...all things Andy...
Memphis Flyer Remembers Andy and "The King"
The July 24, 1997 edition (Issue 440) of Memphis' great alternative newspaper, "The Memphis
Flyer" features the infamous feud between Andy Kaufman and Jerry "The King" Lawler. The
paper is free of charge and available throughout the Memphis metropolitan area. For those of
you outside of Memphis, you can read the article, "A Hollywood Yankee in King Lawler's
Court" via the World Wide Web at Memphis Flyer Interactive. Through an in-depth interview
with Lawler, writer Jim Hanas takes you behind-the-scenes of one of Andy's greatest works.
Well, actually you get as behind-the-scenes as Mr. Lawler allows you to get. Fifteen years have
passed since their famous confrontations and Jerry still won't break kayfabe. Say what you will
about "The King," one thing is for certain: he is a class professional wrestler who respects his
sport/business and will, no doubt, take his secrets to the grave.
July 28, 1982 - Late Night with David Letterman
The Andy Kaufman Biopic On Schedule
As reported in the April 18, 1997, issue of Entertainment Weekly actors are lining up to star in
a biopic on the life and times of Andy Kaufman. The yet to be titled movie will be directed by
none other than Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Amadeus, Hair and
The People versus Larry Flynt), with renowned screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott
Alexander (Ed Wood) providing the script. The Universal Pictures project will be produced by
Jersey Films, whose founder, Danny DeVito, co-starred with Kaufman on the sitcom Taxi.
DeVito also acted in Forman's 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and will appear
in the film as Andy's manager George Shapiro. Although casting is months away, Nicolas Cage
(Leaving Las Vegas), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Edward Norton (The People versus
Larry Flynt) and Jim Carrey (Liar Liar) are rumored to have expressed interest in
portraying the "DaDa of Ha-Ha". Alexander and Karaszewski hope to finish the script this
summer with the movie's release tentatively projected for winter of 1998.
Danny DeVito talks about his passion for the proposed Andy Kaufman project in a Quicktime
Movie clip (650k) of his interview for Hollywood Online ShoWest.
Distant Replay - Andy Banned for Life
November 20, 1982 - Saturday Night Live conducts a phone-in poll and asks viewers to vote
on whether Andy Kaufman should ever be allowed to return as a guest. Andy loses 195,544 to
On June 4, 1984, a People magazine tribute to Andy recounts the incident as follows:
"Kaufman, whose offbeat absurdist humor never quite penetrated the American mainstream
was voted off the late-night airwaves...Friends of the comedian say he felt deeply betrayed by
the voting ploy."
What really happened:
During the previous week Andy had been cut from the show. He and Dick Ebersol engaged in a
loud, nasty argument in the hallway outside of Studio 8H. At the beginning of the next show
(November 20, 1982), Ebersol personally came on stage to announce that viewers would be able
to vote to decide if Andy Kaufman should be forever banned from SNL. Many of the cast and
crew were divided over whether Kaufman was being treated terribly or just getting what he
deserved. The phone-in vote and Kaufman's lifetime ban were all conceived by Andy who
pitched the idea to Ebersol weeks prior to the hoax. Andy spent the week worrying over how
the vote would go, but when he lost, kept his word and never returned to SNL again.
Andy's "Hundred Bottles of Beer" Sketch
One of Andy's most poignant performances was his famous, "Hundred Bottles of Beer" routine.
When asked about this bit, Andy replied, "A Hundred Bottles of Beer has always been a
fantasy of mine. There are such psychological implications to that song, such great things you
can do. Once they're hooked, they won't let you stop. Can you imagine?"
Sing along with Andy here.
"Andy made himself the premise and the rest of the world was the punchline." - Robin
"He was never afraid to go out and try something new. He takes his life in his hands." - Carl
"Comedians would stand in the back and go: 'I gotta build a statue, and it's gotta be of HIM!" -
"He was like avant-garde theater transported to a nightclub stage." - Richard Belzer
"I never understood why he would want to alienate the audience to such extremes, unless he
was trying to get them to go from hate to love." - Stanley Kaufman
"Andy takes a lot of risks. What performer in his right mind would go onstage and deliberately
bomb?" - Bob Zmuda
"I think when you take off that jacket and they see that I LOVE GRANDMA T-shirt, they're
going to rip your heart out." - Elayne Boosler
"I always found (Andy) not only entertaining, but fascinating to be around. I miss him." -
"He's brilliant. I think he should drop the T.M. crap, take care of his skin, and realize now that
he's brilliant. I think he is the wave of the future, and hardly nine steps behind me." -
Cranberry juice shill and failed talk show host, Chevy Chase
"Andy was a sweet kid from Great Neck who was probably one of the strangest, funniest
comedians you'll ever see. His choice of ways to get laughs were choices no one else ever would
think of. It was humor from wanting to kill him, from the nerve, from the audacity of what he
did. That's how he got his laughs." - James Burrows
"Andy thinks like I did about wrestling. I didn't care if you loved me or hated me. What the
hell's the difference? As long as you intrigue your fans. Andy has balls." - Buddy "Nature Boy"
"Sometimes, when you look Andy in the eyes, you get a feeling somebody else is driving." -
"Andy Kaufman was by far the most innovative comedian at that time - although he never
liked being called a comedian. With Andy, you never knew whom you were talking to. He liked
to disappear into different personas offstage as well as onstage and refused to ever break
character. He was a remarkable guy, but basically confusing to spend any time around." - Jay
"Andy meditated in his car, lived on seaweed, and rehearsed only on Tuesday afternoons. But
he was one of the most brilliant comedians ever." - Tony Danza
"He twitches!" - Anne Beatts
"...one could call Kaufman's work television to the second power, and define it as "Kaufman =
TV x TV." - Michael Nash
"I never met anyone like him, and I don't expect to ever again. You see, Andy's gift was not his
talent or his skills-it was his genius, the genius of what he dared." - Judd Hirsch
"I am NOT Andy Kaufman!!" - Tony Clifton
"I've never been one to hope that Elvis is still hanging around somewhere, but I will probably
always expect to see Andy reappear some day." - Laurie Anderson
"Kaufman was a genius. But strange." - Gary Nardino
"Andy would orchestrate and rehearse each of his appearances for maximum impact. And
when the impact worked, good or bad, he would savor it. If we could have one guest like Andy
-- to me that's worth six months of new material." - David Letterman (again)
"Andy Kaufman, you're gonna get hurt son!!" - Jerry "The King" Lawler
"Andy was an absolute original. An uncompromised artist who marched through his short,
strange life to a very different drummer." - Marilu Henner
"Andy Kaufman sheds characters like a cold-sufferer discarding Kleenex." - Time Magazine
(May 28, 1979)
"He wanted to make audiences work, to rethink the obvious." - Elayne Boosler
Andy on Andy
"There's no way to describe what I do. It's just me."
"My mother sent me to psychiatrists since the age of four because she didn't think little boys
should be sad. When my brother was born, I stared out the window for days. Can you imagine
"I just want real reactions. I want people to laugh from the gut, be sad from the gut-or get
angry from the gut."
"If I play my cards right, I could bring network wrestling back to TV. Unfortunately, to most
people, wrestling is a laughingstock. But fortunately, I'm reaching people who otherwise
wouldn't watch it." - 1981
"There's no drama like wrestling."
"Pure entertainment is not an egotistical lady singing boring songs onstage for two hours and
people in tuxes clapping whether they like it or not. It's the real performers on the street who
can hold people's attention and keep them from walking away."
"Whenever I play a role, whether it's good or bad, an evil person or nice person, I believe in
being a purist and going all the way with the role. If I'm going to be a villainous wrestler, I
believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character and not giving away to the
audience that I'm playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt."
"I am not a comic, I have never told a joke. I don't even watch comedians. The comedian's
promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him. I've never done that in my
life. My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can. I can manipulate people's
reactions. There are different kinds of laughter. Gut laughter is where you don't have a choice,
you've got to laugh. Gut laughter doesn't come from the intellect. And it's much harder for me
to evoke now, because I'm known. They say, 'Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he's a really funny guy.'
But I'm not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads."
"While all the other kids were out playing ball and stuff, I used to stay in my room and imagine
that there was a camera in the wall. And I used to really believe that I was putting on a
television show and that it was going out to somewhere in the world."
