Passing Time and Ruin: Michael Richards and the Afterlife of Performance in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – Elliott Logan

Seinfeld with Larry David in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Seinfeld with Larry David in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

This article appreciates the Michael Richards episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s online video series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Crackle, 2012-).[1] I claim the episode is distinguished among the series by its unexpectedly poignant images of Richards giving performances, and of people watching them. The episode achieves this distinction and poignancy by treating Richards’s onscreen presence, both within the episode’s limits and beyond, as a ruin. This treatment stems from the history of Richards’s image built-up through his decade-long role as Kramer in the sitcom Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998), and of the shattering of that image by the footage of his racist tirade during a 2006 stand-up routine at a Los Angeles comedy club. It will also been seen to rely upon the way long-running television representations are related to the concepts of fragment and ruin developed in Romantic criticism.

Jason Jacobs has pointed to this relationship as a way of thinking about how television serials develop as a series of fragments, of individual episodes and seasons formed as discrete works with their own borders, which are at once clearly demarcated “yet also blurred” by their relationship to the show’s past history, and to its future history that will yet unfold. Under the pressure of time, Jacobs writes, “[c]haracters and their shows become ruins” (2001, 444, 445). Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee treat Michael Richards as a ruin in order to excavate the long history of his image as a television performer. This excavation does more than show Richards’s current inhabitation of self to be a palimpsest of past performances. Rather, our continued witness to his singular performative presence in the here and now evokes his past talent and reveals its continuing present vitality, as a force seemingly able to overcome Richards’s fractious personal history to restore, from its tarnished, time-worn condition, an earlier sense of his comic persona. Does television’s deep bank of history (such as that accumulated by Seinfeld’s decade-long run), and its capacious future histories, make its performers peculiarly susceptible to ruinous degradation over time? But does it also allow them a special capacity for the gradual restoration or recovery of that ruined presence and self?

Before investigating these claims and questions about Michael Richards in Comedians in Cars, it should be acknowledged they might be seen as a bit grand for what could appear to be a fairly ephemeral piece of online curiosity, one intended to do no more than while away fifteen minutes of cheap time. Indeed, it seems right to greet the altitude of my claims with some scepticism, and so therefore necessary to more strongly justify my treatment of the series in the terms above. The scepticism feels appropriate because my claims to poignancy and profundity appear substantially at odds with the initial appeal of the series itself. As noted, the series is distributed online, through both a stand-alone website and YouTube. So it already courts insignificance by being placed on the Internet, a media flow that, in my experience at least, strongly lends itself to a fickle mood conducive to only momentary fragments of absorption, flotsam quickly lost amidst a sea of distraction. Another important aspect of this is Seinfeld’s heritage as a “show about nothing”. The style of Comedians in Cars does little to upset these assumptions about the demands it will make on our attention, yet, if closely considered, reveals time and its pressures to be a central concern. The opening moments of the first episode, which features Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, give us a good lesson in these aspects of the show. “Larry Eats a Pancake”, the title already framing events as inconsequential in the extreme, begins simply with a series of close-up and long shots of a well-kept blue Volkswagen Beetle. These are relatively banal images that quietly invite our gentle admiration of the vehicle’s endearing design, and of the owner’s obvious appreciation and care for it, registered in the perfect sheen of the paintwork and the beaming chrome inside the engine bay. The sense that not very much is being asked of us is encouraged by the music, a generic jazz-funk muzak number, the kind of thing you’ve heard a dozen times while being kept on hold; music to wait patiently to. This interest in evoking an experience of time develops as the episode gets past its first segment, in which the vehicle and guest are introduced. As Seinfeld and Larry meet up, the music moves into a related but changed mood, from being on hold to waiting in the cocktail lounge of a hotel lobby; it’s all light and jangly piano keys with lots of space in-between, space in which to wait for friends to arrive, to share in the leisure of passing time, together. Just prior to the announcement and introduction of the guest, the title design of each episode also inducts us into a world of undemanding simplicity. The background is an image of milk being poured into black coffee, over which the straightforward, right-to-the-point title appears, word by obvious word.

Figure 1. Announcing a world of undemanding simplicity.

Figure 1. Announcing a world of undemanding simplicity.

But what especially ushers in a sense of homespun, nostalgic innocence is the font. Each word is rendered in a hand-drawn white outline, hastily crosshatched, as if sketched in a hurry on an easel-mounted chalkboard. This evokes the elementary, returning us to a childhood time in which our materials were more straightforward, the stuff of play insulated from a world of adult dilemmas, which are difficult to straighten out and put right. But by evoking the classroom, the font also suggests we are entering a world concerned with something like education, that a kind of learning might be at stake. However, this more serious suggestion is for the moment only a slight undercurrent. It is soon after submerged by the more immediate sense that we are in for a day of leisurely time wasting and the avoidance of serious obligation. This is declared in the voice-over recording of Seinfeld telephoning Larry and inviting him to coffee, the first instance of what will become a structural motif given varied repetition across each of the episodes. Seinfeld asks Larry if he wants “to do something”, a proposition about which Larry is enthusiastic, prompting Jerry to be amazed that he even has the time: “Really, you’re free?” Larry gives a painful groan of uncertainty, but then eventually buckles: “Yeah, I can be free.” Variations on this exchange are repeated each episode. One of my favourites is the one with Alec Baldwin, who features in the fourth episode of season one. Baldwin responds to the invitation with a sharp fit of disbelief (“Right now?”), but almost immediately recognises the appeal of an unexpected excursion, and puts away his other plans: “Uh, I’ll be downstairs in what, thirty minutes?” Or consider Sarah Silverman, excited in episode one of season two: “Come pick me up! What am I, busy?”

