Howard Stern had a fascinating interview this morning with comic Paul Mooney, who, along with Richard Pryor, took some credit for popularizing and, they hoped desensitizing the use of the N-word. After Michael Richards’ implosion, Mooney has given up the word, saying that he and others held some responsibility for Richards. He also said that he spent a few hours meeting with Richards and Jesse Jackson in the redemption tour. What scared Richards most, he said, was when white people came up to him saying they agreed with him. Mooney said he has known Richards for 20 years and that what we saw on that camera-phone video was not a shtick gone out of control but a mental breakdown. He also said that Mel Gibson was the A-bomb and Richard is the fallout. Stern and Mooney recalled when Pryor came back from a trip to Africa and foreswore the word. Mooney was there that night and still used it. But no more.
I’ve been thinking that the dividing line has been not just the word and not just the race of the speaker but instead irony. When Pryor and Mooney and hip-hop artists used the word, they used it with obvious irony. When Richards used it, he had none. We Americans are often accused — usually by our witty British cousins — of being deaf to irony and that’s generally true.