Michael Richards

Thursday, February 28, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Feb. 28, 2002, in Aspen, Colo.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and the arts. I’m Ken Paulson. … Our guest today is one of the top names in TV comedy. You know him as Kramer, Michael Richards. Welcome to the show.

Michael Richards: Well, thank you.

Paulson: We’re delighted you’re here. I’ve gone back and I’ve looked at quite a bit of your television history, but I was surprised — and this may not be true — that your first TV appearance was on “The Dating Game”?

Richards: Yes, that’s right. My goodness, you — you watched a lot.

Paulson: How did that happen?

Richards: A friend of mine called me and said they were having these auditions. I was still in high school, 12th grade. I think I was 16 — yeah, I just turned 17. So I went down there, and they asked us questions, and I was goofing around, and they said, “Well, he should be interesting.” So they put me on “The Dating Game.” And they actually had my girlfriend — they called her. It was supposed to be a big surprise. But then she told me before the show ’cause she said she couldn’t come with me. And I go, “Well, no, I want you to come with me.” And she goes, “I can’t come with you.” I says, “Why can’t you come with me?” She says, “I — well, I can’t tell you.” I start to insist, and she says, “Well, I’m going to be on the show.” So I knew.

Paulson: So she picked you.

Richards: It was fixed. She picked me. Wouldn’t it have been something if she didn’t? That would’ve been a — yeah.

Paulson: This is a scandal that’s gone unreported — Congressional hearings… .

Richards: We went to the rodeo.

Paulson: Oh, that was your award?

Richards: That was our prize. Big win.

Paulson: And then did that sort of ignite a spark to, “Hey, I’m comfortable on television and… .”

Richards: I did feel comfortable.

Paulson: And is this something you decided — I read that you’d been drafted, and part of your service was about performing in front of the troops.

Richards: Yeah, I was a — I worked for “V” Corps in Europe, and my job was to develop and act in shows dealing with race relations and drug abuse. And so we toured all across Europe performing these plays at the different Army bases.

Paulson: So what drove the impulse to be a stand-up comic?

Richards: I tell you, I — I was living down in San Diego. I was doing some plays with some friends of mine who — they run the San Diego Repertory Theater. And — oh, it goes back to an old friend of mine, Ed Begley Jr., and I — when I was in my first year at college, we used to — for $25, we wore tattered tuxedos and kept the audiences amused in-between the setting up of rock-and-roll bands at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. And we were so whacked and off-the-wall and improvising, and the audiences loved it. And so that, and years of just making my friends laugh, I thought I’d move from San Diego to Los Angeles and hit the clubs and just see what I was made out of.

Paulson: And you did well with it, and I guess you first knew you’d made it, to some extent, when Billy Crystal hired you?

Richards: Well, I got my S.A.G. card, and that was a big surprise. They were trying to get Chevy Chase to play himself at 80 years old in the Screen Actors Guild Hospital in the San Fernando Valley. Robin Williams was there. He played himself at 80, and Billy Crystal. So they had me come in and play Chevy Chase, and they just wanted me to do “Live from ‘Saturday Night Live’” and do pratfalls all over the room. So that was — I was delighted.

Paulson: Was there a day when you figured out the pratfall, that this was going to be a part of your —

Richards: Oh, I found that out fooling around in the clubs. If I stepped onto the stage and slipped or bumped into the microphone or brought it down, you could get a laugh that way. It’s a great cover, not having any material. And I always liked the knockabout clowns anyway —

Paulson: Buster Keaton.

Richards: Oh, certainly, to Chaplin and to, you know, Laurel and Hardy and the great French comic Jacques Tati. And just the physical comedy, visual comedy has always been of interest to me, so…

Paulson: And yet there aren’t that many people doing it today.

Richards: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. I suppose not in the great tradition of how physical comedy was done.

Paulson: One of the themes of the show is freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and you were on a show that pushed some envelopes in the late ’70s called “Fridays. Saturday Night Live” certainly was a ground-breaking show, and then ABC brought on “Fridays” …

Richards: Yes.