At this point it has to be acknowledged that, of course, the outings are organised ahead of time, and the participants are possibly renumerated for that time. (Don Rickles, at the very beginning of season two’s fourth episode, concedes this in a crusty wisecrack: “Okay, listen, hurry up, ‘cause for the money you’re payin’ me, this should be over.”) However, these factors only amplify my claims, because they mean these exchanges early in each episode take on the character of deliberate performative choices, further licensing us to ask: Why are they here, like this? The matter of the intention behind them becomes both legitimate and urgent. It is urgent because these exchanges are something like bedrock for one of the series’ central attractions, a crucial component of what makes it so pleasurable to watch. They evoke a world in which there are no impediments to unplanned propositions to hang out and chat, or at least one in which there are such obstacles, but they are not so serious that they can’t be overcome.

So Comedians in Cars declares itself as a strange species of talk show, which Stanley Cavell, in his essay “The Fact of Television”, understands as the format that has “the most elaborate” of television’s “requirements or opportunities for improvisation”.[2] This elaborateness comes from the format’s “monologues, and hence the interruptions and accidents that expert monologues invite, and with their more or less extended interviews” (Cavell 1982, 87-88). These qualities of television talk are central to what Cavell sees television to be a medium for. Cavell claims that through television we “monitor” what we fear is “the growing uninhabitability of the world” (1982, 95), that it can “no longer be humanly responded to” (1982, 88). Important to my argument about Comedians in Cars, a talk show whose attraction is spontaneous conversation, is Cavell’s claim that the strongest sign of the continued existence and force of such human response is “improvisation” (1982, 88). In a brilliant recent essay that takes up Cavell’s under-utilised ideas, Alex Clayton writes that “[f]oregrounding the capacity for improvisation, aliveness to one another … is one way in which the medium pacifies this terrible thought” (2013, 91), the thought of the world’s “growing uninhabitability”. The implication of Cavell’s essay for my argument is that the time Seinfeld and his guest spend together becomes a measure of the continued availability and power of improvisation and conversation in a world otherwise pressurised against these forms of human response, a potential pressure registered by the initial (or implicit) uncertainty of each episode’s opening moments of talk.

What Seinfeld and his guests then go on to talk about, and the way the show handles this talking, links the series’ ambient interest in time and improvisation to its other major concern: performance. The wonderful Alec Baldwin episode gives a good example. In an early segment the pair drives around New York City, discussing their respective lives and careers in terms of effort expended and reward gained over many years. Shortly after Baldwin mockingly characterises Seinfeld’s life as “one unbroken boulevard of green lights”, Seinfeld asks Baldwin “Who do you think has worked harder to get where they are: you, or me?” Then, once Baldwin has had a chance to do an amazing bit of impression about the petty professional rivalry between Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, he and Seinfeld get lunch. Among other things, the two talk about whether Seinfeld ever wished to pursue a career as, in Baldwin’s words, a “straight” actor, and whether or not he possesses that ineffable quality that earns brilliant screen actors the right to so powerfully compel our attention and imagination; “You can look in my eyes, you can see it’s not there,” Seinfeld says. (Baldwin notes it might be more a matter of whether or not Seinfeld has the psychological wherewithal to realise those qualities more fully.)

After many digressions that allow Baldwin to demonstrate his skill at improvisation and impression, not only to Seinfeld as his audience but also to the camera, their conversation leads Seinfeld to observe that Baldwin’s misfortune (albeit an enviable one) is to be a “gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.” (The rhythm and alliteration of “unbroken boulevard of green lights”, the spilling tumble of which evokes an accidental but miraculously graceful roll downhill, is one display of Baldwin’s talent for writing, even if that talent is realised through improvised performance of mock outrage: acting as writing on the spot.) So the free-ranging attention of their restless conversation, which seemingly alights on whatever will throw up some laughs at lunchtime, has a consistent and strong undercurrent about the individual capacities of body, voice, and mind that these two actors each possess, and about the gifts and torments and rewards and regrets that attend the exercise (or waste) of those capacities before a wide public over time.

The Alec Baldwin episode is a useful illustration of Comedians in Cars because it clearly reveals how one of the show’s central interests is worrying about performance. Indeed, in each episode, Seinfeld and his guests can be said to reflect on what George Kouvaros, in his astonishing study of the Magnum photographs taken of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits (Huston, 1961), identifies as a central subject of the changing postwar image of acting: “acting as labor” (2010, 88). In these photographs, “the emphasis is on the backstage business of being a star: the moments of preparation and waiting that are normally out of public view” (Kouvaros 2010, 84). Kouvaros traces how these images form part of an emerging postwar tradition or subgenre of photojournalism oriented around, and exerting influence upon, Hollywood star image and the related image of acting during the period.

