Jerry is biting his fingernails waiting to become a dad. Jason Alexander is off making bad movies. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is--has anybody seen Julia lately? Two years ago who would have guessed that Michael Richards--a.k.a. the Brillo-haired sidekick Kramer--would be the first "Seinfeld" alum to find his way back to network TV? Richards debuts this week in his own NBC sitcom, "The Michael Richards Show." He plays Vic Nardozza, an easily distracted private eye with an endless supply of wacky schemes and odd vocal eruptions. Sound familiar? Not to Richards. He insists that he, not the ghost of Kramer, is the master of Vic's domain. "I know the feeling for the Kramer character, and I haven't gone all the way in there. I'm developing a new persona," he says. But once you get past the P.I. gig and the short new hairdo, Richards's new persona looks a lot like his old one. Only not as funny.
Of course that's an unfair comment. No new show should be measured against a classic like "Seinfeld." Still, you can expect to hear a lot of "It's not as funny as..." comments in the next few weeks, and not just about Richards. Christine Baranski, Cybill Shepherd's former sidekick, has her own new CBS show, "Welcome to New York." Next month John Goodman steps out of Roseanne's sizable shadow to star in "Normal, Ohio," on Fox. And David Alan Grier, part of the "In Living Color" ensemble, gets his own NBC sitcom, "DAG." TV has a history--from Mary Tyler Moore to Tony Danza--of promoting costars to top billing. And as two No. 2s--a vice president and a president's son--duke it out for the big job in Washington, Hollywood is following our leaders big time. Welcome to the year of the second banana.
How hard is it to break free from the junior leagues? "When I go through an airport, I'm still either Tom Arnold or Roseanne's husband," says Goodman. Tom Arnold? No wonder Goodman is running as fast as he can from his former TV self. In "Normal, Ohio," he plays a gay dad named Butch--subtle, isn't it?--who moves back in with his somewhat homophobic Midwestern family. "I don't know much about being gay," says Goodman, who admits he's not sure the public will buy him as a size XXL gay man. "To be honest with you, I don't know if I can pull it off."
That kind of fear may explain why many of these actors are playing close to home in their star vehicles. In "Welcome to New York," Baranski is yet another woman with a sharp tongue and a taste for booze (this time she's a TV producer), just like Maryann in "Cybill." Grier takes more of a risk in "DAG." He's starring with Delta Burke--that's a risk right there--as a clumsy Secret Service agent who protects the First Lady. The humor is broad, much like "In Living Color," but there's a lot of sweetness too. "Your audience really wants you to be the way they want," says Grier. "But I am doing a sitcom. It's not like I'm doing 'The River Niger'."
In fact, Grier is doing a sitcom named after him, or at least his initials. He says it was an executive producer's idea. Really. "My agents weren't like, 'He has to have it named after him or he walks'," says Grier. "But I'll take it." Still, Baranski and Goodman refused to have their names on their shows--there's enough pressure trying to move up in class without having your name on the line. Case in point: both Goodman's and Richards's shows have stumbled on the road to prime time, each ditching a failed pilot. But while Goodman's noneponymous sitcom made the adjustments quietly, "The Michael Richards Show" has been dogged by rumors that it is, well, a dog. Though he takes issue with questions about the show's quality, Richards does accept blame for the errant pilot. "We shot it in six days, on lo-cation, and with no supporting cast," he says. "We all realized halfway through that there was no way I could do this on a week-to-week basis. It's impossible."
So, are any of these second-banana shows first-rate? Perhaps not surprisingly, the best ones show us their stars doing something new. While "DAG" sometimes verges on silly, Grier has a nice chemistry with Burke, and their sitcom may well develop into a fun buddy show. Goodman brings an offbeat, blue-collar sensibility to "Normal," though the writers are going to have to work to keep it from being the same gay-guy-out-of-water joke. The other two shows need more help. As always, Baranski is hilariously snobby, but we've seen that act before. In fact, all of "Welcome to New York" feels like a retread version of "Murphy Brown." Which brings us to Richards. The revamped pilot is only intermittently funny. The comedy isn't sharp and the "caper," as he calls is, falls flat. Richards seems to know he's a slow starter. "I'm going to get the character much quicker than when I did 'Seinfeld'," he says. "Before it took me 13 shows. I think I'll get Vic in five or six." So be patient. It took "Seinfeld" a year to find its funny bone too.