Los Angeles It's lunch break on "The Michael Richards Show."
The set is virtually empty except for a tall, slightly skittish, soft-spoken man eating a salad.
His hair is not on end. He's not spilling his food on the floor. He's not bumping into the furniture. He's not the lunatic New Yorker, Cosmo Kramer. He's not the oddball Los Angeles private eye, Vic Nardozza. He's simply actor Michael Richards, star, co-creator and executive producer of this self-titled NBC sitcom.
Because of Richards' comic brilliance as Kramer on the long-running "Seinfeld," the series was eagerly anticipated. Perhaps there was too much anticipation. When the pilot episode never aired, the show was immediately labeled "troubled." A major format revision and additions to the cast have not entirely altered that perception, although fans have been more responsive than critics to the half-hour comedy on Tuesdays, 7 p.m.
So how ARE things going?
"Good. We're doing fine. We're doing very well. We're moving along," Richards responded.
He can't predict whether the network will stick with the series. He can only work hard to create a viable character, a fulcrum for charming comic mayhem.
Nardozza (taken from the maiden name of Richards' mother) has both a real and preposterous side: "We are looking very closely at what's the nature of our kind of comedy. How far do we go? How real should we be? How funny can we get? How big? How broad?" Richards said.
One thing he's discovered: It's easier to be funny indoors.
The scrapped pilot was filmed single-camera, start-stop style on various Los Angeles locations. But seven subsequent episodes have been filmed in the traditional, three-camera sitcom format in front of a live audience at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, home of the old "Seinfeld" show, which was also three-camera.
"I intended to use this town as one big, huge, gigantic pratfall," said Richards, noting that the pilot did at least get some "falling down a mountainside" footage, useful in promoting the series. "We learned a lot," he admitted. "We had no supporting cast. I thought I would work week to week, just myself and people we met on the cases, a la Jacques Tati's 'Monsieur Hulot's Holiday."'
He found that concept "overambitious" and "too exhausting."
"We realized right away we couldn't do that kind of a show. I didn't want to. I missed the audience. I missed hearing the reaction," he said. "Before it was just camera blocking. We'd lay it down for the camera. I'd go to my dressing room. Then I'd come back out there, and it was lonely, so lonely."
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Richards, 51, first stepped on stage as a boy. "I took a drama class and discovered a real purpose for going to school, other than just playing with my friends. I did Caliban in 'The Tempest.' I must have been about 12, but I could lower my voice."
He illustrated by jumping up, crouching over, hobbling around, uttering the guttural speech of Shakespeare's savage and deformed slave: "I must eat my dinner. This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou tak'st from me."
"It came so easily," he recalled. "I hadn't studied iambic pentameter. I didn't study that until my formal training at Cal Arts," referring to the respected California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif.
Richards' enthusiastic study of his craft at Cal Arts, with private drama teachers, in comedy clubs and community theater lasted so long that he didn't really begin a professional career until he was about 30. Prior to major fame on "Seinfeld," his work included plays at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the late-night TV sketch comedy show "Fridays" and the short-lived sitcom "Marblehead Manor."
Nardozza's detective work often requires a disguise.
"I love creating characters, different voices, accents, styles. That is why I chose this kind of a format. I'd love it when Kramer would go kind of undercover and be a kind of wealthy industrialist, or he'd pose as a doctor, or a talk-show host," he said. "I had so much fun doing that."
Richards can soon be seen in a very different guise: bald, 19th-century, English, Dickensian. He's Mr. Micawber in TNT's four-hour miniseries "David Copperfield," which makes its premiere at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10, and Monday, Dec. 11, with encores throughout the month.
"There's a pomp and tremendous inflationary nature to the character and, of course, it's lovable. To compensate for his poverty, he believes that he is a well-educated man and of the upper class and dresses accordingly, even though he's really just a street person without a dime to his name," he laughed affectionately. "I love that kind of optimism. I try to find that here, and I certainly found that with Kramer; the way he came through the door really expressed optimism."
"Michael is truly, truly, deeply, deeply talented," said Peter Medak, director of "David Copperfield." "He's a wonderfully gentle person who gives absolutely his heart and soul to a role. You can ask him to do a scene 101 times and he'll do it. He has amazing energy, once his engine starts, you can't stop it."
Besides completely shaving his head and learning the appropriate accent, Richards added a few little distinctive physical moves. His Micawber also has interesting ways of coming through a door.
Richards said he's "kind of an old romantic" when it comes to comedy. Part of his desire to feature Los Angeles vividly on his new show stemmed from his love of the city's use as a backdrop in the films of comedians Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The old Mack Sennett comedies were shot on the same Studio City lot used by "Seinfeld" and "Michael Richards." In fact, "Seinfeld" was actually filmed on the same sound stage once used by Sennett.
"Wayne Knight and I used to sit and just think we were like old incarnations of physical clowns," he admitted, while reflecting on the limitations of today's work environment.
"Chaplin spent weeks working on falling down some stairs. He had that time. You just won't see that kind of comedy ever again, because you cannot take the time."
With that said, lunch break is over. Cast and crew return to the set as Richards is trying on wigs, searching for one appropriate to Nardozza's next undercover stint as an 80-year-old man.
"We're back, right. We're back!" Richards exclaimed, upping the decibels, his voice alive with optimism.