Paulson: As a rival trying to do things —

Richards: Well, they were produced by the same people, actually, but they wanted the West Coast version.

Paulson: I see, and what was the West Coast version?

Richards: Well, that was it, “Fridays.” It really didn’t take, although we were on the air for nearly three years. But it wasn’t as popular as “Saturday Night Live.” There were a few characters I did on the show that became popular. Those were characters that I developed out of my stand-up act.

Paulson: Of blowing things up.

Richards: I think it was battle boy burning army men. I used to burn army men onstage, something we did as kids, burning little toy soldiers, and then — then I played kind of a lounge guy who went and talked to the girls but never got very far without spilling a drink on them or making a fool out of himself.

Paulson: And it’s easy to forget that was really a new kind of comedy at the time. I mean, it was — it was about breaking down barriers. There was political satire. There was drug humor.

Richards: Well, the biggest barrier that went down was the sketch we developed with Andy Kaufman on “Fridays.” That’s when we broke the fourth wall. And America thought that he had, indeed, broken out of a sketch because he didn’t want to do it.

Paulson: Yeah, could you set that up for us? Because a lot of us have heard about it, but I actually wasn’t aware that, you know, the cast was misled. There’s lots of different stories. What’s the truth about —

Richards: There aren’t many people who knew about it.

Paulson: OK, but people were in on it. Andy Kaufman came in.

Richards: Yeah, and in the movie, “Man in the Moon,” that’s not correct. That’s not how it happened because the network didn’t really know about it either. No one, as a matter of fact, knew about it, except Jack Burns, myself, Andy, and one of the other producers, John Moffet. The cast did not know.

Paulson: So at one point, Andy Kaufman appears to lose interest in the skit and gets irritated —

Richards: And says he doesn’t want to do the sketch and leaves the other actors hanging out. And then they open, and we’re live on television. And Andy didn’t want to do the sketch because he felt there was some material in it about drugs, and he didn’t want to do anything that had anything to do about drugs. So I got up and threw the — and got the cue cards and threw them in front of him, and he tossed water on me. And then Jack Burns, who was in on it, made a rush for Andy. Then Andy got physical with Jack, and then I’m calling out, “Cut to commercial. Cut to commercial.” And a couple of crew guys went up to get Andy, who was on top of Jack. And they thought that Andy was really out to do some harm.

Paulson: So how long did it take before the rest of the cast got it?

Richards: We kept the lid on that for a couple — for — actually, for a while, a number of days, until Andy came back on the show a week — I think it was two weeks later. And now he was hooked up with a woman that he had met who had gotten him to become a reborn Christian, and he was singing Christian songs and atoning for what he had done two weeks earlier on our show.

Paulson: So what do you make of Andy Kaufman’s approach to —

Richards: But America hated him. The letters came pouring in.

Paulson: Yeah, they did.

Richards: And everyone was out to kill Andy.

Paulson: He must have trusted you to let you in on it or to make you a member of the — of the skit. Did Jack Burns approach you, or did Andy Kaufman come to you?

Richards: No, we came up with it together.

Paulson: Oh, really?

Richards: We were tossing it about, yeah, ’cause Andy wanted to do something interesting.

Paulson: He always did something interesting.

Richards: Yeah, to fool. He was the great trickster.

Paulson: And from that —

Richards: Speaking quite freely, he did, indeed, you know, fool everyone, because you’re not supposed to do those kinds of things on television.

Paulson: So what was your take on “Man in the Moon” overall? Was that 90% right, based on what you knew?

Richards: 90? Yeah. I can’t say. I know too many people associated with it. I mean, I think it could’ve been more accurate, but then, on the other hand, there’s much in it that’s — it’s useful if you understand the — the premise, Andy’s premise as a comic. He was out to fool everyone, and most everything was fixed.

Paulson: Before you went on to the role we’re all familiar with, you had a role in “Marblehead Manor,” which was a —

Richards: I did, for one year. Then the show was canceled.

