In Hollywood it only takes one role to turn you into an icon, and one moment to take it all away. Long before cancel culture was a phrase, one iconic celebrity had a meltdown of epic proportions that helped usher in the age of the viral video. As many TV stars have found out, life after a hugely successful show can be quite tough for some. With Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning countless Emmy’s, Jason Alexander returning to his stage roots and Jerry Seinfeld continuing his legendary stand up career, its time we find out what happened to the other member of Seinfeld’s iconic cast: WTF Happened to Michael Richards? Ya know… Kramer!
But as always we must begin at the beginning and the beginning began on his birthday July 24, 1949 in Culver City, California. After starting on the stand up circuit in 1979, Richards career would take off when he was cast on ABC’s answer to Saturday Night Live: Fridays in 1980. Although the show was short lived, airing for just three seasons, Richards was part of one of the most famous moments of the series, so much so that it was recreated in the 1999 film Man on the Moon with Norm MacDonald playing Richards. The scene involved guest star Andy Kaufman refusing to deliver his scripted lines which led Richards to stand up and get the cue cards which led to a small outburst with Kaufman throwing his drink in Richards’ face. Of course, much like most of Kaufman’s genius bits, Richards would later claim that he was in on the joke from the start. And funny enough, it was Norm MacDonald that had an interesting take on the public meltdown of Richards.
Back to the 80s! With his star slowly rising in the comedy scene, Richards would be a steady character actor in several films including the spoof film Young Doctors in Love (1982), The House of God (1984), The Ratings Game (1984), Transylvania 6-5000 (1985) while also turning in solid guest spots on shows such as Night Court, St. Elsewhere, Cheers, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and Fresno. The over-arching theme of many of his work over this time was to parody cliche’d television motif’s, so it was no surprise when he was cast in the cult classic “Weird AL” Yankovic film UHF (a pretty beloved film amongst the JoBlo staff). Yankovic actually wrote the role of the Janitor specifically for Richards after being a fan of his stand up comedy and performance on the show Fridays. Initially Richards’ agent turned down the offer saying that he couldn’t do the project because at the moment he was suffering a bout of Bell’s Palsy, something that gives your face temporary paralysis. Luckily he quickly recuperated and blew everyone away when he went in to test read for the film.
UHF would hit theaters on July 21, 1989 and ultimately be a financial disappointment, in a crowded summer field it was only able to make $6.1 million off a $5 million budget but would soon be looked at as a comedy classic. A few weeks before the launch of UHF in theaters, a TV series featuring Richards launched on NBC to severely low ratings. NBC actually offered this series to FOX who declined to pick it up, a decision I’m sure they would soon regret as that low rated series was titled The Seinfeld Chronicles which would later be simply renamed Seinfeld and go on to be one of the biggest television shows ever created. The series featured several crazy kooky supporting characters, but the craziest kookiest of them all was part of the core four, Jerry Seinfeld’s eccentric neighbor Cosmo Kramer, played to comedic perfection by Michael Richards who was reluctantly brought on the show by his Fridays costar Larry David, after Jerry Seinfeld insisted on him for the part. With the use of his outrageous physical comedy. Kramer quickly became the stand out character of the series with the audience launching into rapturous applause every time Richards burst into Jerry’s apartment with his iconic entrance. This character was perfect for all the talents and skills of Michael Richards, he was able to enter any scene and completely take control or tear it to pieces… either way, it was beautiful to witness. He was more than just a silly clown who fell down, the dude was a wrecking ball. Throughout his nine season tenure on the show, Richards would be nominated for 5 Emmy Awards in the Supporting Actor category, winning the honor three times, more than
any other cast member of the series, with an additional five nominations at he Screen Actors Guild Awards, winning the award twice as part of the ensemble cast.
But Seinfeld wasn’t the only place you could catch Michael Richards on the boob tube, he would pop up as a voice on Dinosaurs, appear as Kramer on an episode of Mad About You while appearing as himself on The Larry Sanders Show and opposite his Seinfeld costar Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the TV movie adaptation of Neil Simon’s London Suite (1996). While he became a television icon, you could also see him on the big screen bringing his eccentric persona to roles as varying as the bad guy Problem Child (1990) or a Motel Clerk who doesn’t ask any questions in Coneheads (1993) to an Insensitive man in So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993) and a cowardly accountant in Airheads (1994). However in 1995 he would garner some acclaim with his paranoid performance in the Diane Keaton directed Unstrung Heroes where he was nominated for Funniest Supporting Actor at the American Comedy Awards. That acclaim would continue when he voiced The Wolf in the Academy Award nominated short film Redux Riding Hood after which he would get his chance to co-headline a big studio comedy film when he starred opposite Jeff Daniels and Charlize Theron in Trial and Error (1997). While critical reception isn’t as bad as you would think with many pointing out that Daniels and Richards have some solid comedic chemistry, the film was ultimately unmemorable. Audiences felt the same when hey only gave this $25 million budgeted film, $14.5 million at the box office. With one tanked movie, Richards’ big screen career was basically over, luckily he still had Seinfeld.