"When I perform, it's very personal. I'm sharing things I like, inviting the audience into my
"What's real? What's not? That's what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality."
"I try to please people, to give them a good time, but I refuse to make my act conform to
traditional show-biz standards of entertainment. There's a little voice that says, 'Oh, no, you
can't do that, that's breaking all the rules.' That's the voice of show business. Then this other
little voice says, 'Try it.' And most of the time, when the voice comes on and says, 'No,' that's
the time it works."
"I was just teasing in fun..."
"The critics try to intellectualize my materiel. There's no satire involved. Satire is a concept
that can only be understood by adults. My stuff is straight, for people of all ages."
"I never told a joke in my life."
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT MR. ANDY KAUFMAN
Who was Andy Kaufman?
Referred to by some as a dadaistic comedian, Andy Kaufman took comedy and performance
art to the edges of irrationality and blurred the dividing line between reality and imagination.
Born in New York City on January 17, 1949, the first son of Stanley and Janice Kaufman, Andy
grew up on Long Island, New York, in the town of Great Neck. He began performing for family
and friends at the age of 7, and by the time he was 9 was being hired to entertain at children's
parties. After a year at a Boston junior college, Andy began performing his unique brand of
stand-up comedy at coffee shops and nightclubs on the east coast. Discovered by Improvisation
comedy club owner Budd Friedman, Andy quickly earned a reputation as a talented, yet
eccentric performer. Impressed by his abilities, Lorne Michaels asked Kaufman to appear on
the inaugural broadcast of "Saturday Night Live" (October 11, 1975). Best known for his work
as Latka Gravas on the TV sitcom "Taxi" Andy appeared in several TV shows (see The Andy
Kaufman Timeline) and movies, on Broadway, did a one-man show at Carnegie Hall, enjoyed a
brief professional wrestling career and performed in concerts nation-wide.
What's the big deal about Andy Kaufman?
Thirteen years after his "death" people still talk about Andy Kaufman. His work on "Taxi", can
be seen each weekday night on the Nickelodeon cable network. On March 29, 1995, a
one-hour special, "A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman", was telecast on NBC. This
retrospective on Andy's career was produced by his former managers and close friends. The
broadcast picked up a 10.2 rating (watched by approximately 14,300,000 viewers) and was
nominated for an Emmy as Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special. Many of Andy's
appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" or "Saturday Night Live" can be
enjoyed via the E! and Comedy Central cable networks.
Bill Zehme, a senior writer for Esquire Magazine and coauthor of Regis Philbin's book, "I'm
Only One Man" (Hyperion) and Jay Leno's book, "Leading With My Chin" was reported to be
working on an authorized biography of Andy. Given his busy schedule, we wonder if he'll ever
find time to finish it. Discussions about Andy appear in Internet newsgroups quite frequently.
His infamous brawl with wrestler Jerry Lawler continues to generate talk among members of
the alt.fan.letterman, rec.arts.tv and rec.sport.pro-wrestling newsgroups. The bizarre
speculation that Andy faked his death and will someday reappear still remains. Some even
thought he would make a surprise visit to Letterman's "Late Show" when Dave moved to
Andy always said he wasn't into comedy and that comedy was the most "unfunny" thing there
was. Many times, Andy's performances left audiences shaking their heads and wondering what
they had just witnessed. Andy provoked you to think: What is funny? What is entertainment?
How long will I tolerate this? He looked to create reactions, not to make people laugh. Steve
Allen once said he believed Andy did not explore the borderline between reality and
imagination - he lived there. Throughout all of the controversy and speculation, Andy's family
and friends could attest to one thing - Andy Kaufman was a warm, loving, courageous person
and his early "death" was not fair.
Didn't he imitate Elvis Presley?
Andy loved Elvis Presley. By the time he was attending Great Neck North High School,
Andy's Elvis impression was already finely tuned. Andy imitated Elvis before imitating Elvis
became a world-wide business. Unconfirmed reports claim Kaufman once hitchhiked to Las
Vegas to meet Presley. Although Andy's voice wasn't the best, he captured the legendary Elvis
moves and mannerisms better than anyone. Elvis considered Andy's impersonation of him as
by far, his favorite. The death of Elvis Presley spawned a slew of Presley impersonators, and
yet Andy imitated Elvis years before it became a cottage industry.
Did Andy Kaufman wrestle women?
Yes. Andy wrestled women from 1979 until 1983. As the world's first Inter-Gender Wrestling
Champion, Kaufman set the standard all future inter-gender wrestlers aspire to. Having
wrestled over 400 women, Andy retired undefeated. However, he did run into problems when
he wrestled his first male opponent Jerry Lawler. In 1982 Lawler was the reigning Southern
Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. During one of Andy's inter-gender matches, Lawler
interfered and almost cost Andy the match. A feud developed between the two, culminating in
a main-event match on April 5, 1982. At the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee,
Kaufman and Lawler finally wrestled, and in six short minutes Lawler "knocked Andy out" with
a vicious pile-driver. The fall sent Andy to the hospital with "seriously injured cervical
vertebrae." He spent three days in traction before being released. His subsequent attempts at
revenge against Lawler are featured in the movie, "I'm From Hollywood". "When I do the
wrestling act," Andy admits, "I'm playing a role of a villain. It's just like any actor that plays
the role of a villain in any movie or TV show. I'm playing the villain and what I'm trying to do is
get the people to dislike me just like they would any villain. So that they'll root for the woman
I'm wrestling - so that they'll really dislike me and hope that I lose and get really excited.
Whenever I play a role, whether it's good or bad, an evil person or nice person, I believe in
being a purist and going all the way with the role. If I'm going to be a villainous wrestler, I
believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character and not giving away to the
audience that I'm playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt."
Who was Tony Clifton?
As "Foreign Man," Andy Kaufman adopted a theme of absolute incompetance by portraying a
pseudo Eastern-European stand-up comic whose inept comedy reached uneasy and awkward
moments of nonpareil porportions. Audiences watched with a muddled blend of horror, anger
and pity as Foreign Man's disorientation, humiliation and panic suddenly transformed into an
incredibly accurate impersonation of Elvis Presley. At this point the audience would realize
they were part of an elaborate hoax - Foreign Man and Andy Kaufman were not what they
originally seemed to be.
With the evolution of Foreign Man to the "Latka Gravas" character on the hit television series,
"Taxi" the Foreign Man/Elvis character became common knowledge to the general public and
the routine lost its impact. This left Kaufman searching to create a new angle in which to
exploit the vulnerability of the audience's understanding of his intentions.
As Tony Clifton, the crass, abusive, small-time Las Vegas lounge singer, Andy Kaufman found
the next level for his unique comic styling. Kaufman claimed to have met the conceited and
insensitive nightclub singer in the early 1970's, and had initially impersonated him as part of
his own act but began hiring Clifton when he could afford to do so. When Clifton appeared in
concert (sometimes opening for Kaufman, other times opening for Rodney Dangerfield) his
incompetence and foul behavior angered the crowd to the point where they would pelt him
with garbage and threaten physical violence. Despite (or more accurately: "to spite") the
violence directed his way, Clifton would continue his act dressed in riot gear or protected by a
nylon net. This would enrage the crowd even more and many wanted to harm or kill Clifton!
Kaufman helped Clifton negotiate a contract with the producers of Taxi guaranteeing Clifton
work in one episode of the show with an option for two additional episodes. The episodes were
never filmed because Clifton's boorish behavior on the set prompted the producers to fire him.
As studio guards dragged Clifton off the set he screamed, "I'll sue all your f***ing asses!! You'll
never work in Vegas again!!" Returning the following week, Andy acted as if nothing had
happened. Rumors floated about that Andy's friend and co-conspirator, Bob Zmuda often times
played the role of Tony Clifton, while others claimed it was Andy all along. Kaufman insisted
that Clifton was a real person, not the one he once imitated, and Clifton would become livid
when reporters accused him of really being Andy Kaufman. "He's been using my name to get
places!" an outraged and visibly upset Clifton would shout. "Everyone thinks he's me,"
responded Kaufman, "It's really destroying his career."
Although many feared the Clifton character represented a darker side of Kaufman, it was
perhaps his most brilliant concept. Tony Clifton was the absolute opposite of Andy's Foreign
Man or Latka Gravas creations, and Andy didn't even have to be there to do him!
Or did he?
Did R.E.M. do a song about Andy?
