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Falling Up

Michael Richards pratfalls his way to fame and fortune as "Seinfeld's" Cosmo Kramer.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 1)

"I had about 22 plays under my belt, so when I came into that environment the whole thing looked a little bit ridiculous to me, people sitting there drinking and smoking and talking while you're up there performing. I'm used to the theater where people get dressed up, they come, they sit down, they behave themselves. Nobody's talking, certainly not smoking or burping while you're up there. But I was a clown. I've always had that side to me. It was a time where Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman and Billy Crystal and Letterman and Leno were all working for free. When I began, no one was getting paid. And I worked every night for nine months. I knew that if the light was bright enough, every moth in town would appear, so I just went into the clubs and worked, and sure enough all the cards would show up. I just played along with it and poured myself into the experience."

Billy Crystal gave him his first paying job on the "Billy Crystal Special" on HBO in 1979. Richards then met Larry David, who eventually became one of the creative forces behind "Seinfeld," when he joined the short-lived ABC comedy series "Fridays." Many of the characters that Richards played in "Fridays" were born on the stages of the comedy clubs in Los Angeles.

After "Fridays" was canceled in 1982, Richards found himself at a creative, and personal, crossroads. "When I came off of 'Fridays' I found myself going back to stand-up, thinking that in order to stay funny I had to stay in that environment. That was making me a little nuts. I would get up on stage and try to start something and I just didn't want to be there. I was going dark inside and I was acting dark on stage and I was starting to get laughs by being dark and it scared me. I pulled completely out of going in that direction. I always had a love for Red Skelton and the traditionalists and classic comedy and the actor in me. I went over to the Mark Taper Forum and played the villain in Wild Oats and then I did the world premiere of Arthur Miller's American Clock. So I was back in my element, theater. And I wanted to get better as an actor, so I studied with Stella Adler. I had seen a lot of stand-up comics have projects built around a persona that they had been holding onto for years. These comics couldn't adjust to written material. They weren't actors. I found myself through the theater and developed there." So his creative path, which started in the theater and then moved to the comedy clubs, eventually found its way back to the stage. In addition to classes with Adler, Richards studied directing with Joanne Linville.

Because "Seinfeld" has become such a cultural icon, it is easy to forget that Michael Richards has a film résumé as well. He played the much-operated-on would-be assassin in Young Doctors In Love in 1982; a wonderfully broad, comedic villain in 1990's Problem Child; and the gentle, if mentally unstable, uncle in 1995's Unstrung Heroes, directed by Diane Keaton. His latest comedy, Trial and Error costarring Jeff Daniels, was released this summer.

So far, the only big surprise in Michael Richards' life is the overwhelming success of "Seinfeld." "If you look at my body of work, you'll see 18 years in television. Three television shows, six television pilots and 30 guest starring roles. And nine movies. So you see, it's just that 31 million people have been tuning in every week to a project that I have been in for eight years. And it's not only about the Kramer character. It's also about George and Julia and Jerry and Peterman and Newman. They are all elements of the reason that 31 million people watch the show. The whole 'Seinfeld' experience has been one huge surprise to me. And I'm grateful that the audience has come to enjoy the work that I do. I was always the most pessimistic of the group. Jerry was the most optimistic. He was always convinced that what we were all doing was brilliant. He was always sure that we were going to be the number one show. He was always sure that we were going to be picked up. He always said, 'You're going to have so much money that you're not going to know what to do with it.' He anticipated it all. The better time slot, everything. He was probably shaking inside the entire time, but he did it all with his persistency. I've hit the jackpot with the 'Seinfeld' show; I'm financially very secure now, and it allows me the opportunity to think about returning to the stage. It will be really nice to not worry about the money and just do theater. Roles that make me climb down into the depths of the human being. O'Neill, Williams."

