The best entrance in the history of television. Perhaps patrons yelling “Norm!” each time Norm Peterson entered the bar on Cheers is the most memorable. But for sheer, unpredictable comedy, nothing beats Cosmo Kramer sliding into Jerry’s apartment. The precision with which the door whips open and Kramer slides in is art. When watching episodes as they aired for the first time, viewers were on the edge of their seats, awaiting his entrance with bated breath. Kramer carried Seinfeld in the most important way a character could. He was simply the funniest person in any scene he appeared in.
The reason for Seinfeld’s crown as the greatest comedy of all time is the characters. George, a neurotic, self-loathing buffoon unable to keep a job or his cool. Elaine, a self-confident guy’s gal, her intelligence dragged down by the company she kept. Jerry, a successful narcissist, the straight man in charge of moderating his friend’s poor choices.
While these three squeezed laughs from everyday incompetence, Kramer’s antics pushed the absurdity past the nothingness the show used as a tag line.
A reality bus tour of his life.
A talk show set in his apartment.
An intern to manage his everyday affairs.
The purchase of a chicken for farm fresh eggs, only to learn it was a rooster, leading to involvement in a cockfighting ring.
While the others dealt with bad dates, office mishaps, and parental squabbles, Kramer remained unburdened with these normalcies, free to roam the streets, making countless friends and enemies.
George, the incompetent idiot, causes the viewer to yell at the screen, frustrating them with bad choices and moronic actions. Lacking confidence until the moment calls for tentativeness, he then changes course, self assurance blazing. If only he would have stuck with the opposite.
The best recurring characters were attached to Elaine. David Puddy and J. Peterman parachute in randomly, opposites on the intelligence scale, equals in hilarity. A slight will they or won’t they story arc between her and Jerry, it may have been the only time in television history the viewer rooted for won’t they. Elaine was matter-of-fact funny, frustrated by the incompetence of her idiot friends but too much like them to find, or keep, new ones.
Jerry was left to police the group, the central connection of this ragtag team. He tried to behave as the voice of reason, although his mocking, dismissive tone toward his friend’s zany ideas only functioned to egg them on. His exasperation with his friends’ lives gave way to acceptance, dragging him into their foolishness.
Which leads us to Kramer, and why he is the funniest of the bunch. The absurdity of the character is undeniable. Nothing was out of bounds. It was just as believable that he would lather himself with butter to shave as it was that he could convincingly play a dermatologist, hunting for moles.
The key, however, is the physical comedy. Lanky, athletic yet clumsy, Michael Richard’s devotion to harming himself for laughs is the essence of Kramer. What is funnier in everyday life than watching someone fall down? As long as they aren’t seriously injured, nothing beats it. Whether tumbling to the ground while hauling in groceries to his apartment or hitting the concrete on a rainy afternoon with his pants overstuffed with change, his awkwardness never tires.
Kramer is also, by far, the most likable of the characters. While at times he engages in boorish behavior with the others, he normally remains above the fray, an unlikely moral guidepost for the group. He chastises Elaine for going back on her word by not giving him her bike for rearranging her neck. Tells Jerry he would turn him in for murder. Turns Newman in when he finds out he’s the scofflaw. None of the others carried a moral bone in their body. It was a hole in the finale. While Jerry, Elaine, and George deserved jail time, Kramer was the epitome of a good Samaritan.
What was the show without Kramer? Look back at the beginning episodes, before the character finds himself. While funny, the show does not grab you until Kramer becomes Kramer. In “The Alternate Side,” maybe the most famous line in the show’s history is uttered.
These pretzels are making me thirsty.
Innocuous out of context, they represent the arrival of Kramer as a character. Under used in many episodes in the first two seasons, he’s portrayed as the doofus neighbor, dumb and mistake prone. After landing a role in a Woody Allen movie, however, the character takes a step away from an inept neighbor haphazardly appearing in episodes to the central figure in many of the laughs the show revolves around. While still clumsy and oblivious, Kramer becomes lovable, the one person on the show the viewer roots for, one fall at a time.