On their 1992 album, Automatic For The People (Warner Brothers Records, Inc.) the band
pays homage to Andy in the song, Man on the Moon . Michael Stipe considers this song, "a
funny, sad eulogy to a very great man." Using Kaufman as a backdrop, R.E.M. explores our
perceptions of illusion and reality. The song examines how beliefs become reality, whether they
are about men walking on the moon, Moses leading the Jews, Newton using an apple to
understand gravity, or Andy Kaufman "goofing on Elvis" - what you believe becomes your
reality. A complete listing of R.E.M. lyrics (including Man on the Moon ) can be found at the
REM Home Page.
Just where was Latka from?
From the debut of Taxi on ABC, September 12, 1978, to the final broadcast on NBC, July 27,
1983, viewers were treated to Andy Kaufman's portrayal of the innocently complex immigrant,
Latka Gravas. For five seasons we learned the meaning of words like, "nik-nik," "brefnish" and
"ibeda." We were treated to a majestic rendition of the national anthem of Latka's native
country and delighted in the silly beauty of his wedding vows with Simka. So, just where were
Latka and Simka from?? No one knows. The name of Latka and Simka's native country was
Did Andy work with Laurie Anderson?
In 1978, Andy met the musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson in New York City. Laurie
worked as a "straight man" for Andy in comedy clubs, at Coney Island, or wherever the
inspiration arose. Laurie recounts her experiences with Andy in her Stories from the Nerve
Bible available at book and record stores everywhere.
To learn more about Laurie Anderson, go to HOMEpage OF THE BRAVE.
Is Andy dead?
In the early evening hours of May 16, 1984, Andy Kaufman succumbed to a rare form of lung
cancer. He had been sick less than one year and died at the age of 35. The reports of Andy's
passing were thought by many to be another cleverly crafted Kaufman performance piece.
Several friends and associates remained unconvinced until they viewed his body in the casket.
Andy Kaufman is buried at Beth David Cemetery in the Long Island town of Elmont, New
Or is he?
January 17, 1949 - Born in New York City, the first son of Stanley and Janice
Kaufman. Andy was raised in the affluent Long Island suburb of Great Neck
and gravitated towards show business at an early age. As a 1-year-old, Andy
would reach from his crib to work the controls of a nearby phonograph. "He'd
stand up in his crib and keep it on all the time, just putting the needle back,"
Janice remembered, "whenever it was on, he was content."
1956 - In the living room of their red-brick split-level home, Andy begins
performing jokes and magic tricks for family and friends.
1958 - At the age of 9, Andy starts working as an entertainer at children's
1963 - At the age of thirteen, Andy auditions for Budd Friedman at Friedman's
Improvisation Comedy Club. He bombs.
1964 - Andy's lifelong fascination with Elvis Presley begins. He also becomes a
fan of West African percussionist Olatunji and learns to play the congas. It's
during this time that Andy becomes fascinated with dreams of being a
professional wrestler, he especially admires "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers and
1965 - At age 16 completes his first novel (unpublished) titled, "The Hollering
1967- Graduates from Great Neck North High School. Fellow classmate, Jon
Avnet also chooses a show business career path. He goes on to direct such
notable films as Risky Business and Fried Green Tomatoes. Avnet
continues to direct major motion pictures to this day.
1967-1968 - Drives cabs and trucks in Great Neck for a year.
1969 - Enrolling at Boston's Grahm Junior College to study Television and
Radio, Andy aspires to be a television clown. While attending Grahm, he takes a
course in Transcendental Meditation (TM). Mastering TM techniques ease him
into performing in front of large audiences. TM becomes an important routine
in Andy's life and he begins a ritual of meditating two times-a-day. "I knew I
had the potential to entertain, but I was too shy. TM really brought the shyness
out of me."
1969 - Andy travels to Las Vegas to see Elvis Presley perform in concert. He
also sees a performance by "Las Vegas Lounge Legend" Tony Clifton and
becomes a fan for life, even going so far as to imitate Clifton during his own
stand-up performances. As Andy becomes more successful, he hires Clifton as
his opening act.
1969 - Completes his second epic novel (unpublished) titled, "God." Andy later
changes the title to "Gosh."
1970 - Hosts "Uncle Andy's Fun House" on the Grahm Junior College
closed-circuit television station. Begins to perform at local coffee houses and is
hired as a comedian by an African-American student's group for their show,
"The Soul Time Review."
1971 - Andy travels to Spain to attend a TM teaching course. While in Spain
Andy travels around Europe.
1971 - "Discovered" by Improvisation Comedy Club owner Budd Friedman
while performing stand-up comedy at My Father's Place (a Long Island rock
club), Andy begins doing his stand-up act at Friedman's Improv's in New York
and Los Angeles. Budd does not remember Andy's 1963 audition until Andy
tells him about it. Andy's uncle, Sam Denoff introduces Andy to Carl Reiner and
Dick Van Dyke. Impressed with his talent, they encourage their manager,
George Shapiro to represent him. Kaufman always insisted he wasn't a
comedian and many audiences wouldn't argue. Eschewing traditional stand-up
routines, Andy challenged and confused audiences with varying presentations
consisting of an inept foreign comedian, a low-life Las Vegas crooner, taunting
women into wrestling matches, singing the entire "One Hundred Bottles of
Beer" song, impersonating Elvis, reading The Great Gatsby aloud, or
appearing on stage in a sleeping bag and sleeping throughout the entire show.
1973 - Andy's appears at Rick Newman's "Catch a Rising Star" Comedy Club.
1975 - While in Los Angeles, NBC executive Dick Ebersol sees Andy's nightclub
act and asks him to audition for a new late-night comedy show tentatively
named, "Saturday Night."
October 11, 1975 - On the inaugural broadcast of Saturday Night Live Andy
lip-synch's "The Theme from Mighty Mouse." Dates of other SNL appearances:
October 25, 1975
November 8, 1975
February 28, 1976
January 15, 1977
October 15, 1977
December 10, 1977
March 25, 1978
February 24, 1979
January 30, 1982
May 15, 1982
November 20, 1982 (Andy is voted off the show 195,544 to 169,186)
January 22, 1983 (Video of Andy thanking all the viewers who voted for
him in vain)
September 20, 1976 to December 30, 1976 - Performs as cast member on Dick
Van Dyke's weekly variety show, Van Dyke and Co. Andy's "unscheduled"
appearances during the middle of Van Dyke's sketches become an instant
favorite. His "Foreign Man" to Elvis transformation stuns the studio and
1977 - Plays a psychotic assassin cop in the made-for-television movie, God
Told Me To (aka) Demon.
1976 - Makes the first of several guest appearances on The Tonight Show
with Johnny Carson.
February 20, 1978 - Another appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny
Carson. Steve Martin is the guest host.
March 2, 1978 - "Comedian Andy Kaufman Comes Home to Great Neck" The
Student Organization of Great Neck North Senior High School presents a night
of comedy and music with hometown hero, Andy Kaufman. Andy returns to his
old high school for two shows (3PM and 8PM) to kick off his national comedy
tour. Tickets are $3.00 and both performances are sold out.
1978 - Performs as a guest on The Mike Douglas Show.
1978 - Andy hires Tony Clifton to appear as the opening act at Andy's nightclub
and concert performances.
1978 - Andy appears as a contestant on The Dating Game.
1978 - Begins work on his third book titled, "The Hughie Williams Story." The
fictional biography of "the world's greatest entertainer." It also has never been
September 20, 1978 - First broadcast of the ABC situation-comedy, Taxi. Andy
plays the role of foreign auto mechanic Latka Gravas. Andy convinces executive
producers James L. Brooks and Ed. Weinberger to sign Tony Clifton to a
contract that promises at least 2 episodes of work, and Tony's own parking
space. Clifton is fired before the shooting of episode #10, "A Full House for
Christmas" for unprofessional behavior. (Andy supports the decision to fire
Clifton.) "If they hadn't thrown me off," Clifton snorted, "I woulda been the
April 22, 1979 - In a charity benefit for the New York Police Department, VIP
Night on Broadway, Andy sings "Tomorrow" from the musical Annie with
Sarah Jessica Parker.
April 26, 1979 - Andy Kaufman Plays Carnegie Hall. After the show Andy
invites the audience (2,800) to board 20 buses for a trip to the Manhattan
School of Printing's cafeteria for free milk and cookies.