Paulson: And did that end up leaving you with the sense that television’s never going to happen? I mean —

Richards: Oh, no, I never thought that way. I still don’t think that way, really.

Paulson: And yet when “Seinfeld” was offered to you, did you have any sense of where that was going?

Richards: Well, then, I suppose I was a realist. I had done two TV shows and about — I did five television pilots, 1/2 hour test shows, that never got picked up. I did a lot of guest-starring work over the years, television, motion picture, some theater. So by the time I did the Seinfeld pilot, to me, it was just another pilot. And — I really didn’t think it was going to become the phenomenal hit it became.

Paulson: And the pilot didn’t jump out at you and saying, “Hey, this is better written.”

Richards: I thought it was interesting, but I wasn’t sure it was going to be a major hit.

Paulson: And — and your first brush with Kramer —

Richards: The brush. The hair brush?

Richards: Literally.

Paulson: Literally. How close was that first generation of Kramer to the one a decade later?

Richards: Well, everyone knows that it’s — it’s a bit different. The first 13 shows, I wasn’t sure what the character was about, and neither did the writers. Larry was basing the character on a friend that he knew in New York, but it wasn’t — it wasn’t really opening up in a way where I knew I could create that person. So the character was pretty wide-open. I really came in. I was more of a device. I would come in and shift the stories about. So there wasn’t really a full character at work there yet.

Paulson: I’ve heard a couple of different accounts of how you got the job. I’ve heard that you were the favorite coming in. I hear that you also ended up inverted.

Richards: Yeah, I was doing a headstand, yeah.

Paulson: And totally —

Richards: Yeah, improvising, keeping it really loose with Jerry. And, you know, and I knew Jerry Seinfeld. I knew Larry, of course, ’cause he was with me on the show Fridays as a — as a performer and as a writer, so we went back. So I had a sense that they wanted something really whacked, something really off-the-wall. They wanted some high-end eccentricity. That’s what Kramer was going to be about, so I tried to bring that to them during the audition, and it was there, and so I got the part.

Paulson: Was there ever anything you tapped from those original characters on Fridays that — are any of those characters in Kramer?

Richards: Yeah, the Dick character. Sometimes I have Kramer becoming — he’s a dreamer. He’s a Walter Mitty, and if he’s going undercover, he’s going to play a doctor, or he’s going to try to fool somebody with a different character, I’d go into Pennypacker, a certain professor, the wealthy industrialist, and that was a little bit of the Dick on that — on that role.

Paulson: So early on, you’re not sure who Kramer is, and is there a moment of revelation? I mean, where does that come from?

Richards: Boy, that’s — that’s where we’re all on our knees — you know, a prayer to God. I tell you, I don’t know. The creative process, the inspiration, how an idea comes about, I — it’s working. You keep at something, and you — you — you’re touched by a view, and you work to create it. I mean, look how it came about for Chaplin. I mean, he didn’t know about the baggy pants and the tramp character. He’s in a wardrobe trailer trying things on and came out that way. But — and it was a blessing. It was fantastic.

Paulson: Was the physical part always part of Kramer, or is that something that kicked in later?

Richards: That comes with me. That just comes with the guy I am.

Paulson: So as the show went on, it grew in popularity. And then it just seems to me that they — in addition to being a highly successful comedy program, then there were efforts to do things that other people hadn’t done. I think “The Contest” is probably the best example of that. Do you remember your reaction to that when the script first came in?

Richards: I thought it was great. But I do — I do recall there was — there were — there was some concern. I mean, this is a show about masturbation on prime-time American television, and it was a first, a big first, and so —

Paulson: Was it — was the script —

Richards: Larry David certainly stood behind the script. It was going to get done, and we had the success to make it happen. At this point, we were king of the mountain. So we got that script done. The script won an Emmy, and everyone got nominated. It was a remarkable show, but in the beginning… . I can say this: I don’t believe a show like that would’ve been done in the early — the early years of Seinfeld. We didn’t have the clout. As the years went on, we became such a phenomenal hit. What we wanted to do is what we did.