The argument Kouvaros patiently elaborates is a deeply rich exploration of traditions of absorption and theatricality in eighteenth century painting and twentieth century photography in relation to changing historical understandings of the private self in public life.[3] Important to my purposes is his summary of the how these changing ways of photographing film stars like Monroe impacted the image of acting in the postwar period. For Kouvaros, these photographs reveal how “the glamour and ease once associated with playing to the camera has been transformed into something tentative and fundamentally uncertain” (2010, 101). That Comedians in Cars also understands acting and performance as tentative and uncertain can be seen in the way it treats them as professional activities that need to be obsessively turned-over and worried about through talk. The conversation between Seinfeld and Baldwin is evidence of this: it shows two highly successful actors focussing on how the demanding effort to pursue excellence and recognition through their craft over time produces not only the rewards of success, but also regret, weariness, and rivalry. This is crystallised in their attempts to measure their respective reservoirs of confidence and energy, which they acknowledge to have diminished in comparison to the over-brimming vitalities of youth. As Baldwin puts it in one of the episode’s final lines: “Only young people can keep those flames burning, those pots boiling all that time.”

Kouvaros’s writing helps to illuminate one way acting is talked about in Comedians in Cars in general: as a form of labour. Beyond this, he suggests a richly generative framework within which to consider the special poignancy of the Michael Richards episode in particular, and the way it handles the history and ruin of Richards’s image as an actor. Kouvaros provides this framework when he goes on to describe what thinking about acting as labour implies, which is “an understanding of acting untethered to action or to any clear outcome: acting as bearing witness to time” (2010, 143-144). The phrase is useful to the extent that it resists static definition in order to be powerfully evocative. This being said, it runs the risk of falling prey to the kind of fuzzy incoherence that often attends this sort of high-altitude abstraction. So to bring things more down to earth, what might “acting as bearing witness to time” look like onscreen? Kouvaros gives the example of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, in particular L’Eclisse (1962). He writes that the movie’s “sense of tiredness indicates that L’Eclisse begins at the point after something has ended. Although we don’t know what caused the breakdown, its reverberations are evident in the way time weighs heavily on the actors’ gestures and actions” (2010, 144). Kouvaros sees this tone as a product of Antonioni’s “temporal elongations”, the way he tends to allow shots and moments to linger longer than seems necessary, choices which “give rise to a form of acting based on qualities of observation and attention … to events and people that, for all intents and purposes, are incidental” (2010, 144-145).

We can understand Comedians in Cars as being generally linked to Kouvaros’s idea of “acting as bearing witness to time” through its own mode of apparently drifting, seemingly aimless attention. This is a kind of attention that, as I pointed out above, is mainly anchored by an interest in capturing objects, places, moods, gestures, and spoken words that cleave in various ways to the inexorable passing of time. Within this general tendency of the series, the Michael Richards episode especially resonates with “acting as bearing witness to time” through its particular connection to Kouvaros’s description of L’Eclisse. This connection is established through the scenes of Michael Richards performing in the episode, which gradually evoke and work-over the history of his image as a performer: the image sedimented through his nearly decade-long television role as Kramer, the shameful public shattering of that image by the footage of his racist tirade during the 2006 stand-up meltdown, and his subsequent appearance alongside Seinfeld on David Letterman’s Late Show. Even this broad summary should make apparent the episode’s parallel with Kouvaros’s account of “acting as bearing witness to time” in L’Eclisse: that it “begins after the point something has ended”, and that even if “we don’t know what caused the breakdown, its reverberations are evident in the way time weighs heavily” (2010, 144).

This connection is useful because through it the Michael Richards episode gives us an opportunity to consider the opportunities television provides for “acting as bearing witness to time”. As mentioned above, television series like Seinfeld are long-running works that rely for their force on a particular sense of time and the building-up of histories: histories of fictional worlds and characters, and histories of our relationships to those fictions. Serial television, in other words, has a particular “ability to generate a shared history with us”, and partly relies for its force on “our willingness to meet its challenges, to work with it in mutual inhabitancy” (Jacobs and Peacock 2013, 12). So serial television, as a medium of “mutual inhabitancy” over time, is one that produces works that—like cities built atop ruins—continually accrete layers of history as both they and we live into our shared, indeterminate futures. Might these attributes of television—what Horace Newcomb called its qualities of “intimacy, continuity, and history” (Newcomb 1974, 245)—allow for not only the close, long-range tracking of corrosion upon the features and presence of Richards, but also for the gathering, from that same history of collapse, some form of resource for recovering and reviving our earlier sense of his talent and gift?

These issues are quite difficult to clearly make out, but a way to consider how the episode presents them will emerge if we precisely note how, in the segment when Seinfeld introduces the vehicle, a sense of “time weighing heavily” first becomes apparent in the episode. As mentioned in my description of the Larry David episode and the blue Volkswagen Beetle, the series’ cars might at first seem to function as objects photographed merely for our appreciation of their autonomous formal qualities, whether for their elegant ease of line (a 1967 Austin-Healey roadster), or jolly oddity of angle and temperament (a run-down 1950 Citroën). The sense of pleasure for its own sake also stems from the connection between these vehicles and Seinfeld’s image as a wealthy collector of Porsche 911s, a mark of opulently pointless eccentricity. However, the Michael Richards episode finds a particular expressive relationship between Seinfeld’s chosen vehicle and his guest. The car is a 1962 Volkswagen van with a flatbed tray. As we watch the beaten-up oddity trundle about the streets of Los Angeles, Seinfeld informs us, in a voiceover that strikes the distanced appreciation of a car salesman on his shop floor, that the coat is “Dove Blue, Primer Grey, and Rust. The interior is grey vinyl, and duct tape.” Seinfeld tells us he was attracted to the weathered van because it was used as a service truck for a Porsche repair shop, but his voice betrays a stronger note of satisfaction in revealing that, in addition to the flatbed and two rows of seats, it has “an extra door on one side!” The shots of the car, and Seinfeld’s description spoken over them, immediately evoke and demand attention to the sedimentation of built-up exterior layers, and to their gradual erosion, revelation, and disintegration over time.

