Jeff Jensen
September 29, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Pity the poor souls who made their reps on Seinfeld and dare to attempt something different on TV. Pity Michael Richards, the jiggly-limbed, shock-haired Kramer, the first of Seinfeld‘s Fab Four to give it a shot. Pity NBC’s The Michael Richards Show — please? They’re begging. ”If you want to slam the show, that’s fine,” laughs Andy Robin, who cocreated and exec-produces with fellow Seinfeld alumni Gregg Kavet and Spike Feresten. ”Lower expectations can’t hurt.”

Sorry. For we are journalists, called to keep an open mind about The Michael Richards Show — even if it does come bumbling onto the schedule tagged as one of the season’s most troubled new series. In this slapsticky detective-genre send-up, Richards plays L.A. gumshoe Vic Nardozza, whose eccentric tactics include an arsenal of daffy disguises: overzealous golf pro, hyperactive Red Cross worker, mild-mannered dentist. Version 1.0 of the sitcom was hell-bent on being the anti-Seinfeld: slow and moody; shot on location like a movie; no strong supporting cast. ”Three quarters of the way through,” says Richards, who worked a week of 16-hour days to shoot the pilot, ”we knew there was no way we could do this every week.”

And there was an even more pressing problem: Test audiences — ready to bust a gut at the sight of their old pal Kramer — just didn’t get it. ”People were looking for really hard laughs,” says Robin. ”Expectations were bigger than we imagined.” Thus began a summertime of Seinfeldization. Richards Version 2.0 is quick-moving, with multiple plots, jokey banter, a live studio audience, an office set that serves as home base, and a supporting cast of straight men. William Devane is the fatherly agency boss, Amy Farrington is the new recruit perplexed by Nardozza’s methods, and Tim Meadows is the voyeuristic surveillance expert. ”It didn’t feel like I was coming on a sinking ship. It felt like I was still on the ground floor,” says the Saturday Night Live vet. ”The weirdest thing has been not having cue cards. I keep telling myself, Don’t look around.”

The changes have effected Nardozza, too. ”The audience has given me a bit of kick,” says Richards. ”I got broader.” You mean, Vic’s been Kramerized? ”I think Vic integrates Kramer,” says Richards. ”People will see it if they want to see it.”

And how many people will that be, pray tell? NBC remains firmly optimistic. ”I’ve never seen a pilot that isn’t better the second time,” says Entertainment president Garth Ancier. ”The question is, is it better enough? … Having shot the first episode, I don’t think people will be disappointed.” With no pilot available for screening, we’ll have to take Richards at his word: ”We think it’s funny. The audience laughed,” he says. ”But I don’t know … We’ll see. Please let us know.”

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