Although the categories have become considerably more porous in recent years, audiences seem to have different types of loyalty toward movie and television stars. Essentially, fans of a movie star are fans of the actor, while fans of a TV star are fans of the character. Give the same TV actor a new character on a new program, and their popularity is hard to transfer. Matthew Perry, Patricia Heaton, and Michael J. Fox, for instance, were massively popular on the shows that made them famous (Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Family Ties, respectively), but none of that affection followed them to their high-profile returns to the small screen in Go On, Back To You, and The Michael J. Fox Show. (This could also be why Chris Evans hasn’t been a box-office draw outside of the Avengers franchise: He’s yet to garner a fan base that wants to see him out from behind Captain America’s shield.)
Perhaps the most famous example of this idea is the so-called “Seinfeld curse,” a reference to how the stars of one of the most popular shows ever struggled to make lightning strike twice. Jason Alexander flopped with a pair of post-Seinfeld comedies: first with Bob Patterson in 2001 and then with Listen Up! in 2004. Julia Louis-Dreyfus struggled with Watching Ellie before becoming the exception to the rule with The New Adventures Of Old Christine and (especially) Veep.
But when the “curse” is evoked, it’s really in reference to one name: Michael Richards. When Seinfeld ended in 1998, Richards was one of the most popular and beloved actors in show business. Not only was he coming off an historic success, a show that is still a consensus choice for the medium’s defining comedy, but his iconic performance as Cosmo Kramer was a major factor behind its popularity. That he would find another multi-camera project was inevitable, but when The Michael Richard Show debuted two years later, it lasted all of nine episodes, one of which went unaired. Despite featuring Seinfeld’s breakout actor, and being developed by several veterans of “the show about nothing” (including writers Spike Feresten, Gregg Kavet, and Andy Robin), the fans didn’t follow the star to his new namesake endeavor. It would be 13 years before he appeared as a regular on another series (TV Land’s Kirstie), a drought that was intensified by his racist tirade at the Laugh Factory in 2006.
Countless causes for the show’s failure can be identified, but a fundamental one is that no one seemed to know who Richards’ new character—a private investigator named Vic Nardozza—was supposed be. NBC would have undoubtedly been happy to have a “Kramer” back on the airwaves, while Richards reportedly wanted to move past the role he was known for, to play something low-key and verbal, as would befit a comedic take on the hard-boiled gumshoe archetype. The confusion was so bad that William Devane—who played Brady McKay, the head of Nardozza’s agency—described the experience of making it as “a nightmare.” He added that the show was “unfixable” and that Richards “had a real warped sense of what it was.”
Throughout the abbreviated season, Richard’s performance seems to flip between two characters. We get a few glimpses of a goofily pretentious type, a character who dismisses Beethoven as a “nine-hit wonder” and attempts to pick up a woman with the line, “What do you think is the best religion?” This version wouldn’t be a bad personality to build a show around: He was amusing, but not so outrageous that the rest of the show was destabilized. (Generally, sitcoms work better when the main character isn’t the wacky one, though the best comedies have straight men who are funny in their own way.)
Unfortunately, the other performance Richards gives is not only weaker but also becomes far more prevalent as the episodes go on. This version of the character is broad and slapstick: Kramer, basically, though with none of his anarchic spirit. Familiar tics like exaggerated double-takes and unexpected tumbles entered the repertoire, as extended sequences of physical comedy were shoehorned into the stories.
The two tones resulted in a whiplash from episode to episode, sometimes from scene to scene. In one cold open, Nardozza conducts a stakeout while laying on a bed of fire ants, to a predictable freak-out; neither the subjects of the stakeout nor the ants are mentioned again.
The whiplash may not have been a problem in a casual “hangout” show, but the detective premise gave Michael Richards distinct mystery elements that forced it to be more plot-centric than most sitcoms. Given that, character inconsistency had a detrimental impact on everything. Sometimes Nardozza was cool and competent; sometimes he flailed about. Richards is a peerless physical comedian, but if audiences didn’t know where he stood—if he was dumb or just playing dumb to trap a suspect, for instance—the humor couldn’t work. It’s actually debatable whether the show was trying to be a relatively straight detective series with some gags thrown in or an out-and-out parody that skewered the tough-as-nails archetype. (A sample of the show’s hard-boiled dialogue: “If I’m not out in 30 seconds, don’t believe a word I say.”)