Figure 2. A sedimentation of layers.

Figure 2. A sedimentation of layers.

As well, Seinfeld’s enjoyment of the strange asymmetrical design (“an extra door on one side!”) raises eccentricity as a nicely surprising refusal of conventionally reassuring balance. So the car in this instance functions as more than just a pleasurable excursion into the lives of the well-off. With its visible layers of built-up and peeled-back paint, its wounded, barely held-together interior, and its off-kilter design, the Volkswagen is put to work as an emblem of Richards himself. In doing so, it instructs us about the episode’s interest in Richards: as a shifting palimpsest of character and persona that has been dynamically built-up and ground-down over time, his fictional exterior as ‘Kramer’ rudely ripped apart one night in a Los Angeles comedy club, our superficial idea of him stripped away to reveal a more pathologically eccentric and manic psychology than we ever imagined was contained within the oddball onscreen.

The metaphorical resonance between this vehicle and Richards is important because it asks us to revise our consideration of the role that the bodies of cars, and their surfaces, play in relation to the presence of performers in the show. What this means is that, despite the apparently undemanding simplicity of its style, Comedians in Cars requires consideration of a complex synthesis of the human presence of performers onscreen with other aspects of film style, such as camera position, mise-en-scène, and sound. Andrew Klevan describes well this relationship of mutual integration when he appreciates V.F. Perkins’s writing on coherence of performance and film apparatus in The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942): “The actor’s and the camera’s behaviour are mutually considerate; each trusts the other to enhance understanding and to relieve them of the sole burden of making themselves known” (2005, 14).[4] There is of course at least one important difference between the kind of work Perkins and Klevan admire in Welles, and that being undertaken by Seinfeld and his collaborators in Comedians in Cars. This point of difference is that the comedian’s talk show series is also a documentary and so does not display the type of intentional mastery and control of mise-en-scène that Welles engineered and enjoyed.[5] Nevertheless, the Michael Richards episode of Comedians in Cars uses its documentary attention to details as they pass by to find, in the world, a real-life mise-en-scène of significant relationships between setting, space, gesture, voice, and history.

Attending to these relationships reveals the episode’s testament to the effects of time’s passage on Richards’s image as a performer, and the way his presence as a performer can be seen to somewhat reverse this passage. It does so by calling forth memories of his earlier image that are able to in some way transcend the marks left by time. What I evoke is  a process that works upon the relationship between memory and physical aging that Walter Benjamin describes in his account of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. For Benjamin, the passage of time “in its most real—that is, space-bound—form … nowhere holds sway more openly than in remembrance within and ageing without” (quoted in Kouvaros 2010, 109).[6] In the Comedians in Cars episode, Richards’s long history of performance is the basis for memories that are shown to in some way overcome, if only for moments, aging without. I want to call this the afterlife of performance. It is a continued force of compelling human presence that is here accrued by our long history of intimate acquaintance with Richards’s inhabitation of Kramer. An objection could be that I am just describing something like ‘star presence’ or charisma, the capacity of some individuals famous for screen acting to continue compelling our attention and admiration beyond any single onscreen appearance. But here I think the word ‘afterlife’ captures something peculiar to the connection between Richards’s long, marbled history as Kramer, and his appearance in Comedians in Cars. It is to do with the episode’s negotiation of the potentially fatal damage caused to his image as Kramer by his catastrophic outburst on the Laugh Factory stage in 2006, and how certain moments of performance in the episode show him able to overcome this ruin.

Figures 3. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

Figure 3. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

The first instance of such performance occurs during an early segment of the episode, which also works to frame the history of Richards’s persona and star image in terms of ruin. As the pair drive north along the California coast towards Malibu, Richards points out to Seinfeld the monumental Getty Villa perched atop the cliff above them, and the camera’s views of the mansion make clear its dilapidation. The once-proud stone walls are marred by threatening structural cracks, and the swimming pool has already collapsed down the cliff face, exposing an empty void that was once a place of spirited frolicking and enjoyment, but is now only a testament to the inevitability of ruin as the world gives way beneath us.

Figure 4. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

Figure 4. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

For Richards, this becomes the topic of a sprightly comic ‘bit’, improvised to the incredible delight of Seinfeld, clearly enraptured by the company and performance of his long-time friend. Basking in the afterglow of his hysterical laughter, Seinfeld says to Richards: “You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you.” Seinfeld recalls in particular a moment from their show’s eighth season, the Kenny Rogers chicken episode (“The Chicken Roaster”, 8.18), in which Kramer opens Jerry’s door to the hallway and is snapped over backwards by the red light shining into Jerry’s apartment from across the corridor.

Figure 5. The Kenny Rogers chicken light.

Figure 5. The Kenny Rogers chicken light.