Paulson: Well, talk about that. To what to extent did you have a voice in the direction of the show? And — and did you — did you come out and say, “Here’s where we need to go,” and provide some guidance yourself?

Richards: Sometimes, with Kramer, as I was working with the parameters of the character — how he lives, this is how his apartment should look, which was my design. What’s he like with a woman? Yeah, I had input there. We would discuss that. But what’s so remarkable about that show is that we — our chemistry — we were so connected that the — that it rolled. It had a momentum. You know, Jerry used to talk about this. I don’t know if he’s reached the press with it, but we used to hold on. We were holding on to something that was moving us along. The creativity and the writing, the writers, and the kinds of ideas that would come up just worked, just fit. I tried to do a show a year ago, The Michael Richards Show, and it was — it was hell. Everything was working against everything. And the chemistry was wrong. The direction of the show, the vision, the writing, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t like anybody was doing anything wrong. It just wasn’t coming together the way I had felt something come together so easily with Seinfeld. It’s — it’s amazing to me.

Paulson: And — and —

Richards: It’s like when you’re onstage as a stand-up. You do — you improvise something — and boom-boom, and it works, just happens. At other times, you could be struggling with a piece of material, a premise, and it’s just not — maybe you’ll get it, but, God, it’s taking so much work to get there. So it’s back to the blessing.

Paulson: And in the show you’ve done most recently, is there any chance, though, that the expectations were just so high, that you come out of — I mean, that’s been the case with all the former cast members.

Richards: They should be. When an audience sits down, the show should be good.

Paulson: And yet — and yet you — I mean, it’s sort of like leaving, in baseball terms, leaving the Yankees and — and having to start a new team built around you. It’s — it’s a difficult thing to expect you to win a championship immediately.

Richards: Yeah, and I lost interest halfway in. And I know that the network picked up on that. I was burned out. I was not happy, and I can’t function, you know. I knew we — we needed to turn things around, and it was — it’s better to just let this go and start up again with another one in years ahead. I’ll probably be back in television, but just right now, we just have to wait till that time arises.

Paulson: You talked about having the clout to do the kind of show with “Seinfeld” that you wanted to do. Did you have that clout with the new show?

Richards: Oh, yeah.

Paulson: Yeah —

Richards: I think so, in — in, you know, choosing writers and hoping for the best. Of course, with “Seinfeld,” I think we went through about 50 or 60 writers. I mean, it was — it was grueling to see writers come and go until you get that team pulled together, which, the third, fourth, fifth year, we had a — we had ensemble writers that were consistent and knew the characters and the vision. I don’t know. It’s — that show just wasn’t meant to be.

Paulson: The — during the height of — well, even today —

Richards: The Michael Richards Show. The “Seinfeld” show, yes, indeed, “The Michael Richards Show.”

Paulson: The — it had to be a phenomenal kind of jolt, too, to realize that you’re probably one of the 10 most recognizable people in the country. I mean, did fame — was fame a real positive, that kind of overwhelming fame?

Richards: We were able to handle it because we’d all been around the block. I mean, I didn’t come into “Seinfeld” until I’d been in television, you know, for almost 15 years. And it was same, certainly, for Larry David. Jerry had been doing stand-up for 18 years. Julia had been around with “Second City, Saturday Night Live.” She’d done a TV show beforehand. Jason was a Tony-award winning Broadway actor and done plays, and so we’d all had a lot of experience. So when all that heat came on us, we just were focused and knew that the work was more important than anything.

Paulson: You’ve done some work in film. “Trial and Error” was one of them. Is it difficult to go from a television role, especially this kind of a television role, into a film career?