And then on May 14, 1998, the series finale of Seinfeld aired to historic numbers. With 76.3 million viewers, accounting for nearly 60% of all TV watchers that night, the Series Finale of Seinfeld became the fourth highest watched series finale in TV History behind the finales of M*A*S*H, Cheers and The Fugitive. Of course the finale polarized viewers with some calling it the worst of all time, but I understand what they were going for, bringing back all the iconic characters for the finale was a stroke of genius, but maybe not having your characters go to prison would have been a better way to end the series.
But then came the question: What are these now legendary performers going to do now? For Richards, he would take on the role of Wilkins in the TNT broadcast of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (2000) before launching into his own series The Michael Richards Show. You would think a show called The Michael Richards Show would be about Michael Richards, but Michael Richards was not playing Michael Richards, he was playing private detective Vic Nardozza! He conceived of the show as a way to play a different style of character than his previous role of Kramer, but when test audiences didn’t respond to it, they had him add in some of those Kramer-esque characteristics while naming the character Nardozza as a nod to his mother’s maiden name, bad reviews and low viewership saw the show cancelled after just eight episodes leading the press to coin the phrase The Seinfeld Curse as Richards and his cohorts Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander all had failed shows in the immediate aftermath of Seinfeld.
And then on November 17, 2006, what Richards had spent over forty years cultivating, a career in the entertainment industry, was essentially ruined in seconds. For Richards, it was night he had done for over twenty five years, get up on stage and tell some jokes. For comedy fans it was a chance to see an iconic actor in a different setting than they were used to. But what happened has gone down in infamy as the biggest implosion of a career ever. Nowadays in this post #MeToo iPhone era, we are used to seeing big name people having their entire careers upended because of horrible behavior, but for Michael Richards one horrible outburst that attempted to push the boundaries of comedy to a level past sanity, resulted in years of work down the drain. It began when a group of patrons (who’s skin color just so happened to be
black) entered the famed Laugh Factory comedy club in Hollywood and interrupted Richards’ set by being loud and heckling the comedian, who’s skin color just so happens to be white. Richards then launched into one of the most vile tirades ever caught on camera. A fellow patron captured the confrontation, at first the audience seems to think Richards is joking and playing a character, and then when he bursts out a racial slur… which racial slur, you ask? well its the one that starts with the letter N… the one we call the N word… and after shouting that particle word that starts with an N, over and over in a very aggressive manner, the entire crowd turned on him and his entire career is flushed down the toilet. Days later, in an attempt at damage control, Richards appeared via satellite on The Late Show with David Letterman when Letterman’s guest just so happened to be Jerry Seinfeld. Richard desperately tied to explain his outburst and did his best to apologize. The whole situation was just so awkward that many in the audience could do nothing but laugh, which is kinda funny that he got more laughs with his apology than his stand up set. Letterman’s studio audience was laughing so much that Seinfeld had to jump in at tell them to stop laughing. Can you imagine, a comedian telling us not to laugh… By the way, lets talk about what type of insanely great friend Jerry Seinfeld is! Not only did he stand by his close friend when most people wouldn’t, he gave up part of his time on a national talk show so that his friend could address what happened. And Seinfeld would stand by his friend even further when he cast him as Bud Ditchwater in his animated film Bee Movie (2007) and would feature him on his short form series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee where they would discuss the incident and its ramifications even further. Richards would also help Seinfeld promote the series’ fifth season, appearing as President of Crackle, Dick Corcoran.
Richards would stay out of the lime light for a while, retiring from stand up after the incident, opting to live a quiet life away from show business but would return with the rest of the cast of Seinfeld for three episodes of the seventh season of the Larry David show Curb Your Enthusiasm where the cast reunites to do a reunion show of the classic sitcom. Instead of tip toeing around it, Richards and the writers hit the controversy head on with several incidents referencing the notorious laugh factory incident. That did a lot to help repair Richards’ reputation, we all mess up, maybe not to the level that he did, but being able to make fun of it and be the butt of the joke, I think helped move past the incident. On TV, Richards would make a short lived comeback when he appeared in the main cast of the TV Land series Kirstie opposite fellow television legends Kirstie Alley and Rhea Perlman. Sadly the show would only last one season before being cancelled. In 2013, Richards would again earn stellar reviews for his performance in the short film Walk The Light which would win him a Best Supporting Actor trophy from the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood Awards while in 2019 he would appear in the faith based film Faith, Hope & Love.
Since then, Richards has kept out of the spotlight, his personal life has remained personal. The good news is because of his iconic role as Kramer in one of the biggest shows ever created, Richards could never work again and he would be set for the rest of his life and several generations thereafter. But it is a shame that he lost his temper on that one fateful day, because Richards was one of the best physical comedians around and when he had the chance, he would show us that there was a great dramatic actor waiting to burst onto the scene. It has been four years since he last emerged in a project and I for one think it is high time for Michael Richards to make a triumphant comeback. And that is WTF Happened to Michael Richards!
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Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/wtf-happened-to-michael-richards/