‘The Michael Richards Show’: We Can Cross “What If Kramer Was a Detective?” Off the Wacky Scenario List
“But I could have played Kramer for the rest of my life. That character would fit into every situation. There was a great universality to the soul of that character.” — Michael Richards
“Nothing harmonized by a musical bond can be transmuted from its own speech without losing all its sweetness and harmony.” — Dante
To mock former NBC CEO Jeff Zucker for trying to squeeze more money out of Seinfeld after the show went off the air because Jerry Seinfeld decided it was time would be ignoring the entire point of capitalism. To mock Jeff Zucker, and the four men credited as the creators of The Michael Richards Show — Seinfeld writers Spike Feresten, Gregg Kavet, Andy Robin, and Michael Richards — for coming up with “Kramer…is a detective!” as the idea for a spinoff, is perfectly acceptable. While to decry the entire concept of spinoffs as evil would be perfectly fine if shows like The Simpsons and Frasier and Laverne & Shirley and The Jeffersons et al. didn’t come from characters involved with preexisting shows, spinoffs remain by definition the work of the lazy. And what is even lazier is a spinoff where the character is now a detective, because that is always the first place the imagination of a human being goes when it decides to place a television character in a different setting with a new occupation. This has proven to be true time and time again, every Sunday night online when Mad Men is on the air: one week people say that they would watch Don Draper and Harry Crane solving mysteries; the next it’s Roger Sterling and Harry Crane doing the same thing. Last night, Stan Rizzo should go to Los Angeles and enroll himself in private detective school.
In reality, the whole comedic detective show idea was bound to fail in the year 2000 when The Michael Richards Show had its eight weeks on the air. At the time, it was a virtually brand new, untested genre. The only one that comes to behind that existed before Richards was back in 1991, also on NBC: a notoriously brilliant pilot starring Adam West as a former actor that thought he could solve crimes titled Lookwell!, written by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel — it wasn’t picked up to series. And the genre still remains risky to venture into: Conan O’Brien would also be involved in 2007 when once again NBC attempted a sitcom/mystery show, this time starring Andy Richter in Andy Barker, P.I.. The show received mostly positive reviews, but only lasted four weeks. Even mysteries in sitcoms tend to annoy audiences, as even the most patient of television watchers would admit to after eight seasons and counting of How I Met Your Mother.
NBC’s summer advertisements for The Michael Richards Show says a lot about which successful, better programs the network wanted viewers to subconsciously associate the show with.
Columbo, Kojak, Magnum P.I., and The Rockford Files were all one hour shows that were considered to be detective dramas that would occasionally be funny, and that was not what Richards was going for: it was a half hour yuckfest where a group of people happened to work at a private detective agency. The trick that would later be discovered by Chuck, Monk, and Psych, is to label a series a comedy/mystery but have each episode last a full 60 minutes, putting the pressure off of coming up with a punchline every thirty seconds, and letting the case of the week develop its own personality and rhythm to play against the main characters. Window dressing aside, The Michael Richards Show was a workplace comedy, no matter how many times Vic Nardozza gets excited when his life parallels Jim Rockford1.
Who the hell is Vic Nardozza? That was the name of the character the actor Michael Richards played on the show named after himself. During an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, the man formerly known as Cosmo Kramer didn’t sound very convincing in his explanation for why it wasn’t just titled The Vic Nardozza Show or Kramer Has a Magnifying Glass (starting at 1:59).
According to a wikipedia fact that is missing a citation, Richards wanted to differentiate Nardozza from the Kramer character, but NBC wouldn’t allow it. From what I know about television, both my brain and my bitter, cynical heart leads me to believe that un-cited nugget of information to be true. Even though Richards had a fairly impressive body of comedic work before he ever slid across Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment floor (Fridays, UHF), he was always going to be known as Cosmo Kramer, and only a show starring someone who looked like and acted like Cosmo Kramer would do. It’s highly likely that the peacockers wanted to make it a proper spinoff, but how the series finale of Seinfeld ended it would be technically be impossible for 5-10 years, if continuity were to be respected2.
Richards made sure to make Vic Nardozza a reasonable facsimile of Kramer but to carefully give the two some notable and not so obvious differences. An overt difference: no sliding entrances. Not so obvious: a befuddled “what?” where Kramer would say “Yeah!” or make a high-pitched squeal of protest.
