Real-life Kramer rides coattalils of 'Seinfeld' show

September 23, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NEW YORK - Standing outside his apartment building at 42nd Street and 10th Avenue is Kenny Kramer, the most famous next-door neighbor since Ethel Mertz. Kenny's the real-life Kramer on whom the "Seinfeld" character is based. In the great American way, the show's a hit, and Kenny Kramer's living off its residuals.

Meaning, at the moment, he's giving weekend tours of Seinfeldian Manhattan. Kramer's Reality Tour, it's called. He ushers 60 people at a time onto an air-conditioned bus and gives them a tour of the real-life hangouts of the "Seinfeld" characters.

Such as 42nd Street west of Times Square, in the shadow of the building where a fellow named Larry David lived across the hall from Kenny Kramer. On such geographical chance, a TV show was born when a fellow named Jerry Seinfeld dropped by one day with an idea for a network comedy.

"Yeah, this block is now a bunch of off-off-Broadway theaters," Kramer was saying the other day, gesturing grandly along 42nd Street. "But only a couple of years ago, it was porno houses, peep shows, prostitutes." He shakes his woolly head ruefully. "Yeah, I miss that old neighborhood."

The neighborhood's changed, but Kramer hasn't. In place of actual work, to which he has multiple aversions, he's still doing shtick. In the TV show, Kramer accidentally drops a Junior Mint into the middle of a guy's spleenectomy; on the Reality Tour, here's the hospital where they got the idea for the episode. On the TV screen, Kramer spots Salman Rushdie in the steam room at the New York Racquet Club. It's on the tour, even if Rushdie isn't.

The real Kramer's a guy cheerfully cashing in for all he's worth. One moment he's running for mayor of New York, and then he's backing out after milking it for as much free publicity as he can get. So then he creates Kramer's Reality Tour ($37.50, which includes Junior Mints and Kramer vegetarian pizza), a venture he happily calls "a shameless attempt to capitalize on my illustrious name and branded identity."

It's a kibitz, and it's also a lesson in modern culture: Stand close enough to the limelight, and you might catch some of its glow.

"The people who produce 'Seinfeld,'" Kramer is asked. "They haven't tried to stop you from capitalizing on their show?"

"How could they?" he replies. "I hold all the rights to my own life."

On such whims, and on such a lifestyle involving no previously visible means of support, Kramer has become a legend who's cashing in on guys who are cashing in on him. It's life imitating art imitating life. Kramer just cuts out the middle man.

Before there was "Seinfeld," there was the Kramer born 53 years ago in The Bronx, the high school dropout who sold magazines door to door, who played drums in a Catskills resort band, who did unprofitable stand-up comedy for a decade, and then hit on his first grand killer idea: electronic disco jewelry, where he had 15-cent red lights attached to 10-cent watch batteries and sold them for $6 in the discos.

He moved into the Manhattan Plaza housing complex for performing artists and discovered one of his neighbors was the playwright Tennessee Williams.

"He was gay - not that there's anything wrong with that," Kramer laughs, echoing a catch phrase from the show. "We would kibitz on the elevator. Although, he would think of it as flirting."

Kramer became friends with the fellow directly across the hall, Larry David. He'd gone to the University of Maryland and then launched himself as a stand-up comic. David lived a life he would later make famous - in the guise of the show's George Costanza.

"Larry once said he had a combination of the two worst traits," Kramer says. "A vicious temper, accompanied by no guts."

Not getting much work as a stand-up comic ("He tended to insult his audiences if they weren't laughing enough"), David was approached by Jerry Seinfeld about creating a TV sitcom.

They'd work in David's apartment and notice the guy across the hall, Kenny Kramer, having a swell time with constant women, constant parties, while never particularly working for a living. Soon, a light bulb went on in Seinfeld's head.

"Would you mind if we fashioned one of the characters after you?"

"Mind?" Kramer said. "Hell, I'd like to play him."

They needed a professional for that and found Michael Richards. Real-life Kramer thinks TV Kramer is great. But, when they fashioned an episode in which Jerry and George write a sitcom in which actors try out for the roles of the show's characters, Kenny Kramer asked, "How about if I play the guy trying out to play me?"

"Nah," he was told. "You wouldn't be right for it."

So he's done the next best thing, marketing himself as the real version of the most popular show in the country. His tour's a smash. He's booked for appearances in several countries where "Seinfeld" is carried. And he says there's talk of a "K-Man" line of clothes.

Also, Kramer mentions the possibility of getting an actor to play him on the Reality Tour, so he can cash in while not actually working. It's a whole life aimed at doing nothing. What a concept.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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