A TINY TAKE-OUT JOINT ON MANHATTAN’S gritty Ninth Avenue, Kam-Wei Kitchen is not the kind of landmark where you would expect to find a gaggle of tourists. But this sunny Saturday afternoon, 26 sightseers are gazing out their minibus window at the restaurant’s mustard-yellow sign as raptly as if they were getting their first glimpse of Graceland. And in a way, they are. These pilgrims are Seinfeld devotees, and they’re staring at the site from which, in a classic 1991 episode of the NBC sitcom, a delivery boy brought an order to George Costanza—and ended up helping him call China to order a baldness cure. As the passengers crane their necks for a better view, their guide provides some background:
“Larry David [the show’s balding co-creator] saw the product on CNN,” says the lanky dude at the front of the bus. “When he got it, I said, ‘Let’s do a before of your head.’ And every time he thought there was a little growth, we said, ‘Let’s go to the videotape.’ ” Which is just what happens now on the monitor up front, as the guide rolls footage, circa 1985, of David sitting forlornly on a couch as the camera scans his shiny scalp.
Welcome to Kramer’s Reality Tour, the three-hour ramble past Seinfeldian sights on Manhattan’s West Side presided over by 52-year-old Kenny Kramer—or, as he calls himself, the Real Kramer. The former standup comic is in fact the acknowledged inspiration for Jerry Seinfeld’s endearingly oddball neighbor, played on TV by actor Michael Richards. Like Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer, whom he modestly calls “one of the greatest characters in the history of television,” Kenny Kramer is wide-eyed and wild-haired, has few apparent means of support, no shortage of female admirers and lots of ideas on how to make money. He also shares the TV Kramer’s penchant for out-of-left-field pronouncements, which is why he runs the tour with a partner.
“I try to keep Kenny in reality as much as possible,” explains Kramer’s partner Bobby Allen Brooks, 44, another ex-comic. “He can go off on tangents and talk for two hours about the Internet.” This afternoon that doesn’t happen, as Brooks gently steers Kramer into serving up the insider poop for which his audience, mostly New Yorkers with a sprinkling of foreign fans, has paid their $37.50. (The thus-far unadvertised tours, which depart from the John Houseman Theatre, are offered twice on both Saturdays and Sundays.) “We have other lives,” says Ellen Mayer, a social worker from Hauppauge, N.Y., who admits to planning her Thursday nights around Seinfeld. “But barely.”
Passing Bak’s Market, formerly Joe’s Fruits, at Ninth Avenue and 44th Street, Kramer describes the episode in which his counterpart was banned for returning a bad peach. At St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital on 59th Street, he reminds his audience that this is where TV’s Kramer dropped a Junior Mint into a patient in surgery. Outside the Sony multiplex at 84th and Broadway, Kramer states, “This is where Jerry was making out during Schindler’s List.”
The bus slows as it passes the apartment on West 81st Street and Columbus Avenue where Seinfeld once lived and stops at the tour’s emotional high point—Tom’s Restaurant, at 112th Street and Broadway, which provides the exterior view of the diner where Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer hang out on TV (the show’s interiors are shot in Los Angeles), “Every time I talk to the owner,” claims Kramer, “he says, ‘Why don’t you bring Jerry by? I’d give him breakfast.’ ”
Kramer has downed his share of Junior Mints with Seinfeld, whom he got to know in the ’70s when both of them worked the comedy-club circuit. But it was David who became his close friend when they lived across the hall from each other in a Manhattan high-rise from 1982 to ’89. “Kenny had a particular way of looking at the world that I thought was pretty funny,” David says. “He was extremely tactless, which I found hilarious when I wasn’t the butt of it.”
The two were in and out of each other’s apartments so often, says comedian pal John Mendoza, that “it was almost like a heterosexual Birdcage.” Mendoza says the Seinfeld characters’ bickering camaraderie is based largely on the pair’s relationship. “They would have arguments about who’s got the better doctor, the better fruit. They were kind of like married.”
Kramer, though, was hardly the breadwinner. While David wrote comedy pilots, Kramer took strange, shortlived jobs. His résumé includes working as an agent for bra models and making glow-in-the-dark disco jewelry. Yet, says Brooks, “Kenny played golf. He was in the hot tub. He was on the sun-deck. We don’t know how he did it, and he won’t tell us.”
He still won’t. “Let the mystique remain,” says Kramer, who grew up in the Bronx alone with his mother, Birdy, now 84. (His father, Emil, was killed in World War II before Kramer was 2.) And he’s still alone—”an affable bachelor,” he says—after two failed marriages. The first produced a daughter, Melanie, now 25 and a recent college grad, the second lasted only 10 days. Despite his aversion to routine, he sought the show’s Kramer role before being paid a small sum for the use of his name. (He retains the rights to his life story.) There are no hard feelings though. Kramer calls Richards, who has won two Emmys in the part, “absolutely charming” and says he flies out to L.A. to visit David a couple of times a year, staying in a guest house in the producer’s backyard—”what I call the Kato shack.”
The way their pal Brooks sees it, the Kramer-David relationship has come full circle. “Seven years ago they were just two weird guys who lived across the hall from each other,” he explains. “And now they’re both making a living talking about each other.”
MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City