Despite not remembering the moment, Richards seems quietly pleased, and tells Seinfeld he gets the sense that being around his old friend will cause him to slowly become “that crazy character” again.

Across this segment, the episode quietly seizes and works upon the documentary detail of the day’s events so that the minutiae of two men’s ordinary words and gestures, as they pass, meet the grand scale of a monument of cultural achievements, collapsing as the earth subsides beneath it. The camera shows the villa as a fragile housing of riches, which attempts to recover a history that has in one sense passed, but that still presses on the present. One way the collapsing building and cliff connect with Richards is through their ambient resonance with how his face is also marked by time, not only by the fact of biological aging, but surely also by the inner travail of his terrible public shame and exile. Richards was of course not a young man by the time he was starring on Seinfeld, but his presence on the show was characterised by a seemingly irrepressible inner brightness that shone through a face able to always carry a mood youthful in spirit if not in flesh. What we saw of Richards in the wake of his meltdown, an image that ghosts his presence here, is something like what confronts Kouvaros in Richard Avedon’s portrait of Humphrey Bogart: “His bow tie and sportcoat link him to his screen roles. But, positioned inches from the lens, the iconic stature of Bogart’s face has crumbled. We are still looking at the face of Bogart, but what we also see is a face whose age and mortality compete on equal terms with its iconic status” (2010, 109).

This sense of competition between ageing and iconicity is heightened when Seinfeld evokes Richards’s bit of sprightly slapstick on their sitcom. This implicit juxtaposition of bodies reminds me of the way Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950) harnesses the moving image’s powerful testament to ageing by giving Gloria Swanson a dual presence onscreen, through her role as a former silent film star, and through the screening within the film of those earlier starring roles. As Stanley Cavell writes, “when we watch her watching her young films, the juxtaposition of the phases of her appearance cuts the knowledge into us, of the movie’s aging and ours, with every frame” (1979, 74). Wilder’s movie is a tragedy at least in part because the yawning gulf between images, personas, and times cannot be bridged, and so the Gloria Swanson character is attended by a sense of irrecoverable loss. By comparison, Comedians in Cars displays Richards as a man who still possesses his earlier performative capacities, and can find spaces and audiences hospitable to their exercise. The Getty Villa segment suggests these might overcome the ‘crumbling’ of his image and persona. This suggestion is in the effect of Richards’s bit about the villa’s disintegration, which sees Seinfeld given over to intense laughter, through which he remembers their wonderful work together so many years ago.

Figure 6. Seinfeld enlivened by Richards.

Figure 6. Seinfeld enlivened by Richards.

So the moment not only evokes past joy, but reveals also the ongoing availability of Richards’s vital companionship as a fellow comic performer, his continuing capacity to enliven Seinfeld despite what has fallen apart in the years in-between. Indeed, it is to Jerry’s reaction as a witness to performance that Richards responds with his promise he might become Kramer once more, recognising in Jerry’s hilarity the continued, present force of his own past, supposedly ruined comic persona.

 

Indeed, the episode’s views of Richards reveal how Kramer’s mannerisms of speech and gesture live on as a substrate of Richards himself, that ‘Kramer’ is still available for him to assume, an availability surely in part opened up by the deep intimacy between performer, character, and audience accrued over Richards’s decade inhabiting the role on television. This can be seen in intermittent shots of the pair making their way along the footpath, in which Richards unselfconsciously ambles in Kramer’s trademark gait, balancing between an elegant dignity and an ungainly lack of self-possession and awareness. A key moment that points to Richards’s boundary-blurring capacity to conjure an idea of his own ‘self’ while also being a conduit for the image of ‘Kramer’ is when, interrupting his meal with Seinfeld in the Malibu café, Richards acts-out his dramatic encounter with a homeless, chess-playing savant on a street in Hollywood, a man who seemed like a bum but beat Richards twice in quick succession and refused to play him again. Richards handles this story in a way that makes it a piece with one of Kramer’s more memorable moments of one-man performance in Seinfeld. This is the scene from “The Fire” (5.19) in which Kramer re-enacts for Jerry and George his experience frantically commandeering a city bus to drive an amputated toe to hospital while fighting off a mugger and making scheduled stops (“Well, people kept ringin’ the bell!”).

As in that scene, in the Malibu café we are again reminded of Richards’s wonderful capacity to not only craft a performance of himself as he narrates his own past, but also to turn, in an instant, his own typical manic gestures in ways that allow him to convincingly and generously bring to life the individuality and essence of other people, and to inhabit them before us. But the scene Richards conjures here, as he turns a café floor into a temporary stage, is more compelling than the Seinfeld moment precisely because of the way Richards uses his body to deftly manage our point of view, incrementally reversing our early view of his standing in relation to the homeless man. Clayton notes how moments of slapstick “metamorphosis” can “externalize[e] a dialectical negotiation between two potential selves” (2007, 188). Here we see that slapstick negotiation of an embodied ‘split’ take particular form in Richards’s enactment of a wish to transcend the limitations of past and body, and the boundaries they each erect around the future. This can be found in the way the scene serves as a microcosm of the ruination of Richards’s own image, and a wished-for rehabilitation of his self. Across the short skit, Richards’s initial superiority is slowly degraded moment-by-moment, until at the end he is left charging desperately after the homeless player, Richards now the beggar, pleading for another chance to re-set the game and begin again on an equal footing. Richards embodies the savant challenger and victor, on the other hand, so that what at first looks like clueless disconnection from the world shifts into a peculiar expression of dignified self-possession, a distinct elevation from his starting position down in the gutter, the lowly subject of Richards’s curious and superior gaze from above. The performance pivots on Richards’s fluent balance between his competing qualities of ungainliness and dignity, the sliding of one state of being into the other tipping him between duelling comportments that each compete for hard-won respect, and that pursue the chance for past failures to be set aside in order for Richards’s central appeal to be found afresh.

