So many aspects of the phenomenon that was Seinfeld are unrepeatable in today’s TV landscape. The television audience is so watered down and fragmented that we’ll likely never again see a sitcom attain "water cooler" status like that again. That thing where Seinfeld was coining new catchphrases every week? Virtually impossible. Not to mention how many actual subjects Seinfeld batted around for comedic purposes that are no longer part of modern life, be it answering machine messages or movie etiquette. More than anything, Seinfeld’s dominance over the TV landscape can never be repeated — the sense that, even if you weren't watching, you knew these characters and what they were all about. Back in the ’90s, Seinfeld was at the top of the TV mountain. And along the way, the show’s producers attempted one of the most brazen flexes in TV history: they gave Kramer entrance applause.
Cosmo Kramer wasn't the first TV character to get a studio audience whooping and clapping for him when he entered the frame. The practice is most famously associated with Happy Days’ Arthur Fonzarelli (played by Henry Winkler), aka the Fonz. At a certain point in Happy Days’ run, creator Garry Marshall started instructing the audience to applaud (or at least stopped discouraging the audience from applauding) when the Fonz entered a scene. Over the years, this treatment has been afforded to other popular TV characters, from Lenny and Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley to Steve Urkel on Family Matters to Cody on Step By Step. The genre of character has been remarkably consistent. If it's not always the wacky neighbor, it's at least the character who serves the most wacky-neighbor-esque function. Kramer definitely fit that bill when it came to Seinfeld, so you can see why the powers that be at the show (or the network, which seems more likely) would want to spotlight him in this way. There's also the fact that Kramer would burst into Jerry's apartment with such an exaggerated flair, giving the audience the perfect prompt to applaud (in fact, he only ever gets applause when entering Jerry's apartment).
Far more fascinating, however, is the audacity of it. Seinfeld spent three seasons wandering in the TV wilderness, grasping for an audience and staying just ahead of the cancellation blade. Then came the fabled Season 4, where everything clicked, the show was moved into the Cheers lead-out slot on Thursday nights, and the season-long art-imitates-life arc — where Jerry and George attempt to write a TV show "about nothing" — led to its first and only Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Series. That was the turning point season. That was also the season when Kramer began receiving entrance applause, starting with the episode titled “The Wallet.” Richards would also win the Emmy that year for Outstanding Supporting Actor, the first of three individual awards for him for playing Kramer. Co-star Jason Alexander didn’t win once. Did all that entrance applause help establish Richards as the show's featured player? Perhaps.
But the applause didn't last long, and disappeared midway through Season 5. Arguably, few people missed it. In retrospect, it feels so out of place on a show that prided itself on its un-huggable, objectively awful characters. It also nudged Kramer uncomfortably close to cartoon territory. Obviously this character was far more prone to physical comedy and buffoonery than Jerry, George, or Elaine, but the entrance applause couldn't help but recall the Fonz, who yes, was an iconic TV character, but also at some point during his run took over Happy Days, and not for the better. Lest we forget the origin of the whole "jumped the shark" phrase comes from Fonzie literally jumping a shark.
Coming upon a moment of Kramer entrance applause in a Seinfeld rerun these days is incredibly jarring. In part because the applause episodes make for a relatively small portion of all Seinfeld episodes, but also because it makes Seinfeld seem like the kind of show that it's not. The kind that begs for approval, leans on the scale, and hits you over the head with how popular its wacky-neighbor character is. Seinfeld was a smarter show than that, and when Seinfeld was at its best, Kramer was just one piece of what made it work.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.