‘I’ll Admit I Blew It’: Michael Richards Talks Kramer, Vietnam, and That Racist Outburst

When Michael Richards’ most well-known character, Kramer, erupted through the door of onscreen neighbor Jerry Seinfeld 35 years ago, he also burst into the homes of audiences everywhere, finding fast acclaim for his madcap antics and refreshing lack of filter. At the time he and his castmates were waging what Seinfeld has called the “sacred mission” of comedy. That mission, Richards tells Rolling Stone, was “to get the laugh. Like Jason seeking the Golden Fleece, to seek the haha. That’s the big treasure and that’s ultimately what we were after together. It was quite a journey.”
By the end of Seinfeld, in 1998, that journey had elevated Richards to the status of cultural icon. But then, in 2006, his onstage outburst of racist slurs shouted at a predominantly Black audience effectively closed the book on his career as a public entertainer. 
In his new autobiography Entrances and Exits, Richards charts the path through his early career as an aspiring actor, comedian, and spiritual seeker in the 1960s and 1970s, to his first major small-screen foray with the early-Eighties sketch comedy show Fridays (which also happened to be his first collaboration with writer and future Seinfeld co-creator Larry David), to the creation of Kramer and his ascension to a household name — and the infamous end to it all. Along the way he delves into the absurdity of his military service during the Vietnam War, divulges his mother’s painful secret about the assault that resulted in his conception, and ponders the aftermath of his disastrous exit from show business and the lifetime of untreated rage that may have contributed to his explosive, ignominious finale.
“Most of the characters I conjure up don’t want to be there, just like me,” Richards writes about his relationship to the world in Entrances and Exits. “They’re angry and rowdy… A clown in the night.” And indeed the story of Michael Richards is one of humor and anger, good and ill, rise and fall. “There’s a light to it and a dark to it,” he tells Rolling Stone, “but it’s all of what each of us has to face.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 
Why did you decide it was time to write a book?
I wrote the book because I’m 75 years old this July and I got cancer a few years ago. I’ve had an interesting life, some tough times and some real blessings, and I wanted to leave my book as a legacy. 
How did your cancer diagnosis impact you? 
At first, I just thought it was my time to go. I talk about entrances and exits a lot in my book. We’re living and dying all the time. I’m in and out of things daily. But with my then-eight-year-old son, I felt I’d sure like to be around for him. I’m thinking, Well, this is my time to go, but at the same time, I didn’t think I was going anywhere! Like when I was drafted for the Vietnam War, I just knew I wasn’t going to die in combat. How did I know that? I’m not saying I can see around corners. I just knew it wasn’t my time to die.
So here I am with prostate cancer. If it spreads anymore, adios. I had to go through surgery
and all went well. What’s my outlook now? I’m aware of my age these days. I spend a lot of time outdoors in the Santa Monica Mountains. I feel connected to the earth, moon, and sun.
You write that you enjoyed your time in the military when most people were trying to avoid it at all costs due to the war.
I was the kind of guy that was wide open to things, and I wanted to go into the service to see what it was all about. That’s ultimately why I went in. I was very, very curious. There was the Vietnam War going on, and people were being killed. A lot of people weren’t up for the war. They were questioning why we were in a war. But for me I just saw it as an adventure. And that was it. I was up for the adventure.
There are photos in the book where you look like a pretty longhaired guy for the army. Did you see the contradiction? You as both the avant-garde freak comedian and the military man?
I just see them all interrelated. The world is a stage. I had long hair at the time because I was coming off of a production that I was doing at Cal Arts. I let my hair grow long and I kept it long for the summer. A lot of people had long hair and were letting it all hang out.
In the book you proclaim, “Hail to the irrational.” What do you mean by that?
When I speak of the irrational I speak of the mistake, and comedy deals a lot with the mistake — a comedy of error. With the irrational, usually things come up that we weren’t expecting. We can’t see around corners, can we? So it’s always the unexpected.
Is there another path a young Michael Richards could have taken if he hadn’t become an actor or comedian?
I suppose if I didn’t do comedy and if I hadn’t gotten into working as an actor, I probably would have been a wanderer. As an artist, you wander about. Like in building Kramer for Seinfeld, there was a wandering. It took probably about 13 episodes of wandering about in the putting together of that character. The right clothes and brooding over this and that, and thinking of ways in which to build an entire character. The voice. The look. The mannerisms. All the ticks. It’s all carefully calculated, but it takes a lot of wandering to get there.
Were there moments where you really knew you got it?
Definitely. I knew that through the audience. I hear the laughs, and then I’m starting to feel it. That assists me. It was really great, because we did most of the show before a live audience.


