Remembering Andy Kaufman

May 16, 1984, was a meaningful day for a number of reasons. To give one example, that was the day I took my last college final exam on my way to graduation that weekend. May 16, 1984 is also the day that Andy Kaufman died.

Andy was an entertainer who was usually lumped with other comedians. Andy, though, was much more than a comedian. The term “performance art” had not yet been coined when Andy was at the peak of his career, but one could argue that Andy invented performance art. In his live shows Andy portrayed a number of characters, jumping from one to another so quickly that audiences and critics were bewildered. Whenever Andy was performing a character, though, he was deeply involved in the role. People often asked each other if there was a real Andy Kaufman, or if Andy was nothing more than a collection of diverse characters.

Steve Allen wrote that “for Andy, it seems, the borderline between reality and imagination has always been unclear. Not surprisingly, this is the gift he brings us in his comedy. Although even those critics most fond of Andy as a performer insist that he is exploring this borderline, I believe they are mistaken. He is not exploring it; he lives there.”

Andy grew up on Long Island, living with his mother, father, sister, and brother. Television was new to the American home in those days, and Andy spent his childhood immersed in TV. When he wasn’t watching a show, he was performing, acting out his own television shows. Andy sometimes told interviewers that he truly believed that cameras were filming his acts. Whether he was in his bedroom or on the school playground, Andy continued performing, playing all the parts in his self-created television-land.

As a teenager, Andy performed at birthday parties and other local events. He always loved performing for children, because they accepted Andy as he was and did not question his performances. After finishing high school, Andy spent a year working odd jobs—waiting tables, driving a taxi (yes, really)—and then he enrolled in Graham Junior College, a two-year school which had a program in television broadcasting. As a student at Graham, Andy created a children’s program called Uncle Andy’s Fun House. He would reuse that name for his television special, although the network insisted on calling it The Andy Kaufman Special. In his last months, Andy again began planning a children’s program, still to be called Uncle Andy’s Fun House. After Andy died, one of his friends took his idea and presented it on Saturday mornings as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

Next, Andy began appearing in nightclubs. The story that early audiences didn’t understand or like Andy’s act is fiction. Andy shocked his audiences, but he also entertained them. At this point he developed his famous Foreign Man character, and often he would make special arrangements with night club owners. To draw attention to Foreign Man between other acts in the clubs, Foreign Man would repeatedly approach the owner and beg for a chance to perform, the owner would continually say no, and eventually the owner would relent and allow Foreign Man a few minutes.

Most recordings of Andy’s Foreign Man routine were taped in front of audiences that knew the routine very well. They were thoroughly entertained and were not shocked. In the nightclubs, though, audiences were not prepared for Foreign Man. The point of the performance was that Foreign Man did not understand American humor. When he complained about how bad the traffic was, audiences were prepared for a quip, but instead he finished by saying, “It took me an hour and a half to get here.” When he complained about his wife’s cooking, audiences again were prepared for some kind of punch line, but after saying, “She doesn’t know how to cook,” Foreign Man would add, “Last night she made spaghetti and meatballs.” Of course the surprise of not hearing a joke when a joke is expected is itself a joke. (Sometimes this kind of joke is labeled “antihumor.”)

After several jokes that were funny by not being funny, Foreign Man would offer to do some imitations or impersonations. He would begin with an impression of Archie Bunker that was nothing like the television character in sound or in appearance. Then he would do Ed Sullivan. The voice was still wrong, but Foreign Man would capture the mannerisms of Ed Sullivan enough to draw a few chuckles. These chuckles distracted Foreign Man, and he would “lose his place” and need to start again. Audiences expected him to start Ed Sullivan again, but instead Foreign Man would return to the very first joke and race through the entire routine.

By this time audiences were fully accepting the idea that Foreign Man had no talent for humor or for impressions. When he promised to imitate Elvis Presley, the audience expected more of the same. Here Andy fooled them. His impression of Elvis was impeccable, matching the singer’s speaking voice, singing voice, stance, and gestures. Audiences responded wildly. As they applauded, Andy—still dressed as Elvis—would suddenly change faces and would respond with Foreign Man’s voice, “Tenk you veddy much.”
Andy was very fond of Elvis and of other performers from the 1950s. He intended his imitation of Elvis to be a tribute to the King. Elvis, it is said, considered Andy’s imitation the best of all that he ever witnessed.

