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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

"The cigar has been an outstanding prop in the making of comedy for years," actor Michael Richards says. "Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, George Burns, W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx--you expected to see them all with a cigar in their hand. I love it as a prop. The jester uses the cigar to elevate himself to the position of the king. He's in the court with the king, but he makes people laugh with the cigar. It's part of his staff. It's the jester's stick.

"I smoke a cigar the same way I play golf," Richards says somewhat earnestly. "Comedically. You see, the cigar is a great comedic prop. Now, the cigar, by itself, is not all that funny. It's not a cigarette, like Jackie Gleason, or a pipe, or a Tootsie Pop like Kojack's. But in the right hands, Kramer becomes the stogie master." As he takes another beat, from out of nowhere the character of Cosmo Kramer from NBC's smash hit, "Seinfeld," suddenly appears in his voice and edges his way into Michael Richards' body. Kramer is in the building. "I am the cigar. But remember, cigars can be dangerous in the hands of Kramer." Just as quickly, Kramer disappears.

And truly, there are moments when Cosmo Kramer channels across the actor's six-foot-two-inch frame. As zany and scattered as the Kramer character he portrays, Richards is a quiet, introspective and deeply intellectual man. Clearly he is passionate about his art. Jerry Seinfeld once said of Richards, "He is completely committed to go to any length to make a comedic moment work, up to and including killing himself."

Richards takes exception to that bit of hyperbole, while pointing out the inherent limitations in the medium that he has mastered. "I'm not a perfectionist in that I'm just some dysfunctional fool and I haven't had enough hugs from my mother or my father. That's not the basis of it. It is what is in me. And sometimes I feel shortchanged by the fast-paced process of television. It's the fastest medium around. You get two passes and you move on. There is nothing faster. And even to this day I'm not used to it. I'm very seldom happy with the way it goes, because we move so fast and I'm adjusting to new lines right up to camera, and I can feel under-rehearsed. And I'm plagued, when I leave the studio at the end of the evening and the show's in the can, with so many ideas of things I could have done."

Co-star John O'Hurley, who joined the cast in 1994 and portrays catalogue mogul J. Peterman, shares his first encounter with Richards: "It was my first day on the set, and I was unbelievably nervous about being a part of 'Seinfeld.' I was running my lines by myself in the darkened recesses of the set, and there, all alone in Jerry's [TV] apartment, Michael Richards was painstakingly rehearsing and re-rehearsing every single piece of business for the next scene. I was in awe. It was like watching Baryshnikov choreograph a ballet. Every move, take and line of dialogue--all the zaniness--was carefully constructed. And when the scene was finally shot, he moved effortlessly and brilliantly."

Richards understands the unique physical demands of the creation of Kramer in relation to the rest of the "verbal" cast, and the comedic necessity of it. And yet it feels as if he is never really satisfied with his work in spite of his meticulous preparation. "Jerry's a wit master, one of the best out," Richards says. "He's a master of the stand-up format. That's his world. I've created a lot of physical routines for what is primarily a 'talk' show. I feel that comedy is a process of giving. I want what I give to be good, really good for the audience. I feel the audience and I give to the audience and I'm very hard on myself in the process."

Whatever the possible toll on Richards' psyche, the results are indeed on the screen, and will continue to live on in syndication. The process has worked. Over the past eight seasons Cosmo Kramer has evolved from a one-dimensional, slow-witted neighbor to a legendary anti-everyman. He is amusingly and endearingly eccentric without becoming a caricature. For a geek with no visible means of support, Kramer has everything in his world wired: from being a Calvin Klein underwear model, to creating a coffee table book that turns into a miniature coffee table, playing backgammon in the nude with supermodel Elle MacPherson and punching Mickey Mantle in the mouth during a baseball fantasy camp. The public adores Kramer because he gets away with everything. He does things that all of us only dream about. And the women love him, in spite of a rather odd physicality, or perhaps, because of it. His childlike optimism to the modern world is a counterpoint to the cynicism of Jerry, Elaine and George. While they seem to struggle to get things accomplished in their lives, Kramer always makes it seem easy.

Kramer's cigar antics on "Seinfeld" are one-of-a-kind: the episode, for example, in which his cigar burned his friend's girlfriend's father's cabin to the ground, along with his Cuban cigars. Kramer simply trotted over to the Cuban consulate to try to purchase replacement contraband cigars. Once inside the consulate, he traded his favorite jacket for a box of Cubans. But that's all right; eventually, he got to go up to Westchester to play golf with three Cubans in plaid pants (one had a very snazzy jacket). Nice work--if you're Cosmo Kramer. But remember this--Michael Richards is not Cosmo Kramer, although, for a cool $600,000 an episode he will continue to portray the character, at least for one more season.

With an actor's customary bravado firmly intact, Richards feels more than a little bit responsible for starting the whole cigar renaissance. "After Kramer started smoking a cigar, the whole cigar thing became more 'in.' Everybody was smoking cigars, and I think Kramer had a lot to do with men getting into cigars." Don't worry, Michael. We won't tell Schwarzenegger. Or DeVito. Or Rush. In fact, the only reason why Richards started smoking cigars was because people were continually slipping him one, usually with an invitation to play golf. The assumption was that if Kramer smoked cigars and played golf, Richards must smoke cigars and play golf. But Richards doesn't play golf. Still, who could blame him for enjoying the experience of a fine cigar now and then? After all, a cigar is more than just a mere comedic prop. "Personally, I like to have a cigar to commemorate an event," he says. "I like the taste of Port with my cigar. And I like a mild cigar, very mild. I don't like one that chokes me or lingers at all in my mouth." He pauses, ponders, takes another beat. "And I don't like them too big."

Born on July 14, 1950, and raised in Los Angeles, the only child of a single working mother (his father died in an accident when he was two), Richards attended Los Angeles Valley College with fellow actor Ed Begley Jr. and eventually graduated from the California Institute of the Arts. After a stint as a medic in the Army stationed in West Germany in 1970, he moved to San Diego and performed with the San Diego Repertory Company. In 1979 he switched to performing stand-up comedy, which he found to be a bewildering, if not fortunate, experience.

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