A scene from the show’s strongest installment, “Mr. Irresistible,” — which was the first episode that appeared on TV but was supposedly the second episode shot and written — has Mr. Nardozza attempting to seduce a woman to see if she would cheat on his client, the woman’s fiance. Also keep in mind that in the previous scene, Vic lifted a ton of weights in an attempt to bulk up quickly, so he is rather sore:
This is where a conversation starts about what Kramer meant to Seinfeld3, because whether or not you found that scene funny or not depends mostly on your reaction to physical comedy. The dialogue works — “What is your favorite religion?” is a godawful pick-up line and therefore pretty funny — but what is remembered is the “dancing.” Each of the five episodes of The Michael Richards Show that were available for viewing featured at least three scenes each in which Vic Nardozza got into some physically uncomfortable situations played to maximum comedic effect. Any enjoyment of those moments is tarnished by the blatant network malfeasance — there is no way there wasn’t a written rule that insisted on a set minimum number of contortions or pratfalls. Some of the episodes’ closing tags was simply extended footage of one of the scenes involving some patented Michael Richards gymnastic moves. There might have been a plan originally to let Nardozza get himself electrocuted and accidentally light a car on fire often enough to make up for any weak dialogue and unformed, not interesting supporting characters that usually plague sitcoms both good and bad in the early stages of the series, but of course that never got to play itself out.
What is unique about this show is that its initial offering was the funniest of the bunch, and that guest stars ended up getting the best lines. Mike Hagerty — who played Treeger on Friends and millions of other things probably — downplaying his fourth fiance’s indiscretions by insisting that increasingly not-okay acts of romance were not cheating in “Mr. Irresistible” was pretty amusing. A memorable line came from another guest star in episode three that insisted that Tim Meadows’ character — who was only trying to prove that the white man conducting the job interview was racist — reminded him of his son…that died. Tim Meadows was another strange aspect of the show, but in a positive way: he played a sitcom character that actually got smarter as time went by. His character Kevin still didn’t have anything really funny to do, unfortunately. Kevin also became meaner to Bill Cobbs4‘ character Jack — stupid Kevin would worry that Bill was about to die at first, only to make multiple jokes about how Bill was soon going to drop dead a few episodes later. If Kevin was later revealed to have been involved in some Flowers for Algernon type of experiment, that would have been amazing, but no such luck.
The Michael Richards Show said goodbye on December 19, 2000, less than two months after it made its debut, no thanks to having to compete on Tuesdays at eight against Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, That 70s Show, and JAG. NBC would repeat history by making a spinoff anchor a comedy block four years later by putting Joey in its leadoff spot on Thursdays, and achieving better but still very unimpressive results. As for Michael Richards, he disappeared off the face of the Earth for six years, not appearing on any TV show or movie when he became forever known for both playing Kramer and for shouting the N-word at a heckler during a standup routine. When you assumed he would continue to never work again, Seinfeld and Larry David hired him for his next two roles: providing the voice of Bud Ditchwater in Seinfeld’s animated film Bee Movie the next year, and playing himself in some of the Seinfeld reunion episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2009. Richards this fall will be on a series that isn’t affiliated with Seinfeld for the first time since 1988, Kirstie Alley’s vehicle Kirstie’s New Show on TV Land. He’ll play a limo driver, whose biggest mysteries to solve will presumably be taken care of by GPS.
1Once, when Vic developed a crush on a client named Beth in “Discrimination.” “Jim Rockford dated a lawyer named Beth,” Richards pointed out excitedly. It was kind of a nice touch, actually.
2Spoiler: Not only did Jerry Seinfeld basically cancel his own show and cost NBC countless dollars not agreeing to one more season of Seinfeld, he co-wrote the series finale that imprisoned all of the characters.
3Kramer sometimes seemed like he was from a different show from a different era, almost like he existed to be juxtaposed with the modern, understated, smart jokes the other three were throwing out there.
4A lot of the jokes about Bill Cobbs in this 2000 show were about how old he was, yet Cobbs played a recurring character named George on the recently canceled NBC comedy Go On 12 years later (albeit as a blind man.)