In the pilot episode of “Seinfeld,” Kramer is actually called Kessler. He’s only called it once by Jerry, and by episode 2 he’s already being called Kramer. There’s so much else off about the first episode of “Seinfeld” anyways — Elaine never appears! — that even the most eagle-eyed “Seinfeld” fan would be forgiven for never picking up on the name change. But why did it happen?
A featurette posted to the official “Seinfeld” Facebook page in 2019 explained that series creator Larry David based Kramer on his eccentric real-life neighbor, Kenny Kramer. “Seinfeld” famously pulled in direct, winking ways from real life. Jerry Seinfeld is playing a version of himself, Larry David apparently based George on himself, and Elaine was based on David’s former girlfriend, Monica Yates, daughter of the legendary writer Richard Yates. Seinfeld and David obviously were in the room to consent to the imitation, and as David’s longtime friend, Yates most likely had no issue with the effervescently charming Elaine. But David and Seinfeld were worried the real-life Kramer wouldn’t appreciate being parodied in such an extreme way.
The story goes that Kenny Kramer petitioned to play himself on the show, but settled for a $1,000 payoff for “Seinfeld” to use the name, because the cast all thought it was such a better fit for the character than Kessler. Years later, in the season 9 episode “The Betrayal,” the series flashes back to Seinfeld and Kramer’s first meeting, in which Jerry says, “I saw your name on the buzzer, you must be Kessler.” “No, actually, it’s Kramer,” Richards replies, to the laughter of the knowing audience.
As “Seinfeld” went along, it began to make more and more jokes like this about its own origins, culminating in the divisive two-part finale, in which all of the gang’s terrible actions, done in irreverence, are thrown into the cold, unfeeling light of the law. At least one of those crimes wasn’t letting Richards’ character remain named Kessler.