So there is not only a transformative quality to Richards’s capacity to slip his usual self and inhabit, within the same skin, an alternative but overlapping identity, but also in this slippage a desire for transformation, a wish that something in the past, or about the self, could be overcome or evaded. In this respect it is telling that the episode explicitly mentions only one moment of Richards’s long performance on Seinfeld: Kramer’s reaction to the red Kenny Rogers Chicken light. The brilliance of that gesture, described above, is to imbue the light with a physical power and force its appearance onscreen would otherwise not carry, indeed to transform what we can see of it. Through Richards, light onscreen is less an ethereal presence we see, and more a physical force we feel. Similarly, in Seinfeld’s enraptured fixation on Richards’s story of the former television superstar’s run-in with the homeless chess savant, we see that Richards’s talent is still to make the world become more present and alive to us. The juxtaposition of star image in Sunset Boulevard is attended by the irrecoverable loss of an unbridgeable gap between an image then and its ruins now. For Jodi Brooks, aging female film star characters like Swanson’s are connected to “forgotten moments of cinema”, and that, as “sole witnesses to their own disappearance, they have, it would seem, only one option—to reproduce and direct that disappearance, now with an audience, through performing an excessive visibility” (2001, n. pag.). Unlike Gloria Swanson’s film presence in Sunset Boulevard, Richards conjures his past television role as Kramer in ways that acknowledge it has passed, but is not lost, not “forgotten”. It is as if Richards’s long inhabitation of Kramer has, in our imagination of the two figures, fused them in such a way that Richards’s return from exile does not purely restage that exile, but seems able to recover from collapse the transformative force of his earlier image and comic persona. They persist not as mere remains of the past, but by remaining present, and powerful. What does the episode say about the source, nature, and limits of this continued presence and power?

The source, nature, and limits of this presence, call it Richards’s talent, are plumbed by the episode’s final segments and closing moments, which hinge around a matter raised when Seinfeld and Richards first arrive in Malibu: the weight of public performance. This weight can be understood as one cost of the labour of acting. Kouvaros describes how, in the images of Monroe on the set of The Misfits, this labour is attended by external and internal pressures of visibility that produce expressions of exhaustion, alienation, and anxious uncertainty.[7] The Comedians in Cars episode is first touched by such moods when Richards and Seinfeld step out of their car to walk across the coffee shop parking lot. Richards appears genuinely anxious about appearing in such an ordinary public place, and goes to the extent of wearing a wig and dark glasses in a comical attempt to disguise himself.

Figure 7. Seinfeld and Richards greet passers-by.

Figure 7. Seinfeld and Richards greet passers-by.

At this point the as-yet unspoken memory of Richards’s last, so infamous public appearance pushes-in on the episode to the point of discomfort, although its seriousness soon dissolves when his awful disguise almost exactly matches the real haircut of a man nearby.[8] By the episode’s end, this weight lifts in silent images of Richards pleasantly interacting with groups of people as he and Seinfeld make their way back to the truck.

Crucial to the point of these images in relation to the weight of public performance is the way Richards’s 2006 Laugh Factory disaster is raised following the chess savant routine. Richards’s controversial history comes up when he and Seinfeld reminisce about their nine years of sitcom work together, from which Richards takes the lesson that the ideal mode in which to perform is one of “selflessness”, and that his failure on the Laugh Factory stage was a mark of his more typical “selfishness”. The catalyst for this conversation is Richards’s comment that performing “was always a struggle”, a remark accompanied by hand gestures that conjure a broiling inner tempest, ceaselessly churning over-and-over within. Richards’s effort to perform his easy-going role as Kramer is captured in Seinfeld’s observation that Richards would rehearse his lines with his face pressed up against the set’s walls. This is an image of an actor struggling to eke out whatever privacy he can from the publicity of the set, forcing his otherwise private self into a mode of being that could support appearing in public as someone else. The image is relevant to the weight of performance because its evocation of a face pressed into a surface expresses as a flattening burden the pressure that attends such highly public visibility. Seinfeld’s story of the way Richards would prepare on-set, and Richards’s tempestuous hand gestures, are important because each suggests why Richards might be invested in the perpetuation of his image and persona as Kramer, in the continued vitality of that presence. This is because the story and the gestures convey the mood of troubled despair to which Richards seems vulnerable when he is left without a marked-out context in which to perform some version of himself to a receptive audience, such as in those anxious moments of waiting and preparation before taking the stage. Richards’s collapse into violent, racist profanity on the Laugh Factory stage can be thought of as another moment in which he troublingly slipped the reassuring boundaries of his typical self-performance.[9] On David Letterman’s Late Show, Richards’s own, disturbing account of his experience that night legitimates this claim. Defending himself as “not a racist”, Richards nonetheless conceded: “And yet it’s said. It comes through. It fires out of me.” These acknowledgments frame the event as one beyond the control of deliberate performance, an unrestrained expression of unmediated interior ferment, one hinted at by the anxieties that marked his daily effort to perform in Seinfeld.