Andy’s first national television exposure was on the initial episode of Saturday Night Live. Here he performed another of the routines that played well in nightclubs. He brought a record player onto the stage and started playing a recording of the theme song from Mighty Mouse. Andy then stood awkwardly and uncomfortably in front of the audience. When the song reached the line, “Here I am to save the day,” Andy lip-sinced that one line with confidence and boldness, afterward returning immediately to his nervous demeanor until the line reoccurred at the end of the song.

I became familiar with Andy’s act when he appeared on Van Dyke and Company in the fall of 1976. The network only broadcast eleven episodes of the show, and Andy appeared in ten of them. Van Dyke and Company was a variety show, hosted by comic actor Dick Van Dyke. Many big-name performers appeared in the show. Andy used variations of his nightclub acts, even begging Dick Van Dyke for the opportunity to do an act in the show. Van Dyke always seemed to be annoyed and puzzled by Andy, but that was just an act. Dick Van Dyke actually believed that Andy was brilliant, and he was proud to have him on the show.

In one episode, Andy played a pair of conga drums while singing nonsense syllables to the tune of the French folksong, Alouette. Generally when Alouette is sung, the audience is expected to repeat certain short phrases from the song. Andy expected the same, but after getting the audience involved, he threw a long stream of syllables together. Only those who knew Alouette realized that they did not have to repeat that line; they only needed to sing a long “O.”

I never understood why Andy took a part in the television situation comedy Taxi. That show seemed so much unlike his act, which jumped from character to character without notice. Later biographies portrayed Andy as unwilling to take the part, but pressured into taking it because it was what comedians did to get ahead in their careers. Reading that, I felt vindicated in my opinion about Andy and Taxi. The writers of Taxi took Andy’s Foreign Man character, named him Latka, and had him part of the regular ensemble. The show ran for several seasons, even switching networks at one point, but I was not a fan of the show.

Even before Andy was offered a role on Taxi, the network invited him to create a television special. His fame was growing because of Saturday Night Live and Van Dyke and Company, as well as live performances before audiences all over the country. Andy eagerly accepted the offer of a ninety-minute special and began crafting a mind-bending production.

The Andy Kaufman Special, or Uncle Andy’s Fun House, begins with Foreign Man seated in a chair in front of a television set. He looks into the camera and explains that he wasted all the money that the network had given him, so he had no guests, no sets, nothing to show the audience except himself and his chair. He warned that he would be sitting there for the entire ninety minutes. After this performance drags on for a while, Foreign Man leans to the camera and says, “Now that the audience is gone and only my friends are here, this is my special.”

After this introduction and the opening credits, Andy does his usual Foreign Man routine, complete to the ending imitation of Elvis Presley. At the end of the Elvis imitation, Andy begins stripping off his costume, throwing his clothing into the audience, until he is down to a sweat shirt with the words “I love Grandma” on the front. Andy becomes a new character, a cheerful and lovable character, and he claims, “Up until now, I have been only fooling. This is the real me.” After the show supposedly breaks for commercials, Andy changes characters again. Now he is pompous and strutting, berating the members of the audience for not returning his clothing.

The Nice Andy and the Mean Andy alternate for the rest of the show. Andy acts as the host of a variety show, leading the audience in a sing-along, and interviewing guests including Cindy Williams of Laverne and Shirley and Gail Slobodkin, who had played one of the Von Trapp children in a stage production of The Sound of Music. Both interviews are extremely odd, actually parodies of variety show interviews. The conversation with Cindy Williams degenerates into the awkwardness like that of two teenagers on a first date. Repeatedly, when Cindy tries to tell a story, Andy interrupts her with another question. Later, they both remain silent for nearly an entire uncomfortable minute, punctuated by the nervous chuckling of the live audience. Andy then pressures Cindy into singing, something which she claimed they had agreed to cut from the show. Later, Andy calls Gail Slobodkin a has-been, tells her that she will never succeed in show business, and openly mocks her behind her back while she sings.
All of this, of course, was scripted, and Cindy and Gail both were playing along with Andy’s style of entertainment. Meanwhile, Andy’s friend Bob Zmuda plays a stagehand who must placate the prickly host between guests. In one of their conversations, Andy and Bob both flub their lines. Clearly they meant to include the mistakes in the final version of the show, since they could easily have retaped that segment if they did not want the mistakes to be broadcast.

