Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century 34: Cosmo Kramer, TV Character

THERE IS a long and honourable tradition of eccentric minor characters in a sitcom becoming popular in their own right. Sometimes, in the accepted parlance, they "spin off" into their own shows. Dr Frasier Crane was originally introduced into the Eighties sitcom Cheers to give Ted Danson's Boston barman some competition in his will they/ won't they romance with Shelley Long's barmaid. Fifteen years later, Frasier is the most popular sitcom on American television. Ted Danson's and Shelley Long's careers have long since stalled.

There are many such examples, but Cosmo Kramer is not going to be one of them. Michael Richards, who played Jerry Seinfeld's wild-eyed neighbour since the show's inception in 1990, has not only turned his back on his Seinfeld character; he has also, apparently shorn off the trademark shock of hair (admittedly for a TV role; he's been playing Mr Micawber in a new production of David Copperfield).

Mind you, he can afford to. Since a pay hike in 1997, Richards, along with his co-stars Jason Alexander (George) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine), has been earning $600,000 an episode. They make 21 episodes a year. You do the maths.

So how did a minor character, Jerry's gangly, ungainly neighbour with his Hawaiian shirts, mad hair and habit of sliding into Jerry's flat unannounced (Richards apparently perfected that sliding entrance while he was still at school) become such a hero? A cult hero in this country, perhaps, but a genuinely popular one in the States.

Sky television recently showed the final double episode of Seinfeld for British viewers (Americans saw it last year). If you don't want to know what happens, look away now. I said now. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer end up in prison, having been charged under a state "good Samaritan" law that requires onlookers to help out if they see a crime being committed. The joke is on Jerry, George and Elaine, whose unsympathetic characters were such a ground-breaking feature of this sitcom "about nothing".

Vain, selfish and greedy, endlessly negotiating their self-absorbed way round the Manhattan rat run, they encapsulated so many of the "qualities" of modern, urban life. It was their recognisably compromised characters that struck such a chord with millions of viewers. It was funny that they were such unpleasant people. We are all, mostly, in our own little ways, unpleasant people. Not such pitiful characters as George, hopefully, but then by their transgressions we could forgive our own lesser weaknesses.

It was fitting that they should eventually end up in prison. But not Kramer. Cosmo Kramer was never of their ilk.

Where they were cynical, he was endlessly optimistic. While the other characters were neurotic to the core, Kramer was at ease with his lot. Where the others were endlessly plotting their smallest move in the Manhattan jungle, Kramer was getting recklessly involved in madcap schemes. Kramer didn't give a fig. He was an artist.

In a nice twist, the person who inspired Seinfeld's writer, Larry David, to create Kramer is a real person - called Kenny Kramer. A former stand up comedian in his fifties, Kramer lived next door to David throughout the Eighties. In an inspired move that his fictional counterpart would have been proud of, Kenny Kramer has started up his Kramer Reality Tour, busing tourists around in a 60-seater coach and pointing out the real- life hangouts of the Seinfeld characters. It's sold out every weekend.

As he told reporters last year. "Only in America can you become famous for living across the hallway from somebody."

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