Even though Richards is about to enter his ninth season on the show, with two Emmys and two Screen Actor Guild awards gracing his mantelpiece, he is still able to see creative hurdles ahead. He is looking forward to creating new acting challenges on "Seinfeld," he says, "as long as I feel alive and creative in this character each week in the scripts I get, and there is still room for all kinds of routines I pull. I am developing a kind of comedic styling from working with the Kramer character. It is a vehicle for the kind of comedy I do. I don't just play one character. The body of work has shown that. But I have devoted eight years to building Kramer. I have succeeded in bringing that character into the American psyche and that comes from craft and know-how." Even though Kramer has become his signature piece, he is not worried about being typecast. "Robin Williams was Mork until he got Garp. Popeye didn't help him break out of Mork and neither did Moscow on the Hudson. Now we don't think of him as Mork, or even as Mrs. Doubtfire--we think of him as an actor who can play a lot of different characters. Right now, I'm in the groove of doing this and everyone thinks I'm Kramer."

Comedy has always come naturally to Richards. "I can get to the comedic impulse a little faster than in drama. That's where I usually want to know why I'm angry or toting a gun or why I'm at odds with life. So I think there's a lot more mental work involved when I do the drama. When I do comedy, I'm more physical. It's a way in which you come through the door, it's a way in which you slip off of a couch, it's a way in which you can pick up an item and make it funny. There's a way you can make a gesture funny. And that is what I'm always after, and when I don't get it I feel like I have disappointed my audience." He takes his role of the clown quite seriously. "The clown is to help people get along with their own personal plots in life. The clown is there to lighten the load. I felt the clown, quite organically, when I was in the Army. And my clown always comes up under those dire circumstances. The clowns that have the greatest impact on me have been the most sensitive to the human predicament, like Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx, Red Skelton. These were clowns that possessed great sensitivity and a great heart. There's comedy. That is what comedy is here to tell you, that there's always a tear in the eye."

Traces of Keaton, Chaplin and Marx are present in all of Richards' work, and his respect and knowledge of the comedic greats is apparent. He is also well acquainted with the possible comedic implications of a cigar. Pulling out old books on classic comedians, taking videotapes out of his library, Richards uses both words and pictures to illustrate his point. "Chaplin has influenced me not so much for his skits and antics, but because he was using comedy to find the heart," Richards notes. "City Lights is a masterpiece to open up the eyes and the soul to the heart. I'm not sure how conscious Chaplin was about what he was doing, but in City Lights Chaplin used a cigar delicately, to enhance himself as a gentleman and to give his tramp character more importance. The way Chaplin would smoke a cigar was just downright funny. The way he would stick those little butts in his mouth, and his eyes would move, and he'd get that little gait going. The cigar was ultimately to compensate for being so down and out as the tramp. When he is smoking his cigar, the tramp becomes the man of means. He would smoke a little stub with dignity and light his little cigar by striking a match on the bottom of his shoe, and in that moment he was a rich man."

Shuffling through his videotapes, Richards shows episodes where Ernie Kovacs, talking to the audience with a cigar in his hand, was using the cigar to punctuate his timing, and where George Burns puffed on his El Productos while waiting for the laugh. Of course, one must eventually turn to the classic comedy films of the Marx brothers. "Groucho Marx used the cigar as a primary fixture for the making of a laugh," Richards notes. "His character had that cigar and he would work with the cigar and move his eyebrows and move around the room and you'd see a trail of smoke behind him. The cigar was not there to promote elegance; it was used as the jester's rod. The Marx brothers would knock down just about everything that they thought was sacred. They were just total anarchists, and the cigar was in the midst of all that anarchy."

Like the great clowns before him, Michael Richards loves to use a cigar. "I like to use the cigar as a device, as a prop to get to the 'Ha Ha!' It's the way I puff on it, the way that I pull the smoke on it. It's the way that I hold it. It's the way my eyes get when I've got my cigar going. I believe it's there to orchestrate the tempo of delivery. Or to help make the audience feel more comfortable. Comedians will use anything they have gotten their hands on to make their comedy. A golf club. Automobile. A hammer. A roller skate. These are all devices that the comedian can get involved with."

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