Richards: I’m not — I’m not sure yet. You know, I’m still — I’m still sort of looking at what an audience is in regard to the success of the “Seinfeld” show. I’ve talked to Robin Williams about this when he came off of — of “Mork and Mindy,” and he said he was really scared that no one was going to see him as anything other than Mork. And I think that’s a task for me, that people do see me as Kramer, and so the — it’s — but I’m — I’m an actor. And so as material comes, situations arise, I think, you know, I’ll make the adjustment, but it is one — it’s a hurdle, because the people do, indeed — they’ve become so connected to that character, to that show, it’s hard for them to see us as anything other than what those characters were for them.

Paulson: Are you comfortable in dramatic roles?

Richards: I’m trained in that area. I worked with Stella Adler for years, yeah.

Paulson: And those opportunities don’t come?

Richards: Sometimes. I did “Unstrung Heroes.”

Paulson: That’s right.

Richards: I have opportunities to do theater, but I haven’t been given, really, any opportunities to do any real dramatic vehicles.

Paulson: “Unstrung Heroes” was one of your best-received films. Was that a satisfying experience for you to —

Richards: Yeah, it was. It was.

Paulson: It was a chance to play something —

Richards: The script was so good. I wanted to play a character and work and feel the — the emotional life of this person, and so it’s — it’s getting to acting, yeah.

Paulson: After “Seinfeld,” you, no doubt, had to — you probably rested. It was probably a period in which you wanted to take a good look at what opportunities there were. Not everyone would jump into Dickens, which is something you did.

Richards: That’s just back to my stage days, you know.

Paulson: You did “David Copperfield.”

Richards: OK, let’s get disciplined. Let’s take an accent on. Let’s build a character. Let’s get to work, and I’ll be working with good actors, so this is the root of the rose. So that’s what that was all about.

Paulson: And you played Mr. Micawber?

Richards: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: And — which is a role, I guess, W.C. Fields had done at one point.

Richards: Yes, he did, as W.C. Fields.

Paulson: Had you — had you gone back and watched that before?

Richards: No, I didn’t want to watch that. I knew about it. Many years ago, I’d seen it, but I didn’t want to watch it. Oh, that could’ve been — that could — ooh, that’s dangerous.

Paulson: Have you gone back since then?

Richards: No, I haven’t, no. No, I haven’t.

Paulson: You seem to — you do seem to draw a lot on sort of the legends of comedy. There’s a great respect for that. We had talked a little earlier about some people you admired. Part of the U.S. Comedy Arts Film Fest — U.S. Comedy Arts Festival is a look at free speech and people who have used their comedy to sort of make a difference — Smothers Brothers, George Carlin and others. Do you have heroes in the field of comedy?

Richards: Well, stand-up, I’m a big fan of George Carlin. As outspoken as he gets, it’s so great to see that. And I’m a big fan of Robin Williams. The spontaneity of his work — I mean, jeez, it’s just phenomenal. So Bill Maher — I mean, see, Lily Tomlin — I mean, they’re all — they’re just all wonderful. And they had to be outspoken in order to come into their genius. They set — you know, they set standards, and the uniqueness of their talent is so — how can you not respect it?

Paulson: The ability to say what you want onstage, of course, is — is part of free expression in this country and — and a big part of what they do. Have you ever been tempted to be topical and to pull your comedy out of the headlines, or is that just something that doesn’t appeal to you?

Richards: Sometimes. I have been recently in building an act, mm-hmm.

Paulson: And, you know, we talked earlier with a couple of — of people who — actually made the mistake of calling them rising stars and emerging comics, and they corrected us and said they’d been in the business for, like, 20 years, that it’s a long, uphill battle to become visible in stand-up. Now you’re going back to stand-up after a period of time. Is it any different? Are the audiences any different? Are the expectations any different than when you did this 25 years ago?

Richards: Well, the first response when you step on the stage is, the audience just loves to see you, but you get about a minute of that, and then you’ve got to deliver. America loves its comics, and they have pretty high standards as to who they like and don’t like. And you’ve — you’ve got to deliver. So you have to work at it.

Paulson: We’ve covered 30 years of your career in 30 minutes. Thank you so much for joining us.

Richards: OK, thank you very much.

Paulson: It’s been a pleasure.