Yet, although the pressure of performing on the long-running sitcom was something of a torment for Richards, it is evident his performance on the show, one that drew heavily on his own personal qualities, also provided him some relief from torment. This can be seen in a YouTube video, “Michael Richards (Kramer) Doesn’t Like [sic] When his Co-Stars Mess Up”, a compilation of Seinfeld out-takes in which other cast members ‘break’, accidentally shedding their act in fits of hilarity.

In one exemplary moment, Jason Alexander as George cannot help but slowly break into laughter during a scene. Richards stays frozen in place as if to preserve the fictional moment before its interruption, and, barely even prepared to move his mouth, quietly says “George, please … You don’t know how hard this is for me, please.” That Richards refers to his fellow actor by character name betrays the strength of his need to sustain the performative space of the fiction around him; he understands this need to be greater than that of his fellow actors, who seem to more breezily enjoy the breakdowns.

In the context of Seinfeld’s anecdote about Richards’s habitual preparation on the sitcom set, the YouTube compilation helps us understand the importance of the long-running television series to one dimension of the continued afterlife of Richards’s performance. It suggests the nine-year sitcom provided an ongoing space in which Richards could continue to sustain a performance of self that might stave-off the inner uncertainty and anxiety that evidently haunted him to some degree outside of that space. That Richards desired this sort of continuity is revealed in the initial moments of his reflection on the Seinfeld days and the Kramer character. “I could have played Kramer for the rest of my life,” Richards says. “That character would have fit into any situation, there was a great universality to the soul of that character.” These words carry a wish for some form of unity and acceptance: to become a person who can keep alive a state of being in which he can stand to inhabit the world. The ongoing improvisation within sitcom scenarios and characters on Seinfeld provided just this.

What they also provided was a deep history of shared public witness to, and memory of, Richards’s wonderful performances. This is what Jacobs and Peacock, quoted earlier, describe as the long-running television series’ “ability to generate a shared history with us, and our willingness to meet its challenges, to work with it in mutual inhabitancy” (2013, 12). This history and mutual inhabitancy explains another dimension of the continued force of Richards’s talent that is so movingly on display in Comedians in Cars: his ongoing capacity to enliven and transform the experience of those who bear witness to him. To borrow Benjamin’s words once more, Richards’s presence allows his audience’s memories within to overcome ageing without. This is best displayed in the episode’s closing moments, the montage of Seinfeld and Richards leaving the café and moving to the car. The fragmentary images are silent but for the underscore of slow piano jazz, which evokes a mood of retirement to a comfortable chair, to sit out the evening on one’s own in contemplative stillness and quiet. As they pay, a man recognises Richards as the actor reaches his beanpole arm across the counter, and a wonderful, child-like smile of pleasure spreads over the man’s elderly face, surely in welcome and gratitude for this unexpected visit from his memories of Kramer.

Figure 8. Revitalised by memory and gratitude.

Figure 8. Revitalised by memory and gratitude.

As Seinfeld and Richards walk to the car, we see them greeted and enjoyed by passers-by. One group pose for photos with the pair, and Richards takes their camera, clowning for them, snapping his own close-ups, imprinting his personal stamp on these mementoes of that time they met Jerry and Kramer. If the episode announced its interests in the place of Kramer the character within Richards the performer by considering the ruins of a once-monumental villa crumbling into the sea, then the ending of the episode is telling about that place. This is because the image of an elderly man’s face enlivened with a child-like smile reveals the power of Kramer still alive inside Richards, still able to compel the attraction and enjoyment of everyone he is shown to meet, able to withstand the marks of age, to tap a youthfulness within himself and others that shines through the reminders of history and mortality without. The memory of all those episodes and moments of comic brilliance live inside Richards’s body, not entirely snuffed out by the darkness of that rageful night at the Laugh Factory and the melancholy despair of the Letterman appearance, although those past moments continue to haunt his present image with their shadow.

Richards’s talent for improvised performance is to make the world more alive to us, and it provides him a mode of response to the world that keeps at bay a pressing sense of, in Cavell’s words, that world’s uninhabitability. Yet the closing moments of the episode ask us to consider that this talent is not his gift, as its exercise is presented as a difficult form of labour, not without risk, loss, or pain. It is instead revealed as a gift to the world as Richards passes through it, one that allows the personal ruins left by time to be momentarily overcome by the afterlife of brilliant human performance, and by our witness to it. Our intimate ‘mutual inhabitancy’ of his sedimented role as Kramer allows Richards to recover in public view from the ruin of the Laugh Factory catastrophe. But the very final moments of the episode suggest these intertwined histories carry a considerable weight, the deforming pressures of which defy the possibility of erasing the marks of time’s passage on the memory and image of Richards. As he and Seinfeld drive back down the coast, the final words of the episode are these of their lasting friendship:

Seinfeld: I do hope you consider using your instrument again, because it’s the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen.

Richards: Oh, Jerry— thanks, buddy.

As these words are spoken, the last image we see is their van driving into a tunnel, a row of guiding lights running down each of its sides.

