TMZ’s expletive-laden clip of Seinfeld alum Michael Richards’ weekend set at The Laugh Factory is, in a word, upsetting. (Click here to see it.) From what I can tell, there’s not really a “joke” (or a setup to a joke) anywhere in sight, just the comic best known as “Kramer” spouting the N-word and engaging in increasingly belligerent banter with his audience before finally walking off the stage. What’s depressing to me — beyond the obvious ick factor of watching a popular comic actor spewing racial epithets — is how, potentially, this ugly incident might pay off for Richards, an actor whose career has sagged mightily since his Seinfeld glory days. Think I’m crazy? Try this scenario on for size.

Richards performs his despicable routine, and of course, it’s videotaped. Footage gets quickly distributed throughout the blogosphere (hi, PopWatch!), and eventually winds up on six o’clock newscasts everywhere. Richards’ publicist releases a statement saying the actor’s remarks were taken out of context, or, as my colleague Dalton Ross is guessing, that said remarks were meant to “‘challenge people to think about racial stereotypes’…or some crap like that.” By the weekend, there’ll be the inevitable trip to rehab, for addiction to alcohol or painkillers or racial slurs. Next up, a “ripped from the headlines” episode of Law & Order (and maybe a flavor of CSI, too), followed — just in time for February sweeps — by the Conciliatory Interview Tour of Larry King, Diane Sawyer, Today, and (if she’ll have him), Oprah. Sure, there’ll be plenty of folks who won’t ever buy what Richards is selling, but if the goal is to be talked about, to get his name back in the limelight (and on the lips of even a handful of casting directors), won’t Richards end up further ahead, career wise, than he was last Friday morning?

addCredit(“Michael Richards: Mike Guastella/”)

I’m not sure what the solution is here, either. If you watch theclip of Richards’ set, it’s hard to avoid discussing it, to express toa friend or a colleague or a family member (or a blog message board)how upsetting it is to hear that kind of language coming from a publicfigure. It can’t just be ignored. But on the other hand, if buzz (good,bad, or repulsive) is the endgame, couldn’t we be on the cusp of a daywhen publicists plan hate-speech incidents or assaults on servicepeople as last-ditch attempts at salvaging careers? If Naomi Campbellslaps her assistant, and no one hears it, does she have to punch hertwice as hard the next time around?

Then again, maybe I’m overreacting. As my colleague Jeff Jensenpoints out, playing devil’s advocate, “we’re mulling coverage of anout-of-context piece of videophone film, which is certainly offensiveon its own, but is also posted on a celeb gossip site with a deeplyinvested interest in capturing famous people at their worst. It wasalso recorded at a comedy club, where ‘comedians’ say the darndestthings all the time, and often blur the lines between performance andreality. Do we have any idea of the full context of the routine, ifRichards uses audience plants, or if Richards is the kind of comedianwith a performance-art background and an interest in the power oflanguage and Borat-esque audience engagement and all that avant gardestuff? Because I want to say when I did a piece on his ill-fated sitcoma couple years ago, that came up. It could very well that the worst sinRichards has committed here is performing a comedy act that just didn’twork.”

Interesting stuff to think about, PopWatchers. I leave it to you to continue the discussion.