April 30, 1979 - Guest spot on The Lisa Hartman Show: Hot Stuff
May 30, 1979 - Plays the role of Andy the robot helper in a space-age comedy
television pilot titled, Stick Around.
August 28, 1979 - Stars in his own ABC comedy show, The Andy Kaufman
Special - Andy's Funhouse (originally taped in 1977).
1979 - Appears on HBO's 2nd Annual Young Comedians Show.
1979 - Nominated for a Golden Globe award as Best Supporting Actor in a
Comedy or Musical Series by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for his
work on Taxi.
1979 - Andy begins his reign as World Inter-gender Wrestling Champion,
challenging any woman in the audience to wrestle him for his championship
belt. He also promises to pay $1,000 to any woman who can pin his shoulders to
the mat. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am here to wrestle tonight, " Andy
announces. "This is not a comedy routine, this is not a skit. Okay?? This is
real!! I am here to wrestle a woman!!"
1980 - Stars with Marty Feldman, Richard Pryor and Peter Boyle in the
Universal Pictures movie In God We Tru$t. Andy plays a televangelist named,
Armageddon T. Thunderbird.
February 20, 1981 - As guest host for the ABC comedy show Fridays Andy
creates general mayhem and turmoil during the live broadcast. This results in a
scuffle between Andy and several cast and crew-members during the last
sketch of the night. Andy insists the incident was a terrible misunderstanding.
February 27, 1981 - Fridays airs a video-taped apology from Andy. "It was an
experimental piece...something different. This has been a very hard week for
me. Because of last week's show, my job at Taxi is in jeopardy...my agent is
having trouble convincing anybody to hire me. (To audience:) I think you
laughing at it is pretty tasteless. Thanks to last week I'm in a separation with
my wife...I was just trying to have fun (begins to cry)."
October 11, 1981 - At Playboy's Atlantic City Hotel and Casino, Andy defends
his World Intergender Wrestling Championship against Playboy Playmate,
Susan (Miss September) Smith. Kaufman pins Smith in 18 minutes and 35
seconds. When told the proceeds from the show were being donated to charity
Kaufman replies, "Charity? Nobody said anything about charity. I want my
money. I earned it. If you want charity, go get Jerry Lewis."
September 18, 1981 - To begin Fridays second season, Andy returns as guest
host. Appearing with the Fridays cast and crew for the first time since his
February 20th fiasco, Andy is on his best behavior. In fact, Andy brings his
fiance Kathy Sullivan, a gospel singer from Dallas, on stage to perform several
Christian songs and talks to the audience about his newly found faith in Jesus
1981 - Featured on the undercard of a pro-wrestling show at Cobo Arena in
Detroit, Michigan, Andy easily defends his Inter-gender Championship.
Answering the critics who find his wrestling an insult to women, Andy explains,
"Well, I'm not really a wrestler, though the last couple of years that I've been
doing it in my concerts I've learned a lot about it by just doing it. I wanted to
recapture the old days of the carnivals where (before television) wrestlers used
to go from town to town and offer $500 to any man that could last in the ring
with them for three minutes. So I figured if I could offer a prize, make it like a
contest, it could get very, very exciting. And it turned out to be like one of the
highlights, one of the most exciting parts of the concert. But I couldn't very well
challenge men in the audience because I'd get beaten right away. I mean most
men are bigger than me and stronger than me. So I figured if I challenged
women there are enough women who are almost as big, or as big as me and they
would have a good chance to beat me."
1981 - Co-stars with Bernadette Peters in the Universal Pictures movie,
Heartbeeps. Kaufman and Peters star as two housecleaning robots who fall in
love, set out on their own and search for happiness in the future world of 1995.
1981 - When not shooting Taxi or performing stand-up, Andy works as a busboy
at a local delicatessen, Jerry's Famous Deli.
1981 - At the conclusion of this season's Taxi, Andy plans to make a ninety-nine
cent national tour so everyone can afford to see him perform in concert.
1981 - Guest spot on The Midnight Special introducing Tony Clifton.
1981 - On The Merv Griffin Show Tony Clifton denounces Andy and
emphatically denies that he and Kaufman are one and the same. Later Clifton
says, "I am fed up with all the rumors that I am connected with Andy Kaufman.
I am suing Andy Kaufman. He's in Hollywood. Mr. Hollywood. He thinks he's a
February 17, 1982 - After appearing as a guest on David Letterman's ill-fated
morning show, Andy makes his first of 10 appearances on Late Night with
David Letterman. Dates of other Late Night guest spots-
February 18, 1982 (Tony Clifton appears for Andy)
March 30, 1982
April 1, 1982
May 17, 1982
July 28, 1982 (During the interview Andy is slapped out of his chair by
Jerry Lawler, Andy shouts curses and tosses coffee on Lawler before
running out of the studio.) (See April 5, 1982 below)
November 17, 1982
January 7, 1983
February 23, 1983
September 22, 1983
November 17, 1983
February 1982 - Playboy features a full-length article and pictorial of Andy's
October '81 wrestling match with Playmate Susan Smith.
April 5, 1982 - At the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee Andy finally
wrestles Jerry Lawler and Lawler pile-drives Andy into the hospital, seriously
injuring his cervical vertebrae. (See Late Night July 28, 1982 above.)
1982 - Tony Clifton does a song and dance routine on "The Fantastic Miss
1982 - Andy appears on the Catch a Rising Star 10th Anniversary Show.
April 14, 1983 - Performs at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway (2
performances) in the play, "Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap."
1983 - Andy's wrestling career is chronicled during the filming of, "I'm From
Hollywood." The movie documents Andy's year-long battle for revenge against
Jerry "The King" Lawler.
November 29, 1983 - Andy plays the role of Dr. Vinnie Boombatz on "The
Rodney Dangerfield Special: I Can't Take it No More".
1983 - PBS broadcasts the Soundstage special The Andy Kaufman Show. In
an apparent attempt at reconciliation, Andy features a tribute to Tony Clifton
in the form of a Tony Clifton marionette who serves as Andy's sidekick during
March 20, 1984 - Andy's short film, "My Breakfast with Blassie" premieres.
May 16, 1984 - News reports from Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles,
California announce that Andy Kaufman is dead at the age of 35, the victim of a
rare form of lung cancer.
1985 - After a year long engagement at the Shoes & Socks Lounge in Las Vegas,
Tony Clifton retires from show-business and is now living in a retirement
community just outside of Reno, Nevada.
The Night Andy Kaufman Sabotaged
"I'm the bad kid in school! Who wants to wrestle?"
By early 1981, Andy Kaufman's stand-up comedy was legendary among fellow comedians and
entertainers. He was a nine-timer on "Saturday Night Live" and was beginning his third
season as Latka Gravas on Taxi. With his first starring role in the soon-to-be-released movie,
"Heartbeeps" on the horizon, Andy was a hot commodity. An often quirky commodity, but a
hot one nonetheless.
So it was natural that ABC's fledgling late-night comedy show "Fridays" would want Andy to
be a guest host. The incredible success of Saturday Night Live made it obvious to the
networks that younger viewers wanted late-night shows catering to their interests. "The
Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson" was a hip show, but a hip show your parents
watched. Saturday Night Live changed how television executives viewed late-night
programming and ABC quickly jumped on the bandwagon. The brainchild of producers John
Moffit and Bill Lee, Fridays was broadcast "Live from the Los Angeles Basin." The show was a
stone-cold duplication of Saturday Night Live and is notable for launching the careers of
Larry David and Michael Richards. As cast members, David and Richards brought interesting
range to the ensemble. Larry's strong writing abilities and observational skills, along with
Michael Richards unique brand of physical comedy made them immediate favorites with the
audience. Years later, Larry David teamed up with a young comedian named Jerry Seinfeld to
create a pilot for NBC called, "The Seinfeld Chronicles" which became the mega-hit
"Seinfeld". The George Costanza character is based largely upon the life of Larry David, and
Michael Richards' "Kramer" is arguably the biggest star of Seinfeld.
ABC's desire to replicate late-night comedy in the genre of Saturday Night Live seemed
doomed from the start. Even though Fridays lasted three seasons (an eternity in the
uncharted waters of late-night TV), it never moved from the shadows of "The Not Ready For
Prime-Time Players." Ratings started low and never rose, despite an extremely talented cast.
