When Kramer burst into Jerry Seinfeld’s door, he used to get whooping applause. He was such a fan favorite, in fact, that producers eventually instructed their live audience not to applaud — their intense cheering was throwing off the pacing of the scenes. But how did this legendary character come to be?
The inspiration was Larry David’s real-life neighbor: Kenny Kramer.
All four main characters on Seinfeld are hilarious in their own right, but Kramer, as played by Michael Richards, is the most over-the-top and, arguably, the funniest. Full name Cosmo Kramer, as revealed in “The Switch,” Jerry’s neighbor is a lovable rogue in zany vintage shirts. Unemployed — save for a brief stint at H&H Bagels — Kramer fills his days with wacky entrepreneurial escapades like interstate bottle recycling, male bra production, and a reality tour bus.
That tour bus venture, it turns out, was one of many aspects pulled directly from Kenny Kramer. Kenny lived in Larry David’s old apartment building: Manhattan Plaza, a famous, affordable housing complex on 42nd Street which, over the years, housed Tennessee Williams, Angela Lansbury, Mickey Rourke, Patrick Dempsey, Donald Faison, and Terrance Howard. It was even the birthplace of Alicia Keys!
A 2018 documentary, Miracle on 42nd Street, tells the history of this historic building. But long before that, it was (at least in part) immortalized by Kramer on Seinfeld.
“My neighbor was a guy who would come in and take a lot of my food. And he was a guy who didn’t work really. Or, if he did, nobody really knew what he did,” Larry David said of Kenny Kramer in a behind-the-scenes featurette, “Kramer Vs. Kramer: Kenny to Cosmo.”
Kenny was raised in the Bronx, in the Tremont neighborhood, before dropping out of high school at age 17. He went on to work odd jobs like selling magazines, playing drums for a Catskills resort band, and performing as a stand-up comedian. He eventually quit that to sell light-up jewelry at New York disco clubs which, for a while, was lucrative.
“I hired handicapped workers to assemble earrings and other jewelry that lit up,” Kenny told The New York Times in 1996. “We’d attach a 15-cent red light to a 10-cent watch battery and sell it for $6 in the discos. People went crazy for it. It had this magical effect when you saw it glowing on someone’s ear in the dark. That lasted for a couple of years, and it gave me a financial cushion.”
So basically, his schemes sound a lot like the ones we know and love from TV. Then Kenny crossed paths with Larry David, inspiring the hit character and opening up a whole new world of commercial opportunities.
First, Kenny was approached by the Seinfeld team for permission to use his real surname. In the show’s (mostly reviled) pilot episode, Micael Richards’ character was called Kessler. But Jerry Seinfeld thought the name Kramer was so perfect that Castle Rock Entertainment paid him $1,000 for the right to use it.
It’s a measly sum considering Seinfeld himself went on to become the first billionaire comic. But Kenny, in typical Kramer-esque fashion, found other ways to cash in. While the show was still airing, he began hosting his own bus tours: Kramer’s Reality Tour and Kramer’s Reality Road Show. His tours ran for decades, up until the pandemic, entertaining fans with behind-the-scenes stories and an up-close look at famous Seinfeld spots.
Kenny Kramer’s tour concept was quickly satirized on the show with Cosmo Kramer’s own “Peterman Reality Tour.” In the 1997 episode “The Muffin Tops,” Kramer sells his life stories to Elaine’s boss, J. Peterman, for $750 for use in Peterman’s memoir. Kramer then launches a tour — on a school bus — to capitalize off the fleeting fame.
‘Kramer Vs. Kramer’
Michael Richards never met Kenny Kramer while preparing the character. He preferred to stick to what the writers had provided him. But right away, Richards took creative some liberties, leaning into the potential for physical comedy. One time, he knocked on Jerry’s door right off its hinges! His early work was noted by the writers who then exaggerated the wild personality that Richards had established. Episode by episode, a new — fictionalized — version of Kramer came into focus.
Richards, and his co-stars, discussed the process in the short documentary “Kramer Vs. Kramer: Kenny to Cosmo.” Watch it above!