Kenny Kramer wasn’t allowed to be himself.
In the late 1980s, the stand-up comedian was living next door to Larry David, co-creator of television’s “Seinfeld,” which was then in the development stage. David saw infinite comic possibilities in his neighbor, who spent his time golfing, scheming, chomping cigars, falling head-first into money and having sex without dating.
David asked Kramer if he could base a character on him. Kramer gave permission, but said he wanted to play himself. “Larry told me, ‘No way,’” Kramer said.
It wasn’t the last time Kramer would be denied. Five years into the series, in an instance of life imitating art imitating life, David penned an episode in which characters Jerry and George write a sitcom based on their lives and need a tall, lanky dufus to play Jerry’s next-door neighbor, Cosmo Kramer.
Kramer — the real Kramer — asked David: “Can I at least be that guy?”
“No,” David reportedly said. “I got someone much better than you.”
But while he never played the fictional Cosmo Kramer on television, for the past eight-and-a-half years Kramer has played himself for thousands of adoring fans. Every Saturday afternoon and most holidays, Kramer, 61, takes a microphone in hand and regales fans with jokes, bits of “Seinfeld” trivia, a history of the stand-up comedy scene and a tour of Seinfeld and David’s New York. He calls it Kramer’s Reality Tour (www.kennykramer.com). And while “Seinfeld” went off the air years ago, Kramer still plays regularly to sold-out crowds. This week, he will lead his 500th reality tour. “This is the longest I’ve ever done anything,” he told the Forward.
Kramer met the Forward for lunch a block from his home at Manhattan Plaza, the federally funded apartment complex for performance artists where he first met the uber-neurotic David. Kramer wore a pink shirt and a backward baseball cap emblazoned with his name, a memento from one of his two ill-fated campaigns for New York City mayor.
Kramer starts his tours — and interviews — by listing the discrepancies between the real Kramer and the fictitious Kramer. He is not exactly like his small-screen namesake. Whereas Cosmo Kramer’s hair defies gravity and lurches upward, Kenny Kramer’s long graying hair flows down below his shoulders. He sports a mustache. And he doesn’t walk with the tics and spasms of Cosmo. “People who walk around like Cosmo Kramer are in mental institutions,” Kramer said. “I walk around like a normal person.”
Most Seinfeldians will be shocked to learn that Kramer is not the food moocher he has been made out to be (David was the mooch). He has no Japanese tourists living in his dresser drawers, and he doesn’t go into seizures upon hearing Mary Hart’s voice.
That said, there are great similarities between the sloppy, carefree lifestyles of Cosmo and Kenny.
Kramer is filled with oddball ideas. (He plans on writing a book about David, to whom he still speaks on the phone every week or so, titled, “The Book of David.”) He knows how to get around New York without paying for anything. (“Retail is for suckers,” his namesake once declared.) He works one day per week, leading his tour, and spends the rest of the time playing golf for charity or hanging out in comedy clubs and with chums. His life with David and Seinfeld — much like Cosmo’s time with George and Jerry — consisted of benign banter. “We were these Jewish guys sitting around joking all the time,” he said.
Kramer was born in the West Bronx and attended Manhattan’s School for the Performing Arts. He dropped out at age 17 and went to work for Jay Jason, a Borscht Belt-style stand-up comic. When Kramer had enough of giving his boss jokes that he thought he could tell better himself, he struck out on his own as a comedian. What did his act cover? “Dope, sex and rock ‘n’ roll,” Kramer said with a mischievous grin. He toured with rock bands like Three Dog Night and Blood, Sweat & Tears, and opened for acts throughout the 1970s. Kenny lived with Melanie — his daughter from a youthful marriage — in the cheap paradise of Manhattan Plaza while doing various gigs. In the early 1980s, he invented electronic jewelry (an apparatus that consisted of blinking lights, powered by hearing-aid batteries, on necklaces and rings), which brought him enough money to retire happily. “I had no work ethic,” Kramer admitted. “So why the hell should I break my balls?”
When “Seinfeld” became a runaway success, Kramer began scheming for a way to capitalize on his name. He first had the idea to publish a CD-ROM called “Kramer’s New York,” which would explain how to navigate the city without paying for anything. As he was working on the proposal, a Grey Line bus floated past his window and a light bulb went on in his head.
Kramer starts his $37.50 tour with an hour-long routine about “Seinfeld.” He tells stories about David’s life as a struggling comedian and a writer on the short-lived ABC Television show “Fridays.” (When he was on “Fridays,” David wrote a notorious sketch about two chasidic rabbi ninja secret agents called M.A.T.Z.O.I.: Mobile Attack Trained Zionist Operation International. These rabbis would hurl matzo at their enemies as if they were ninja stars. “ABC, which aired this a number of times, never got any phone calls or complaints about it,” Kramer told a recent tour. “We figured out why: ’cause, you see, this was on Friday nights….”)
After giving his groups plenty of time to load up on Kramer shot glasses, coffee mugs and T-shirts, he gets on a tour bus and shows his customers around the city.
Kramer takes his tour to the Westway Diner (the real coffee shop where David and Seinfeld dreamed up “a show about nothing”), Joe’s fruit stand (where David was banned for squeezing fruit), Roosevelt Hospital (where Cosmo Kramer dropped a Junior Mint into a patient’s chest cavity during an operation), the real 129 West 81st Street (where Jerry and Cosmo lived on the program), the Soup Kitchen International (the inspiration for the Soup Nazi), Tom’s Diner on the Upper West Side (aka Monk’s) and various other locales from the series.
Finally, Kramer is allowed to be Kramer.