In the end, spotty and inconsistent writing became the show's downfall. Struggling for higher
ratings, Fridays needed an injection of excitement, a controversy, a trained monkey, anything
to generate more viewers. Who better to host the show and generate publicity than the often
unpredictable Andy Kaufman?
"They want me to say the name of the show, but I'm not gonna!"
A traditional approach to comedy was not Andy's forte and the folks at Fridays weren't sure
what to expect with Andy as the guest host. Andy Kaufman practiced improvisational comedy
that bordered on guerrilla theater and modern performance art. Andy considered this element
of his repertoire, "pure entertainment." To Kaufman, this pure entertainment was "living
theater" - life as theater, theater as life. The fantasy of performing, combined with Andy's
dangerous mixtures of provocation, superseded everything else in his professional life. His
ability to challenge the established standards of performance changed many perceptions about
the entertainer/audience relationship, and perhaps will be Andy Kaufman's true lasting legacy.
He and his ever-present partner, advisor and co-conspirator Bob Zmuda arrived early in the
week ready to prepare for the live broadcast on Friday, February 20, 1981. The Fridays cast
was honored to be working with Kaufman and Andy was pleased to be a special guest star. By
all accounts, Andy performed flawlessly during rehearsals.
Broadcast from Studio 55 at the ABC Television Center in Hollywood, the show started at 8:30
PM Pacific Time in order to be telecast live to East coast viewers at 11:30. Andy appeared
alone onstage at 8:25 and took the microphone in hand. His rambling, out-of-control,
laugh-filled antics took the rowdy audience of 200, as well as, the Fridays crew by surprise. At
8:30 Andy ignored director Bob Bowker's signal that they were now on the air live. Doubled
over in self-absorbed laughter, Andy struggled to do the planned monologue as the studio
audience began to hoop and holler. With a gleam in his eye Andy stopped - looked at the crowd
and laid it on the line:
"All week long we've been rehearsing a certain way" Andy said. "I'm not gonna do it!! You know
Ladies and Gentlemen this is live, you know - and I've never hosted a show live before, but-but
I just realized something. I can do anything I want up here and they can't do anything to me!!
They told me I couldn't say, 'crap.' I just did! They said I couldn't wrestle any women, but I
think I'm gonna wrestle every woman in the audience!! Come on!! Come on!! Who wants to
wrestle??" With that announcement, Andy had taken the entire cast and crew of Fridays, the
studio audience and a nation of television viewers hostage.
After jumping around clucking like a chicken and generally acting defiant Andy continued, "I
feel like the bad kid in school!" Co-producer and script supervisor Jack Burns and John Moffit
pointed at their watches and pleaded with Andy to finish the monologue - he refused. Finally
the theme music began and Andy reluctantly walked offstage. From that moment on the show
was out of synch. A flustered Burns stumbled through the introduction and as one audience
member later described it, "After Andy's rant at the beginning, a tension just filled the studio.
For the rest of the show you felt an adrenaline rush like you get after narrowly avoiding injury
in a car accident."
With the exception of "The Masked Magician" sketch (Bob Zmuda as a snubbed and
disgruntled magician bent on exposing the secrets of magic in order to exact revenge on the
"magician's union"), Andy purposely made mistakes whenever in front of the camera. The
audience was not sure what to think; the cast and crew, however, were beginning to get very
To this day it is not known how many of the members of Fridays were in on Andy's hoax. At a
minimum, it can be assumed that Kaufman, Moffit, Bowker, Burns and Richards knew about it
from the start. With Moffit's permission, Andy purposely self-destructs during a live television
broadcast. Bowker and Burns knew of Andy's intent to "improvise," but did not know exactly
what Andy meant by that. "How would the cast react when Andy flubbed his lines? What would
the audience think? What would happen would be anyone's guess and whatever that would be -
would at least be interesting," they thought. Once again, Andy had successfully created
another piece of living theater. Until things got a little out of hand...
"Why is everyone so uptight??"
The last sketch of the night featured four friends (two married couples) out for dinner on a
Saturday night. Each one had brought along a joint thinking that, for one reason or another,
no one else smoked dope. So when each person left the table, what he or she did was sneak
into the restroom to get stoned. At first, Andy played the part as written. When it was his
turn to get up and "go get high" he returned and stopped the sketch complaining, "I feel
stupid." Melanie Chartoff and Maryedith Burrell were dumbfounded. (You don't stop a sketch
in the middle of a live telecast!) Michael Richards stood up, walked offstage, grabbed the cue
cards and tossed them in front of Andy. Andy responded by throwing a glass of water on
Richards. Exasperated, Chartoff and Burrell began throwing bread and butter at Andy as
stagehands and cast-members moved to jump into the fray. Jack Burns shouted (to Director
Bob Bowker), "Bob cut to commercial!!" as Andy began yelling at Chartoff for throwing butter
in his hair. Burns, after moving Chartoff and Burrell aside, lunged at Andy. People everywhere
began pushing and pulling at Andy (see photo above) and Andy was terrified. Finally, cooler
heads prevailed and Kaufman was escorted off the stage as the studio audience sat in stunned
silence. After a commercial break the final two minutes of the show became an improvised
farewell. Brandis Kemp quipped, "We'd like to thank the portion of Andy that showed up
In typically unpredictable Kaufman fashion, Andy did not attend the cast party after the show
(held in the soundstage next door). During the party, calls from East coast television stations
began to flood the ABC switchboard. Word of the on-air fisticuffs spread to national newswires
and the incident was featured in newspapers the next day. Kaufman, Moffit, Bowker, Burns
and Richards never revealed the incident was a "work" planned in advance, and this generated
more controversy and speculation regarding the continuing strange saga of Andy Kaufman.
Many people close to the show were horrified by Kaufman's actions and felt betrayed by his
lack of professionalism.
Despite their "televised brawl," Melanie Chartoff remembers a sweeter, gentler, less
controversial Andy Kaufman. At the conclusion of Thursday afternoon's rehearsal, Andy asked
her to join him for dinner. Melanie agreed, but wanting to jog first, asked Andy if he would like
to come along. In the fading evening twilight, Andy sat in the grandstand and watched as
Melanie circled the track. "He said `Hi' every time I went by," she recalls. "Anyone who was
close to him felt enormous love."
Special thanks to Jay Levine who was there to witness this very strange night...
"I haven't been sleeping lately. It's not that I can't; just that I don't. A friend of mine
said that you reach a point when your parents don't tell you to go to sleep anymore.
Some people get to that age and never put themselves to bed. That's me. There's just
too much to do."
Andy Kaufman's short and extraordinary life ended in as bizarre a fashion
as anyone could imagine and the events surrounding his final days remain
the source of curious speculation even today. The day Andy left us the
world lost a daring genius - a performance artist masquerading as a
Here's a little agit for the never believer...
Thanksgiving, 1983 -- Holiday dinner at the Kaufman home in Long Island
was no different than any other celebration, except for one thing...Andy's
nagging cough caused everyone to express concern about his health. He
assured family and friends that everything was fine. A doctor checked it
out and nothing had shown up.
A month later the coughing continued and was much worse. Something
was obviously wrong, so Andy returned for a full battery of medical tests.
When the final results were available, the doctors were stunned. Andy
Kaufman had lung cancer and it was already in advanced stages.
Diagnosed with a rare large-cell carcinoma, Andy's ailment was inoperable
and incurable. The doctors expected him to live less than three months.
The cruel irony to this twist of fate was not lost on Andy. Throughout his
career he had always "pushed the envelope", testing the limits of what an
audience would endure. To do so, Andy resorted to many forms of put-ons
and trickery. This sudden and shocking diagnosis of terminal lung cancer
was incredible. Who would believe that Andy Kaufman - a life-long
non-smoker, who never drank, used drugs, or ate red meat, would
contract lung cancer?? His only vice was a weakness for candy and ice
cream, which he ate voraciously. Many have since speculated that the
second-hand smoke floating like dense fog in the comedy clubs and lounges
where Andy performed early in his career was responsible for the cancer.
Here's a little ghost for the offering...
Andy's unorthodox efforts to find a miracle cure were front-page
headlines in most of the tabloids...
Never losing hope, Andy set out to find a cure and was willing to entertain
any idea, or travel to any part of the world in the hopes that a miracle
could be found. When he wasn't searching for a cure, or taking medical
treatments, Andy worked to maintain his normal routine. Each day he
took time to meditate (Andy had practiced TM daily since his days at
Grahm Junior College in Boston), meet with friends, run errands, make
phone calls, etc.