Near the end of the show, Andy interviews the puppet Howdy Doody. In this conversation, Andy is at his nicest and most sincere, telling the puppet how much he loved the show as a young boy. The audience waits for a joke, but no joke ever comes. Andy ends by hugging the puppet, and the show then concludes with every member of the cast joining Andy on stage so sing his signature closing song, “This Friendly World,” which was a minor hit for Fabian in 1959.

Network executives hated the special and refused to air it. More than two years later a different network did air the special, but only on a Friday night after the late news, clearly a dead spot in the network’s schedule. I was able to see the show that night, and I thought it was wonderful. Years later I bought a VHS recording of the special, but (sad to say) it had been edited down to less than sixty minutes.

Andy could not keep performing the same act over and over; too many people had already seen it on TV. Andy added a new character, a man who looked like a wrestler and boasted like a wrestler but would only wrestle women. Andy wanted to include the sound and feeling of wrestling in his act—not the Greco-Roman wrestling of the Summer Olympics, but the staged drama of traveling wrestling shows. Many members of his audiences hated this part of his act, and many other people protested his wrestling. They considered it insulting, demeaning toward women, and thoroughly lacking either taste or humor. Andy seems to have felt that getting this reaction was far better than being ignored. He included the wrestling portion in his act for years.

Andy also created a character named Tony Clifton, a Las Vegas singer who bellowed his songs and then scolded and insulted his audience. At first, Tony Clifton was merely Andy with a grease mustache, but Andy eventually added facial prosthetics, thick glasses, a more convincing mustache, and a glaringly tasteless tuxedo. The tuxedo must have been padded, because Tony Clifton was visibly much heavier than Andy Kaufman. Tony Clifton was grating and abusive; when he attempted humor, he failed much as Foreign Man failed. Nothing was likeable about this character, and Andy clearly used him to get a reaction from the audience, not merely to make the audience laugh.

Once Andy had completed the disguise, he never broke character while wearing it. Stagehands checking sound equipment were astonished to hear Tony Clifton carrying on in a fit of rage in the dressing room with no audience to witness the act. After a while, Bob Zmuda began to portray Tony Clifton while Andy took a break. Several of Tony Clifton’s appearances on television shows were actually Bob Zmuda and not Andy Kaufman.

Andy also continued to do an act he had done on Van Dyke and Company. Adopted a British accent, he offered to read The Great Gatsby to his audience. After a few sentences, people in the audience persuaded Andy to stop reading. Asking if they would prefer to listen to a record, a proposition to which the audience readily agreed, Andy then played a record which was a recording of him reading The Great Gatsby in a British accent.

Andy never read more than a few sentences of The Great Gatsby to any audience. Playing the record of his reading was the end of that routine. However, to get the reaction he wanted from the audience, Andy had friends and followers spread a rumor among those who were gathering for one of his live performances. The rumor was that Andy actually had read the entire novel to a bored audience somewhere else recently. Enough people in the audience heard and believed this rumor that they sincerely begged Andy not to read them the entire book.

In 1979 Andy got to fulfill his dream of playing Carnegie Hall. Tony Clifton opened with the Star Spangled Banner and a monologue, rather tame by Tony’s usual standards. Another singing group filled time until Andy was ready to appear. Andy welcomed the audience and pointed to his grandmother who was seated at the edge of the stage so she could enjoy the show. Along the way, Andy played the congas, introduced several guests, and performed Foreign Man complete to a spectacular Elvis imitation. Andy wrestled a woman, and then he also wrestled a man—Jay York, a stuntman who was defeating Andy soundly until Bob Zmuda got a can of spinach to Andy, which gave Andy strength to win the match (to the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man, of course).

