publication on Thanksgiving Day will draw greater exposure at a time of year when media are desperate for news.
We propose releasing the following in your name:
I regret not presenting a fuller description and historical context of my actions during my performance at the Laugh Factory. What I did was intended to mimic a cutting-edge and courageous routine that Lenny Bruce performed in the early 1960s and wrote about. Lennie, always a major influence of mine in the way my “Kramer” character on “Seinfeld” interacted with minorities, decided to destroy the N-word by overinflating it–repeating it over and over again until it lost its capacity to sting.
Let me recall Lenny’s routine for you fully, substituting a triple asterisk for the N-word:
“Are there any ***s here tonight? Could you turn on the house lights, please, and could the waiters and waitresses just stop serving, just for a second? And turn off this spot. Now what did he say? ‘Are there any ***s here tonight?’ I know there’s one ***, because I see him back there working. Let’s see, there’s two ***s. And between those two ***s sits a kike. And there’s another kike–that’s two kikes and three ***s. And there’s a spic. Right? Hmm? There’s another spic. Ooh, there’s a wop; there’s a polack; and, oh, a couple of greaseballs. And there’s three lace-curtain Irish micks. And there’s one, hip, thick, hunky, funky, boogie. Boogie boogie. Mm-hmm. I got three kikes here, do I hear five kikes? I got five kikes, do I hear six spics, I got six spics, do I hear seven ***s? I got seven ***s. Sold American. I pass with seven ***s, six spics, five micks, four kikes, three guineas, and one wop.
Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: If President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, “I would like to introduce you to all the ***s in my cabinet,” and if he’d just say ‘*** *** *** *** ***’ to every *** he saw, ‘boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie,’ ‘*** *** *** *** ***’ ’til *** didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a *** at school.”
This was what my tirade at the Laugh Factory was supposed to conjure. I realized, as I accidentally dropped the first so-called N-bomb, that a vast opportunity was opening up to me–that what Lenny did in the early 1960s, I could do at this moment. I could defuse this horrible verbal stain. I could rob it of its power to demean and hurt.
Apparently we live in a different world now because the audience and media reaction created a backlash, forcing me to issue a transparent apology on the Letterman Show, an apology that failed–and this was my fault–to show the historical roots of what was dismissed by too many people as a tirade by a racist. And I am not a racist. I am an artist with a conscience. I’m sure Lenny would agree. I am an artist who seeks only to be judged, as Doctor King said, by the content of my character.
- – - – - -
Except I did one thing differently. I didn’t have Richards’ mock written statement substitute a triple asterisk for the N-word. I typed the N-word 23 times, the same number of times Lenny Bruce used it in his routine. I thought about substituting asterisks, but shook it off immediately–hell, this was the Internet! Everybody knows this is the jungle! I sent a copy of the piece to a friend who laughed at it. Then I hit the “Send” key and, with no further thought, my satire was loaded onto laobserved.com.
The next day I received an e-mail from a reporter I have known for more than a quarter-century, informing me that my posting was neither insightful nor humorous, but, rather, a gratuitous use of the most hurtful word in the English language. He suggested, without saying it in so many words, that I should have known better.
The next day I talked to this reporter. He asked me: Suppose you’d written that as an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times? What would the copy editor have said? How would you have defended yourself?
But that’s the great thing about the Internet, I responded: You don’t have to ask anybody else’s opinion. You just type and–vroooooom!!–lights out, baby. I said it sardonically, because I already knew I’d made a mistake in juddgment. I’d been seduced by the ethos of blogging without thinking–of speed over substance. And here’s the worst part of it, which I confessed to my reporter/friend: I didn’t want to devote very much introspection to this stunt because I was desperate to find something to blog on after four weeks without a posting.
An hour later I went to the web site and spiked my piece.
I don’t expect to go to Hell for any of this. But it was an eye-opening experience for an old fart like me who scoffs at the superficial and transitory and sophomoric writing that often passes for journalism in Blogland. Giving in to your impulses is a good way to start a story, but it’s a lousy way to finish it. That old-fashioned collective experience–the newsroom, the place where you can ask a podmate to stand up, look at your screen and offer a quick verdict on your lead, the place where those picky copy editors insist on challenging you–has a lot to be said for it.