Word of Andy's illness spread slowly. Many dismissed it as a hoax, and
therefore, gave the story no credence. "When Kaufman died I thought it
was a joke", said Merle Kessler, a founding member of the Duck's Breath
Mystery Theater. People on the street would approach Andy (sitting in his
wheelchair) and say, "Andy, come on man. This dying bit is just too much!"
Andy would turn to friends and just shrug in astonishment, "Can you
believe it? They think I'm making this up!" His years of (in)famous
characterizations totally transfixed audiences to the point that they
believed he had no other off-camera reality. They were convinced the
"dying thing" was just another cleverly-crafted Kaufman performance
In March 1984, Andy and Lynne Margulies attended the Los Angeles
premier of My Breakfast with Blassie (Lynne was "Blassie's" film
editor). An all-black leather outfit draped loosely on his thinning frame
and a mohawk-haircut (Andy's hair had been falling out from his radiation
treatments) made it obvious to those who knew of his illness that Andy
was suffering the effects of the cancer and the radiation therapy. Most of
the audience dismissed his appearance as the latest "bit du jour" from
their quirky comic hero. Later that night friends gathered for a bon
voyage party as Kaufman and Margulies prepared for a trip to the
Philippines in search of a miracle.
Impressed by a documentary, narrated by Burt Lancaster, on the psychic
healers of the Philippines, Andy was ready to stop taking his weekly
treatments and give this miracle cure a try. Denounced by the American
Medical Association as quackery, the documentary has never been shown
in the United States. However, many who have witnessed the "surgeries"
swear they are effective in curing cancer and other types of ailments.
When they arrived in Manila, Andy undertook a six-week course in physic
surgery, a controversial form of treatment in which healers appear to
plunge their hands into the human body to remove tumors or cure other
ailments. At the clinic of "physic surgeon" Jun Labo, Andy underwent the
painless treatments twice daily. Labo claimed to have removed large
cancerous tumors from Andy's body and Andy started to look and feel
better. Despite feeling better, Andy became homesick for the United
States and insisted upon returning home. When he visited his doctors in
Los Angeles, they were amazed that his condition had not worsened.
Days after the check-up his health began to deteriorate again.
Here's a truck-stop instead of Saint Peter's...
Andy was tickled by the fact that many thought his illness to be another
put-on. Elayne Boosler asked him to tell her that it was. He couldn't. In
her recollections of Andy for the November 1984 edition of Esquire,
Boosler shared the wonderful and touching account of her experiences
with Andy. They met in New York's "Hell's Kitchen" in the summer of
1973, Andy an up-and-coming comic, and Elayne an aspiring singer. Their
relationship grew from friendship - to romance - and back to friendship
over the course of the next eleven years. Many close to Andy say that
Elayne was the one great love of his life. Andy encouraged Elayne to give
up singing and become a comedian and she also credits him with teaching
her about meditation, music, books, food, wrestling, acceptance and love.
She was with Andy during the last weeks of his life and remembers those
final days like this:
It's not like in the movies. Concise farewell speeches do not flow
from the mouths of distraught people, especially when they don't
want to give death credence by saying its name. You talk the way
you've always talked, about everything and nothing. But you
listen harder, hoarding words like acorns to get you through the
long winter that you know is coming. We talked, and sometimes
a sentence turned to gold. Studying my face as if he were
hoarding a few acorns of his own, he said simply, "Enjoy your
life." I answered truthfully, "Thanks to you, I will."
Andy never gave up hope. He didn't intend to die. Near the end
he took to sleeping with his eyes open just to make sure. When
death came, early in the twilight of a warm Los Angeles evening,
it was met with two unflinching eyes. When the nurse tried to
close them, they just opened again. I remembered a reviewers
words: "This guy doesn't know when to get off." I laughed. One
more time he was teaching me. I stood on the ground below and
watched him ride on alone. It was smooth. He was on the next
hill before I realized it. I knew then that when my turn came, I
wouldn't be afraid. He had shown me the way.
Mister Andy Kaufman's gone wrestling...
Former Late Night with David Letterman executive producer, Robert
"Morty" Morton was one of the executors of Andy's last will and
testament. When word of Andy's death reached Studio 6A in New York
City, Dave decided to end the show with a simple, but sincere salute. He
announced to the audience that Andy had died and finished with, "He
certainly was unique, and we're going to miss him." Many of the Late
Night staff thought it was another classic Kaufman stunt. They asked
Morty, who attended the funeral, if he had actually seen Andy's body in
the casket. He had.
Over 300 close friends and family members gathered in Great Neck, New
York for the funeral. At Andy's request, Classie Freddie Blassie sat in the
front pew with the family. Overcome by emotion, Blassie was unable to
give interviews to the press who gathered outside the synagogue after the
service. When asked for his reaction to Andy's death, Robin Williams
replied, "Andy was the master of the comic switch; at his tribute, people
were expecting Tony Clifton to speak."
In Elmont, New York on the western edge of Nassau County you can find
the grave of Andy Kaufman at Beth David Cemetery. Not far from houses
whose backyard's border the quiet green rows of headstones and
occasional mausoleums, Andy's remains rest in peaceful eternity. The
inscription on Andy's headstone reads, "Beloved Son, Brother and
Grandson. We Love You Very Much." In another Long Island cemetery
nearby, the inscription on the tombstone of renowned artist, Jimmy Ernst
could also be a fitting comment on the life of Andy Kaufman: "Artists and
Poets are the raw nerve of humanity. By themselves they can do little to
save humanity -- without them there would be little worth caring."
As distance grows between Andy's passing and the next regularly
scheduled sunrise, stories of his life grow to mythic proportions. They've
become "Urban Legends." Urban Legends are modern folklore that appear
mysteriously and spread spontaneously in varying forms. Urban Legends
make for good story-telling and don't have to be false, although most are.
They often have basis in fact, but it's their life after-the-fact that gives
them the title of Urban Legend. Since his early death, Andy's entire life
has grown into one large Urban Legend. Rumors, inaccuracies, myths and
misconceptions abound when the subject of Andy Kaufman arises.
Some examples of Andy Kaufman legends are:
Andy died from a broken neck suffered during a professional
Andy's bizarre performances/behavior were due to a brain tumor.
Andy hated women.
Andy was banned from future appearances on Saturday Night Live.
Andy was insane.
His ghost haunts "The Comedy Store" in Los Angeles.
Andy was married.
Andy and Tony Clifton were the same person.
Andy faked his death and is hiding somewhere waiting to return and
shock the world.
Is Andy really dead? Could he have faked his own death in an elaborate
hoax? If anyone on earth was capable of playing this type of ultimate
practical joke it would be Andy Kaufman. As one of Andy's close friends
recently remarked, "Andy wouldn't come back in 5 years. He would come
back dramatically 20 or more years later when he would have to start all
As time passes Andy's curiously unorthodox life and career grow in
magnitude. Books, movies, TV specials and Internet Home Pages do little
to recapture the magic that was "Andy" and we clearly begin to
understand that he was a unique human being, the likes of which we shall
never see again.
What we know, or don't know about the final days in the life of Andy
Kaufman, we do know this: He spent his last days wide awake...never
asleep...with his eyes wide open...
HE DREW US INTO HIS WORLD OF ILLUSION, THEN MADE US ASK,
Andy Kaufman, January 17th, 1949--May 16th, 1984
By Judd Hirsch
Andy Kaufman was a unique animal. He walked upright like a man, but somehow I never
thought of him as a definite physical being - one that had volume or shape or any spatially
measurable proportions. Any attempt to describe him pyschologically or emotionally would
likewise fall short of the mark. And it would be senseless and utterly meaningless to try and
compare Andy to other performers, personalities, humorists or, for that matter, other Homo
sapiens. He was of the species, that much I can say with certainty, but a type heretofore
unknown to me. In short, I had never met anyone like him, and I don't really expect to ever
I miss him already. He intriqued me every time I saw him during the entire five-year run of
Taxi. And even during the off-season, when I didn't see him, he kept me wondering and
fascinated. I can't say that I knew Andy Kaufman well enough to tell you what his dreams
were, or whether he had a philosophy, or what moved him deeply. I can only attest to his
singular effect on this civilization and, in particular, my own life and consciousness.
