Seinfeld tries to help Kramer one more time with the power of purpose

Comedian Michael Richards blew up his career one night in 2006 when he lashed out with a racist tirade in response to hecklers at his comedy act. There are small moments of emotional hijack – where the amygdala overrides the thinking part of the brain and strikes out – and there are big moments. This was a BIG moment, caught on camera, immediately ending any post-Seinfeld career for Richards. And taking a man from beloved Kramer to despised and reviled racist.

A decade later, his old friend Jerry Seinfeld had him on his show Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, in hopes of helping him out. It was sad to see how damaged Richards is from his self-inflicted hijack. He had a wig and sunglasses to disguise himself in public. He must have gotten a lot of abuse returned to him in public over the years, and you could see both the shame and the armor he puts up to protect himself.

At one point, Jerry said something meaningful and it broke through the armor. 

Michael: “You know those performers who just love it? It was always a struggle with me.”

Jerry: “No, no, no. I don’t accept the judging of process. We’re all trying to get to the same island. Whether you swim, fly, surf, or sky-dive in, it doesn’t matter. What matters is when the red light comes on.”

Michael: “Sometimes I look back on the show and think I should have enjoyed myself more.” 

Jerry: “I could say that myself. But that was not our job. Our job is not for us to enjoy. Our job is to make sure they enjoy it. And that’s what we do.”

Michael: “Oh, that’s beautiful. Because I think I work selfishly and not selflessly. It’s not about me, it’s about them. Now that’s a lesson I learned when I blew it in the comedy club. I lost my temper because somebody interrupted my act and said some things that hurt me and I lashed out in anger. I busted up. It broke me down. I should have been working selflessly that evening. It was a selfish response. 

I took it too personally and I should have just said: ‘Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I’m not funny. I think I’ll go home and work on my material and I’ll see you tomorrow night. But – you know – it was just one of those nights. And thanks for sticking by me. It meant a lot to me. But inside it still kicks me around.”

Jerry: “That’s up to you. That’s up to you to say, ‘I’ve been carrying this bag long enough. I’m going to put it down.’”

Michael: “Yeah…yeah.”

This is the cost of a deficit of emotional intelligence. The darkness that Richards made public lives in all of our brains hoping to assert itself in its own way. The cost of not being able to manage your emotions is steep – everything we’ve worked for can be taken away in a moment of emotional heat. We’ve all done and said things we regretted. And the news gleefully points out public meltdowns daily. And that one moment can lead to a lifetime of regret.

There are many paths to avoid this trap. I outline many in emotional intelligence team development trainings. But Jerry and ‘Kramer’ show us one to try today. Selfless or selfish, who are we working for? What’s the purpose to all this? Everything we do in some way either helps or hinders others, and we either notice this or not. Start with small moments to escape your very own ‘career-ending emotional hijack’. And use those small moments by reorienting the focus from you to them. 

Get clear about the job as defined by Jerry. Make sure they enjoy it. Make sure they are served. Make sure we’re helping, not hurting, all day, all life.

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