Beyond the character issues, the show gave itself a hard hurdle to overcome with the requirements of its genre. While the idea of a comedic shamus seems like a promising one, TV’s best mysteries have been told in longer formats, like the NBC Mystery Movie adventures of Columbo, McCloud, and the McMillans, or Veronica Mars’ season-long arcs. Whodunits need to have a certain level of complexity to be satisfying, while a half hour offers pitifully little time to develop clues, suspects, or red herrings, especially when you factor in the time needed for jokes and commercials. It isn’t surprising that a more successfully funny gumshoe—the one-season wonder Andy Barker, P.I.—was filmed single-camera style, which allows for more rapid-fire storytelling and joke telling. (It also isn’t surprising that Barker was only a cult success.)
The struggles on this score were somewhat surprising, as Seinfeld’s scripts were famously well-constructed, with clockwork timing and unexpected storyline connections. One would expect that writers with that experience—along with alumni of The Simpsons, NewsRadio, and The Chris Rock Show—could cook up some corking crime plots, but The Michael Richards Show’s mysteries barely qualify as such, so easily are they solved. In one episode, a retirement home burglar is caught by, duh, a security camera, rendering Nardozza’s undercover stint in old-man makeup irrelevant. In another, he’s tasked with determining whether a client’s fiancée is faithful; the woman drags him to bed within a minute of meeting him, despite 1) her dubbing him the worst pickup artist she’s ever seen, and 2) his being so sore from working out that he’s immobile. There’s not much fun in a mystery show when the mysteries solve themselves.
To an extent, the show seemed to realize this, and it sometimes used the cracking of the case as an act break rather than the end of the episode. When Nardozza has his personal information stolen, he quickly catches the culprit, then recruits him as a kind of personal advisor. After fellow investigator Tim Meadows deduces that a diner doesn’t have a racial bias in its hiring practices, he decides to keep working there, preferring it to the agency.
That a major subplot for Meadows, who had just come off his lengthy and popular stint on Saturday Night Live, simply involved his working as a waiter indicates how much the supporting cast—including Bill Cobbs and Amy Farrington as other investigators—had to defer to the star, comedically. And while a case-of-the-week format would seem to give the writers ample opportunity to create memorable clients and criminals, none of the guest stars here (including Ed Begley Jr. and Jeff Garlin) left a fraction of the impact of even Seinfeld’s disposable love interests, let alone someone like the Soup Nazi, who emerged from a Spike Feresten script. Beyond everything else—the problems with its mysteries, the inconsistent characterizations—The Michael Richards Show had surprising trouble with that most basic of sitcom functions: coming up with funny lines. Consider this conversation between Cobbs’ cranky lifer Jack and Meadows’ newbie Kevin, and see if you laugh along with the studio audience:
Jack: You left the hot plate on.
Kevin: I’m making soup.
Jack: Someone’s going to put their arm on that. [Audience laughs.] You know what kind of burn that is?
Kevin: [Puts a kettle on the hot plate.] Now a pot is on it, okay? [Audience laughs.]
Jack: That’s a third-degree burn. [Audience laughs.] That’s the worst kind of burn there is. That makes you the worst co-worker there is. [Audience laughs.]
Elsewhere, gags reeked of the cockiness of writers who had long pulled off the impossible and were convinced they still could. Whereas an episode of Seinfeld could unexpectedly turn into an elaborate parody of Oliver Stone’s JFK, an offhand mention of An Officer And A Gentleman on The Michael Richards Show is apparently enough to recreate that film’s ending, apropos of nothing. And where Seinfeld basically got away with murder, Michael Richards’ edgy jokes land on the wrong side of the funny/offensive divide: One episode features a racist dog getting swastika-shaped stitches, which the veterinarian offers to hide under a KKK-esque hood. Arranging for a colleague to go undercover as a lesbian, Nardozza derides her wardrobe as “not butch enough.” Brady extols his strategy of unwinding with a six-pack, saying, “That little plan saved my ex-wife’s life many times.” The episode with the unfaithful fiancée opens with Nardozza declaring, “Women are robots,” and features him getting raped twice, both times accompanied by hearty whoops from the audience bleachers. Some of these jokes could conceivably work under other circumstances, but here they’re unearned and off-putting.
All that said, judging sitcoms by their early episodes isn’t necessarily fair—even Seinfeld took a couple seasons to nail its tone and for its ensemble to gel. Perhaps this is why TV actors have a harder time generating repeat successes: Audiences grow to expect a certain level of quality from stars they’ve grown familiar with, and that level is just easier to reach on a fourth or fifth season than a first. Given its pedigree, it isn’t implausible that The Michael Richards Show could have become a show worth watching. The problem was it was both too familiar in tone, and too unfamiliar in quality, for Richards to rebuild his audience’s loyalty. What reason did anyone have to tune in, really, what with Kramer actually being Kramer in reruns a few channels over?
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wannabe.