Many thought Andy was reclusive, difficult, even downright ornery. But I think those were the
knee-jerk reactions people have to an easily misunderstood presence, to a special kind of
genius. Here again I have trouble with description: His genius was not easily discernible by
what he did, not even at the moment he did it, but more by his way of creating in you
seemingly annoying but ultimately profound questions: "Why would anyone do this?" "Why is
this funny?" "What are we being subjected to here?" His genius was something akin to what I
can only describe as designless illusion. That's what he was after, and that's what he was good
I remember his introducing the Morman Tabernacle Choir onstage at the Huntington Hartford
Theater in Los Angeles a few years back. I knew it wasn't really them - it couldn't be the real
Morman Tabernacle Choir - but there they were, in full purple regalia, chanting the sound of
what we thought we knew was the Morman Tabernacle Choir. Of course, they couldn't be,
certainly not the actual, not the authentic Morman Tabernacle Choir, yet the question was
unavoidable: "What if they were?"
Then Andy introduced "the Rockettes." And there they were - "the Rockettes"! But they
weren't the Rockettes at all. Yet they filled the stage and kicked their Rockette-like legs in the
air and held forth in such Rockette-like style that the only real effect left in you was the
simple but gnawing question: "What if they were?" What if...? The ultimate question that
propels performers, visionaries and illusionists into the most inspired aspects of their
professions: What if...?
In his usual innocence, Andy was inviting us to experience with him, in a very challenging and
present-tense way, this big "What if...?" We went along with it because it was Andy's illusion, in
its most innocent terms, that drew us out to our own limit of possible belief - our own inner
attraction to the "What if...?"
Finally, when he invited the whole audience out for "milk and cookies" after the "concert" we
could only be left in a state of wonder (and warm suspicion) as to the meaning of this gesture. I
remember thinking, "What will this obviously metaphorical invitation turn out to be once we
hit the streets?" Imagine how surprised and delighted and ultimately charmed out of our pants
we were, when at least fifteen buses showed up outside the theater to take us to our midnight
The illusion became real, and we were once again gently, yet purposefully, invited into an
illusionist's world - in this case, for a clear demonstration of the simplicity of friendliness.
On the other hand, I can recall getting so angry and incensed at Andy Kaufman (or, more
accurately, at one of his alter egos, of which there was a plentiful supply) that I found myself
physically removing him from a soundstage during a rehearsal. Yet it was during that brief but
decisive act that I first experienced the Kaufman principle of "What if...?" I was, I thought,
ejecting Andy Kaufman, but it was only Andy in the flesh - believe me, it was actually his
manufacture, this illusion of his that I was grappling with and propelling toward the
soundstage door. You see, there wasn't a trace of real belligerence or real orneriness or real
bad feeling in the entire event. Just innocence and a benign invitation to an unmistakably
peaceful experience of sheer audaciousness.
Andy loved to act - I know because I acted with him - but that wasn't his profession. Make no
mistake, he was a professional - but his amateur standing remained intact.
And he was a humorist, but his humor was more a lightness of air than any comic design (or
delivery). But to be absolutely accurate, Andy Kaufman was amused. He was so amused by his
own characters that I believe most people who did not know him or his illusionistic process
thought him a little bent. You see, Andy's gift was not his talent or his skills - it was his genius,
the genius of what he dared. His was a rare spirit - an indomitable one. He gave himself the
right to fail - and much more courageously than most.
Yes, Andy Kaufman was a unique animal.
Judd Hirsch and Andy Kaufman starred together in "Taxi." The cast, Andy used to say, was
Originally printed in Rolling Stone - July 5, 1984 (Page 60)
Fifteen years ago, Jerry Lawler and Andy Kaufman blurred the line
between reality and pretend with their strange wrestling feud. What
really happened is still anybody's guess.
by Jim Hanas
t's one of those crazy things you always hope will happen on television, although, given the
precautions and general uneventfulness of the medium, it almost never does.
Fifteen years ago this week, professional wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler slapped comedian
Andy Kaufman out of his chair on Late Night with David Letterman, striking -- if only for a
moment -- through the plastic predictability of the small screen with a flash of spontaneity
that seemed to surprise everyone involved -- Kaufman, Letterman, and even Lawler. "I
promise you," he says today, "I was in a dilemma right up until the last second."
NBC was inundated with phone calls from people who
wanted to know if the altercation had been staged.
Network lawyers interviewed the parties involved and
determined that the producers had no part in
planning what eventually happened in the segment.
There had been a plan, but Kaufman getting smacked
wasn't part of it. They were supposed to show footage
of Lawler injuring Kaufman with an apparently vicious
piledriver move at the Mid-South Coliseum three
months earlier; Kaufman was supposed to apologize
for making fun of wrestling; Lawler was to apologize for the injury; and then Kaufman was to
burst into a rendition of "What The World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love."
"You can see it in Andy's eyes and you can see it in Letterman's eyes," says Lawler. "It's like,
what's wrong with this guy? Why ain't he doing what we all said we were going to do?"
And then he hit him. Unplanned, unpremeditated, unknown to Kaufman, Lawler just smacked
him, out of his chair, right there on national television. That's the story.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A NIGHTCLUB act. Kaufman, who was in 1982 starring in TV's Taxi
as the indeterminately foreign Latka Gravas, had been wrestling women from the audience in
clubs and on Saturday Night Live and had dubbed himself the World Intergender Wrestling
Champion, belt and all. It was a controversial act, done with a seriousness that inspired shock
and moral outrage. And if there was laughter, it was nervous laughter, the kind Kaufman
seemed to like best.
But it wasn't enough for Kauf-man. He went looking for a way to bring his bit to real live
wrestling fans, and after being turned down by other organizations, he approached Eddie
Marlin, promoter of matches at the Mid-South Coliseum, which eventually led him to Memphis
"Andy, I guess, was a big wrestling fan as a kid or something," Lawler says, as he reminisces
about the Kaufman feud over lunch at the Half Shell. "He idolized Nature Boy Buddy Rogers,
who was a big flamboyant bad guy. And so I think that this was an opportunity for Andy to live
out a childhood dream, and from the time he got the go-ahead, he took on the personality of
this Nature Boy Buddy Rogers. He sent some video interviews in, saying that he was going to
come to Memphis and challenge some of the women of Memphis. But of course it wasn't a
Latka interview or an Andy Kaufman interview, it was a bad-guy wrestler interview."
Kaufman's taunting challenges were hugely successful by the only standard that matters in the
world of professional wrestling: The fans hated him. "They came out in droves," says Lawler,
"not only to see Andy, but they also wanted to see him get his butt beat."
The deal was this: The audience picked the women he would wrestle and $1,000 went to the
one who could pin him. In the course of four matches at the Mid-South Coliseum, none of them
could, although one came close.
Foxy was a big girl who looked to outweigh Kaufman by at least a hundred pounds. As
Kaufman was strutting around the ring, bragging about how easily he had pinned the earlier
challengers, the bell rang and she was all over him.
"He hit on the mat, and you would have thought the roof was coming off the coliseum," Lawler
remembers. "This was the first time anybody had done anything to Andy so far. She grabbed
him, and I mean she was tearing him up. She was throwing him everywhere."
Kaufman finally prevailed, but it had been close enough to warrant a rematch, this time with
Lawler coaching Foxy from the corner.
When Kaufman pinned her again in the rematch, he apparently got a little carried away,
rubbing her face into the mat and refusing to let up. The fans went wild, yelling at Lawler to do
something. So he did. He got in the ring and pushed Kaufman off her, which sent the comedian
into a rage, screaming into the microphone that he was going to sue everyone, punctuating the
threats with his trademark refrain, "I'm from Hollywood."
He was a big star. You couldn't do that to him.
WHETHER KAUFMAN WAS serious then or ever during his ensuing
feud with Lawler is anybody's guess, which is what makes the whole chain
of events so inscrutable.
Even I'm From Hollywood -- a documentary film made after Kaufman's
1984 death that chronicles his wrestling exploits -- doesn't help. Compiled
from footage of matches, interviews, and television appearances, it
includes Kaufman's friends and colleagues talking about his obsession
with wrestling. Robin Williams, Tony Danza, and Marilu Henner offer
conflicting testimony as to whether Kaufman was truly mad or just
playing a joke that no one else was in on. He wore his World Intergender
Champion belt and the thermal underwear he wrestled in under his clothes, says Williams,
giving at least the impression that he had somehow slipped into wrestling's fantasy world.