Figure 9. Entering the tunnel.

Figure 9. Entering the tunnel.

This is an apt way to close the episode because tunnel imagery provides opportunities for evoking moments of balanced suspension between past and future. This instance in particular contains the striking details of the twinned rows of lights stretching into the darkness, figuring benign guidance into an unknown future, towards a new light and view of the world. Yet in a final acknowledgment that Richards’s future is unlikely to fully shed the burden of his past, perhaps destined to become an irrecoverable ruin, a finally mute instrument, the choice is made to keep that light from view, ensuring it remains out of sight around a corner yet to come. As we absorb the silent wake of Richards’s thanks, the tunnel’s darkness engulfs the small truck.

References:

Benjamin, Walter. 1992. “The Image of Proust.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, 197-210. London: Fontana.

Brooks, Jodi. 2001. “Performing Aging/Performing Crisis (for Norma Desmond, Baby Jane, Margo Channing, Sister George, and Myrtle).” Senses of Cinema 16.

Cavell, Stanley. 1979. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Enlarged ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Cavell, Stanley. 1982. “The Fact of Television.” Daedalus 111 (4): 75-96.

Clayton, Alex. 2013. “Why Comedy is at Home on Television.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 79-102. London: Bloomsbury.

Clayton, Alex. 2007. The Body in Hollywood Slapstick. Jefferson: McFarland.

Fried, Michael. 1980. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fried, Michael. 2008. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jacobs, Jason. 2001. “Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4 (4): 427-447.

Jacobs, Jason, and Steven Peacock. 2013. “Introduction.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 1-20. London: Bloomsbury.

Klevan, Andrew. 2005. Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation, Short Cuts. London: Wallflower.

Kouvaros, George. 2010. Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves: “The Misfits” and Icons of Postwar America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Newcomb, Horace. 1974. TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City: Anchor Books.

Perkins, V. F. 1999. The Magnificent Ambersons. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI.

Perkins, V. F. 2006. “Moments of Choice.” Rouge 9. h

Sennett, Richard. 1977. The Fall of Public Man. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yancy, George. 2012. Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Moving Image Works Cited

Antonioni, Michaelengelo. 1962. L’Eclisse. Italy: Cineriz.

David, Larry, and Jerry Seinfeld. 1989-1998. Seinfeld. USA: NBC.

Huston, John. 1961. The Misfits. USA: United Artists.

“Michael Richards (Kramer) Doesn’t Like when His Co-Star Mess Up.” YouTube video. Posted by “Ryan Evans”, December 8, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fge0sIjrNps.

Seinfeld, Jerry. 2012-. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. USA: Crackle. www.comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com.

Welles, Orson. 1942. The Magnificent Ambersons. USA: RKO.

Wilder, Billy. 1950. Sunset Boulevard. USA: Paramount.

Notes


[2] My interest in Comedians in Cars as a talk show is not to relate the show to its genre more broadly. I instead aim to use Cavell’s ideas about talk shows within his broader account of television to think about performance and improvisation in the Michael Richards episode.

[3] In making these arguments, Kouvaros draws on Michael Fried’s art history on traditions of theatricality and absorption in eighteenth century painting, and Richard Sennett’s sociological history of transformations to public society since the same period. See: Fried (1980), Sennett (1977). For Fried’s later exploration of absorption and theatricality in photography, see: Fried (2008).

[4] Internal citation: Perkins (1999, 58-9).

[5] For a clear illustration of Welles’s mastery of his workspace and mise-en-scène on The Magnificent Ambersons, see Perkins’s account of Welles’s requirement that the sets for the movie’s outdoor scenes be built inside a refrigeration plant: Perkins (2006).

[6] Internal citation: Benjamin (1992, 207)

[7] These moods are given expression in photographs described throughout Kouvaros’s book. For exemplary instances, see: Kouvaros (2010, 99-101, 114-15, 125, 136-37).

[8] Early on, the episode is explicit to declare all events in the episode a coincidence, with the grave onscreen title: “Some events in this episode appear set up. They were not.” I think we should take the episode’s more outlandish events (such as the visit to Sugar Ray Leonard’s house that interrupts the visit of Seinfeld’s acquaintance to the house of Jay Mohr, a stand-up) as mere coincidence and chance, if only because the scenarios’ mildly amusing comic pay-offs hardly seem worth the effort that would have been required to orchestrate them. More than this, the episode’s need to declare their happenstance nature betrays the importance it places on improvisation.

[9] George Yancy reads Richards’s Laugh Factory outrage and his subsequence appearance on the Late Show in terms of an “opaque white racist self” that resists conscious self-knowledge and examination, “one that is alien to itself” (2012, 168-69). (Thanks to Fiona Nicoll for bringing this to my attention.) If Richards’s slapstick metamorphosis, in Clayton’s terms, hopes to overcome his alienation from some aspect of himself, it makes sense that the breakdown of such performance might result in the expression of an “alien” aspect of the self. The frightening exposure of this unmediated anger is perhaps what is most deeply unsettling about the footage of Richards’s tirade, as it tears down the more reassuring channelling of mania through so many years of performances.

 

Author bio:  Elliott Logan is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. His work covers a range of topics related to film and television aesthetics, particularly issues concerning film style, meaning, and evaluative criticism. His current project is an appreciation of acting and performance in recent US serial television fiction.