On my first show, Fridays, when I started, it was a great vehicle for building characters very, very quickly. A few days, that’s all you get. Line changes right up to camera. It’s live. You’re really swinging out there. What a training field that was for me! I really began to listen to the audience. They’ll let you know.
Did you ever lose yourself in a character?
Oh yeah, I could be in character, and when I was outside of character, I was uncomfortable. Because I didn’t know myself well enough. But when I was in character, it was safe.
In the book you discuss how you’re an introvert who sometimes had trouble with interviews or in certain social settings, which is surprising considering that your best-known character seemed to be the exact opposite. Was it hard coming up as an introvert whose job was literally to stand on a stage in front of an audience?
I was absolutely fine being on stage in character. Coming out as myself, being Michael Richards… that’s another story, and one that I tussle with throughout the book. As far as interviews and red carpet events go, it was hard for me to be natural. I would hide behind antics, screw around, and not settle down into the question I was being asked. I had my persona, you know, dressing up, looking good — Hi, how are ya? Nice to be here, Good to see ya — but overall I felt I had to perform, entertain people, always be on. To just be myself — that’s like doing nothing, and nobody’s interested in nothing.

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Do you think you changed as a person and comedian through your experience on Seinfeld — was the Michael Richards who went into it the same Michael Richards who came out?
I did change during Seinfeld. Big time. I was no longer just an actor. I was famous now. And everywhere I went, I was Kramer. I mean everywhere: It’s Kramer! Kramer! It’s still like this and I’m cool with it. The K-man is still coming through the door. But, you see, back then, Seinfeld was my third TV show. Professionally, I was working steadily for over 20 years, and before this, I’d been in and around acting since I was fourteen.
Acting was all I thought about, but after Seinfeld, I felt I needed a break from it all. I just felt like I wanted to sit for five years out in the wilderness in a small stone cabin reading great books by a fire. I started to make that dream come true and bought a huge parcel of land in the Sierras. I was on my way out. But then I was getting offers, and some so huge I couldn’t say no. Also, I began to worry that if I didn’t take another job I wouldn’t work again. I had that actor in me saying, “Where’s my next part? To be or not to be.” For a while there, I didn’t know which way to go. I was in my mid-fifties and probably having a midlife crisis.
Rage is a persistent theme throughout your book. Was that intentional?
Anger onstage is something we explore as comics. It takes years to work with anger, which is within us all. So it’s quite a process to move that into the ha ha. We’ve seen it all throughout humanity. The rage, the war, the conflict. That’s part of the color of my fur. Of everyone’s fur, isn’t it?
By the time Seinfeld ended you were riding high as one of the most acclaimed figures in entertainment, and then in 2006 you basically destroyed it in a single moment with your infamously racist eruption at the Laugh Factory. What was it like to go from being this widely embraced cultural figure to having everyone step back from you?
Well, I stepped back from myself. It was a catalyst for moving into deeper places in myself. It was a way of learning more about myself, which is a big task for us all — to know thyself.
In the book you wrote, “I certainly can’t explain my comedic process, and how I cut loose on a comedy club stage. It will sound ridiculous and defensive.” Can you explain it now?
I was actually using anger, thinking I could get a laugh out of it all. But I just didn’t come through. That’s it. It was just a bad night. You work late at night and you go through material. You go through an exchange with the audience. You hope you can move it into humor, but it just didn’t come through that night.
A few days later you apologized on Letterman and said that you had a lot of personal work to do. What did that work end up looking like?
I wanted to make an apology, but I’d already had it in mind that I was going to take an exodus. I really felt like, I think that I’m going to put all this down and get back to myself. I went into analysis for years and worked closely with my dreams and I was discovering a lot about myself, more than ever. And I think the club incident was a catalyst for going into some real deep personal work. I was open for it.
I was entering my sixties, and it was the second half of my life. I’d spent 30 years in show business. I was in the clubs developing an act to re-enter, because I hadn’t worked in years. And of course it was through George Carlin, who was a friend at the time, he inspired me. He was interested in seeing if I could build an act. But at that time I was into more than just a career in Hollywood. I was thinking of a lot of other things I wanted to do. You know, after you do a show like Seinfeld for nearly a decade — and I’d been around the block before I got to Seinfeld — it’s a lot of years in show business, and I think that I wanted to spend time with myself reading, traveling. So when that occurred at the Laugh Factory, I said, I think I’m done here.
Do you want to be forgiven?
I had to start by forgiving myself first of all, and that’s why I took off. I can’t clear it up for everyone out there. They’re going to have to work with it in their own way. I’m not out here seeking to be forgiven, but I’ll admit I blew it. It was a bad night. What people want to do with that is up to them. But I know what I have to do with it, and that’s more important, because I have to live with myself every day. They don’t live with me every day.
Having been at the center of the discussion, do you have any thoughts on what the wider “we” of society can do to combat issues like racism?
First of all, discover the issues in yourself, because we’re all in on it together. Stop blaming the other side, but recognize that the other side is you. There’s a lot of bullshit going on all around us, and the difficulty is that a lot of people can’t discern the difference between bullshit and truth. Start with yourself. Get honest. Get truthful with yourself.
Is there anything you learned about yourself through the writing of the book?
Yeah — to take note of the earth, because what we do to the earth we do to ourselves. And what we do to each other we do to oneself, because we’re all interrelated, and until we get that — really get that — we stand in confusion.
After 60 years in the spotlight, do you have any words of advice for aspiring actors or comedians?
Stick with it. Stay healthy. As an actor, do a lot of plays, anywhere. Act! See what you’re made of. It’s a privilege to be a performer. And if you can make your friends laugh, well, go into the comedy clubs and make a real audience laugh. And try to keep your shit together.