On the other hand, Kaufman's friend and confidant Bob Zmuda says at one point, "Andy was
Watching Kaufman rail against women, Lawler, and Memphis in the taped, wrestling-style
interviews, it's hard to decide if he's a madman or a comic genius. You just can't tell.
LAWLER COULDN'T EIther. Even as Kaufman stood outside the ring threatening to sue
everyone in sight. "I didn't know what the deal was," Lawler says. "He wouldn't let anybody in
on what he was doing, and you never knew if what he was doing was real or if it was a put-on."
After Kaufman threatened to sue, Lawler challenged him to a match to settle their
differences. What really happened next is unclear, although Kaufman's statements and
Lawler's recollection agree that the two never got a chance to plan out the match. "I sort of
think that Andy thought that once he accepted the challenge that we might meet somewhere
and talk over what we were going to do. But he never asked to do that. I never could
understand why he would accept that or agree to that if he didn't think there was going to be
some kind of meeting between he and I, something mutually agreed upon where he wouldn't
get hurt. [Instead] he just showed up, like he was showing up for a match."
Kaufman, on the other hand, told reporters before the match that he was scared he was going
to get hurt and that he couldn't understand why Lawler hadn't answered his requests to meet
and work up a plan.
With neither one knowing what the other was thinking, Lawler says he saw no choice but to
wrestle -- and wrestle for real.
"I think, I have to hurt him," Lawler remembers telling people who asked if he intended to
injure Kaufman. "For the credibility of the way I make my living. You know, if I can let a little
150-pound comedian come in there and have a match with the Southern Heavyweight
Wrestling Champion and walk out unscathed, I think the people would just think we were a
In other words, things had gotten out of hand. It was one of those times when the integrity of
wrestling was on the line and only a burst of true violence could vouch for it.
ALTHOUGH ITS DETRACTORS claim to be certain, the subject of whether wrestling is "real"
or not somehow remains a matter for debate. Wrestlers are like magicians, but instead of
refusing to explain their tricks, they refuse to admit that there's any trickery at all. And that's
why claims that the sport is fake always come with a question attached: "Wrestling is fake.
You won't get an answer to that question, and even when you do -- as when Lawler told the
Mississippi Gaming Commission wrestling wasn't real last year in order to avoid paying a fee
to promote matches at Lady Luck Casino -- the motivation for the confession is sufficiently
opportunistic to keep the question open.
If the question gets too serious and evidence becomes necessary, it can be
provided. Just ask John Stossel, who as a reporter for the television news
magazine 20/20 asked pro wrestler Dr. D if the sport was fake in 1984
and was answered with a pair of boxed ears. He was eventually awarded a
The rivalry between Lawler and Kaufman that climaxed on the Letterman
show looks like that: an instance of a wrestler defending his sport by
providing brutal proof of its reality.
ON APRIL 5, 1982, KAUFMAN evaded Lawler's grip for a while, mocking
him from across the ring and stepping over the ropes every time he got
too close. Finally, an exasperated Lawler allowed the comedian to put him in a headlock in the
middle of the ring. That was the end. Lawler picked Kaufman off his feet and threw him to the
mat and proceeded to slam his head into the canvas with two successive piledrivers. Kaufman
lay on the mat for 15 minutes before he was taken by ambulance to St. Francis hospital, where
he spent three days in traction.
The news accounts of the days following the match -- local, national, and wire -- are filled with
modifiers like "apparently" and "alleged" as reporters guarded themselves against an eventual
revelation that the whole thing was a hoax. Such a revelation never came. Officials at St.
Francis assured the press that Kaufman was truly injured, that they were at full occupancy
and couldn't afford to waste time or space on a gag.
George Lapides, who was and is outspoken about wrestling being phony, entered into a strange
paradox by devoting his column in the Press-Scimitar to expressing his outrage at Lawler's
real barbarity. Wrestling was bad because it was fake, but somehow became even worse when it
appeared, for a moment, to be real. Sportwriters everywhere who were loath to dignify pro
wrestling with ink, puzzled over the anomaly of a real injury in a world everyone knew was
bogus through and through.
Lawler was brazen, spouting off to the press about how he'd meant to injure Kaufman, about
how he was glad he had, and about how the comedian deserved it for mocking wrestling.
Kaufman was sheepish. "Before the match, I thought wrestling was phony," he told a reporter,
"I guess I learned different." He vowed to never enter the ring again, and on Saturday Night
Live shortly after the incident, footage of the bout was shown as Kaufman -- still wearing a
neck brace -- offered a watery-eyed apology to those he had offended with his wrestling
No one laughed. Not even nervously.
THREE MONTHS LATER, THE TWO combatants were sitting there, watching the tape again,
talking to David Letterman. Kaufman was still wearing his neck brace as Lawler mulled over
what he should do. "I'm thinking if I just go up there and apologize," Lawler says, "everybody
down here's going to think less of me, and I'm doing all this stuff that's helping Andy, but then
I'm thinking what can I do?"
We all know the answer he came up with. Before the segment faded to
commercial, Lawler stood up and slapped Kaufman clear out of his chair.
Kaufman responded after the break by tossing a cup of coffee in Lawler's
lap and pronouncing a stream of profanities, pounding on Letterman's
desk as the host fiddled with papers like he was trying to mind his own
Lawler says he received telegrams from wrestling promoters across the
country, thanking him for taking care of Andy Kaufman.
KAUFMAN DIED OF LUNG CANcer May 16, 1984, at the age of 35, just
two years after his feud with Lawler. Between the bout at the Mid-South
Coliseum and the Letterman episode, the rivalry stands as the ultimate chapter in the
persisting legend of the late-comedian. Often said to be "ahead of his time," it may be that his
time is approaching. I'm From Hollywood, Taxi, and his SNL appearances can be found all
over the cable dial, and a biopic of his life to be directed by Milos Forman and written by Scott
Alexander and Larry Karaszewski -- the trio behind The People vs. Larry Flynt -- is in the
early stages of production and could be out by the end of 1998. Some even believe that
Kaufman isn't dead at all, just pulling the ultimate joke.
There is no more wrestling at the Mid-South Coliseum, where more than 8,000 fans came to
see the Kaufman/Lawler match. The King now plies his trade on weekly USWA broadcasts and
on the USA Network's Monday Night Raw, as well as at the Big One Expo Center on North
Hollywood and Lady Luck Casino in Mississippi. "It was a legendary event," he says of his feud
with Kaufman. "It really changed the direction of the professional wrestling industry."
KAUFMAN WAS MADE FOR WREStling. As a comedian whose bits included reading The
Great Gatsby aloud until the crowd grew tired and left, he understood the value of wrestling's
central tenant: If you don't let anyone in on it, no one will ever know for sure what to make of
it. People might think you're kidding, but if you refuse to drop character and simply ask them
what they think is so funny, they'll have no choice but to laugh, nervously.
Even beyond their connections to Elvis -- Kaufman was known for an uncanny impersonation
that continues even after his death in the Elvis-like rumors that he is still alive; Lawler's
nickname, of course, is "The King" -- the two had that tenant in common.
"He wouldn't let anybody in on what he was doing and
you never knew if what he was doing was real or if it was
a put." Lawler's description of Kaufman sounds like a
description of Lawler himself. If the comedian needed a
conspirator who would never give up the secret, who
better than Lawler?
The partnership between the two actually continued
well after their appearance on Letterman, and Kaufman
did not give up wrestling as he promised. The rivalry
continued in arenas around the county with plots and plans and double-crosses, and the two
met in many rematches. One such match, held in Louisville a year later, garnered only a brief
article in the local paper. The outcome was the same. Lawler finished Kaufman off with a
As a result of that first match, however, both got what they wanted. Kaufman is still hailed as
a comic genius, and Lawler has a tape or two to serve as a warning to those who would claim
that his sport is phony. Whatever really happened, it blurred the line between reality and
pretend, leaving everyone wondering about the difference.
If the truth could ever be found out, we might discover that the whole thing was staged and
call it a big hoax. But Kaufman picked his partner well. Lawler knows how to ride the thin line
between truth and fiction and makes a living by not separating the two.
In other words, we'll never know, and even if one assumes the whole thing was staged, the
Kaufman/Lawler feud will continue to come with a question attached.
Because it was all just a big joke. Right?