George: Wait a minute. I think I understand this. J. Peterman is real; his biography is not. Now you, Kramer, are real.
Kramer: Talk to me.
George: But your life is Peterman’s. Now the bus tour, which is real, takes you to places that—while they are real—they are not real in the sense that they did not really happen to the real Peterman, which is you.
Jerry: Yeah, it’s $37.50 for a Three Musketeers.
—Seinfeld, “The Muffin Tops”
Kenny Kramer—a tall, mustachioed man in a Yankees cap and a bright shirt—stands at the front of the Off-Off-Broadway Producers Club theater in Manhattan. He’s a striking figure, but he’d be unlikely to command the rapt attention of the 60 or so people watching if he hadn’t been the inspiration for Cosmo Kramer, the eccentric neighbor character on Seinfeld. As it stands, his Seinfeld-based New York City tour has been running since 1996.
Nearly two decades after Jerry and company stopped making new episodes, Seinfeld remains ubiquitous. Jennifer Armstrong’s new book, Seinfeldia, covers the baseball promotional days, Twitter accounts—one that puts modern tech in its characters’ hands (@ModernSeinfeld), another that presents them through a hallucinatory postmodern filter (@Seinfeld2000)—and other ways the show remains part of pop culture. Hulu made a documentary about its superfans. The sitcom's on television virtually every day in every market. That might help explain why a tour that Kenny Kramer himself says he expected to run “six or seven weeks” regularly sells out and has survived twice as long as the show itself.
Right now, Kenny—the Real Kramer—holds up a DVD entitled Seinfans Take Kramer’s Reality Tour and tells his admirers about a story therein.
The incident yielded a plotline on Seinfeld episode “The Tape,” in which George calls a Chinese company that claims to have a revolutionary baldness cure. Kramer says Larry David, his real-life neighbor and the basis for the George character, had a similar experience. He promises viewers will learn the details of David’s mission to cure his baldness, down to before-and-after scalp photos.
The men and women assembled in this room have each paid $37.50 for Kramer’s show and the bus tour that follows. They’re here for behind-the-scenes stories about real-world people who helped shape Seinfeld. And, for the most part, they’re getting that. But right now, they’re getting a tease, a sneak preview of a story that they won’t hear in its entirety this afternoon. Why? “Because,” Kramer says, “I want you to buy the DVD.”
If that life-imitating-art-imitating-life moment sounds entertaining (it was for us), you might want to consider taking Kramer’s Reality Tour.
Following a brief warm-up from another comedian, Kramer—who lived across the hall from Larry David for years in the Manhattan Plaza apartment building on West 43rd Street, coming and going through David’s open door—plays video clips and tells stories from his real life, some of which ended up on Seinfeld.
He also shares a tidbit that might shock many New Yorkers: his subsidized rent back in the ’80s wasn’t much more than $60 per month. “I want to thank you, the American taxpayer,” he says, for the scenario that helped him meet David.
Actually, the crowd is largely international. Visitors hail from Canada, Romania, Sweden, Argentina and Israel, with the largest contingent coming from Australia. Armstrong also noted Kramer’s popularity with Australians in her book; apparently the kavorka is strong Down Under.
After about an hour of videos and stories, Kramer transitions into the sales portion of the day—he calls it “Kra-Mart”—telling the audience about the deals they can get on T-shirts, mugs, caps and the like. Kramer’s always been a salesman—before his full-time job was being Kramer, he supported himself by selling glow-in-the-dark disco jewelry. He also had gigs as a comedian, a drummer and a band manager, and ran for mayor of New York City in 2001. He got to debate on local television, and you can still buy the campaign T-shirts.
And, yes, Kenny really did briefly believe he was going to put “levels” into his apartment.
“The Last Thing This Guy’s Qualified to Give a Tour of Is Reality”
Outside the theater, souvenirs in hand, the tour participants pile onto a coach bus. They watch video clips—including an introduction by former New York City mayor and onetime Seinfeld guest star Rudy Giuliani—on their way to the Original Soup Man (formerly Soup Kitchen International), whose Al Yeganeh inspired the Soup Nazi character on Seinfeld.
Yeganeh, who has a reputation as a grumpy guy, was never fond of being called a “Nazi” (to be fair, few would appreciate the label). Kramer shows an amusing video clip he filmed for use as a Seinfeld DVD bonus feature—it ended up on the cutting-room floor—in which the Soup Man insults the show and its fans as our guide interviews him. For an example of how little Yeganeh enjoys his Seinfeld fame, see this interview with Spike Feresten, who wrote “The Soup Nazi.” The story in question begins at the 3:05 mark. Still, this tour brings Yeganeh business, he’s lent his “Soup Man” name to shops and a line of products reaching far outside New York City and he has leveraged his brand to sell T-shirts—a move that suggests, no matter how little he may like his TV counterpart, the Original Soup Man has more in common with the Real Kramer than he’d like to admit.
While they wait for their soups, tour goers pose in photos with Kramer. The man may never have been elected mayor, but he has certainly mastered one of the position’s great ceremonial duties: he smiles like a pro with everyone on the photo line.
Back on the bus, more highlights include a clip of Larry David performing stand-up in the 1980s before he was famous (on Richard Belzer’s Lifetime talk show!) and a glimpse of Tom’s Restaurant, whose facade represented Monk’s Café during the show’s run. Tom’s resisted adding Seinfeld-themed dishes for many years, but has recently succumbed to pop-culture pressure and now sells the likes of Elaine’s Big Salad.
Kramer also points out lesser-known Seinfeld landmarks, including 2067 Broadway, once home to a law firm whose tenant engaged in a legal battle with a Kenny Rogers Roasters; the smells, sounds and light that rose into the office led the attorney to place a “Bad Food” sign in his window and inspired the episode “The Chicken Roaster.” The lawyer prevailed when the restaurant sued, though both the law office and the Kenny Rogers Roasters are now closed.
In another moment when reality folds over onto itself, the Real Kramer shows the Seinfeld clip (quoted at the start of this article) inspired by his own tour, in which TV Kramer offers a bus tour based on his experiences as the “Real Peterman.”
Indeed, Kramer explains that he used to invite all tour goers up to his apartment for a candy bar (a Snickers rather than a Three Musketeers)—but the dessert break made the tour too long.
People Want to Know the Stories Behind the Stories
Before we get out of here, it’s a safe bet that Kramer would want you to know some other topics he touches on during the tour:
- Larry David’s breakup with a friend, which helped inspire “Male Unbonding”
- David’s attempt to reconnect with a woman he’d met at a party, which formed the basis for “The Stakeout”
- Seinfeld characters named after real people Larry David knew
- The “real” contest, of which Kramer says he “wasn’t in it” and “couldn’t win it”
- … and much, much more!
For more info and tickets to Kramer’s Reality Tour, visit kennykramer.com, which looks like it hasn’t been redesigned since 1996 (Kramer says he’s had plenty of offers to do it for free but doesn’t want to be bothered).