Andy played a short movie and then introduced one of the singers who had appeared in the movie years ago when she was young. After being persuaded to recreate the song and dance of the movie, this elderly woman collapsed on stage. A doctor jumped from the audience to help, but to no avail. There was a long uncomfortable silence, until Andy came out in a feathered headdress and revived the woman.
Andy had dancers whom he claimed were the Rockettes (They weren’t.), and a singing group he claimed was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (They weren’t.). He even had a visit from Santa Claus. The biggest surprises came at the end of the show. First Andy did a brief impersonation of Tony Clifton, and then Tony came out on stage and they sang together. (Bob Zmuda did not portray Tony on this occasion.) Then Andy introduced Robin Williams, who had been sitting on stage during the entire show disguised as Andy’s grandmother. Andy then offered to take the audience out for milk and cookies. The audience boarded rented buses and were taken to a school cafeteria, where they were served milk and cookies and continued to be entertained by Andy, Robin Williams, and some of his other guests. As that ended, Andy promised to continue the show the next day on the Staten Island ferry. Reportedly some audience members showed up at the ferry, and Andy was there and did perform for them.

In the 1980s, Andy’s wresting act seems to have caught the attention of professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, who objected to Andy’s act. After trading insults for some time, the two men agreed to wrestle in Memphis. Lawler of course overpowered Andy, but Lawler then lost the match due to an illegal hold he called the power-driver. For months after this incident Andy wore a neck brace. David Letterman had both men on his show, Andy still wearing the neck brace. Andy began by apologizing, but the conversation turned ugly. Lawler eventually slugged Andy, knocking him out of his chair. Andy then cursed Lawler and threw a cup of coffee at him before fleeing. Only years after Andy had died did Lawler reveal that every one of these events had been planned and staged by him and Andy.

Andy died of cancer in 1984. While he was sick and receiving treatment, many people thought that the cancer was just one more act to deceive the public. Even after Andy died, some people continued to believe that Andy was hiding from the public and would one day appear to reveal the joke. This has not happened, I am sorry to report.

Fifteen years after Andy died, a movie was made about him. The movie is called Man on the Moon, and the name comes from a song by R.E.M. that mentions Andy. Many famous actors and comedians vied for the honor of portraying Andy Kaufman. Jim Carrey was chosen by the director. (Here is an odd coincidence: Jim Carrey was born on Andy’s thirteenth birthday.) In some scenes Carrey portrays Andy almost flawlessly; in others he is recognizable as Jim Carrey. The opening of the movie is inspired by the opening of Andy’s TV special; after complaining that the events of his life were changed and rearranged in the movie for dramatic purposes (and, yes, they were), he says that the movie is over and tells the audience to go home.

The casting of the movie is odd. Some members of the cast of Taxi play themselves, but Danny DeVito plays Andy’s agent, George Shapiro. Shapiro, in turn, plays a night club owner who complains to Andy that his jokes aren’t funny. Other people, including Jerry Lawler and David Letterman, play themselves; according to the credits, Tony Clifton plays himself. Bob Zmuda is portrayed by Paul Giamati, but the real Zmuda has a brief role as a television director. All this switching of roles demonstrates a profound sensitivity to Andy’s personality.

Not only does the movie rearrange the events in Andy’s life, it also occasionally misunderstands Andy Kaufman. In one scene, Andy is portraying Tony Clifton in a restaurant kitchen but becomes Andy to speak with his agent. The real Andy never broke character that way. The movie shows the Carnegie Hall performance as something that follows the cancer diagnosis rather than preceding it by several years. In the movie, Andy actually does read The Great Gatsby to an audience from beginning to end.
In spite of these shortcomings, Man on the Moon is a fitting tribute to Andy Kaufman. Jim Carrey does the Foreign-Man-becomes-Elvis transformation before a puzzled and finally awed nightclub audience, something that cannot happen in the TV special or the Carnegie Hall show, both of which were attended by people who knew what was coming. The long-running ruse with Jerry Lawler is played well, with a subtle revelation of the actual planning. Many of the details ring true, and the performances are outstanding.

Every day the world experiences gains and losses. The world lost a great entertainer on May 16, 1984. Andy Kaufman will be long missed and never forgotten.

J.

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One thought on “Remembering Andy Kaufman

  1. […] Andy Kaufman made Elvis impersonations part of his standard act. Pretending to be a foreign man with little understanding of American comedy, Andy would do several bad imitations of celebrities. Then, “last but not to be the least,” Andy would offer to imitate Elvis Presley. In a matter of seconds he would transform into the very image of Elvis, not only in hair and costume and music, but also in nuanced mannerisms. Elvis Presley himself is reported to have said that Andy Kaufman’s impersonation was the best imitation of Elvis he had seen. […]

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