Andy Kaufman would have turned 66 on January 17th, had he not succumbed to a rare form of lung cancer in 1984. The disease struck shockingly quickly; Kaufman did not even make it to 36. Although he was proclaimed dead in a hospital in West Hollywood, the disbelief and Kaufman’s reputation as a performance artist was such that many believed the comedian had staged his death. Indeed even last year, newspapers ran reports of those close to Kaufman claiming he was still alive. After a lifetime of putting people on, it seems many want to believe that he was goofing rather than gone.
A generation after another Long Island Jew, Lenny Bruce, changed comedy Andy Kaufman grew up in 1950s Long Island. Like Bruce, Kaufman was not your typical suburban child growing up. “I just don’t know Andy,” wrote one of his teachers on his 110th grade report card. He was inscrutable. You couldn’t tell when he was joking. There was a seriousness to his tomfoolery. Years later, many would feel the same way as his teacher. Obsessed with Elvis Presley, Kaufman was he began to impersonate The King of Rock and Roll as a boy. He wrote a letter to Elvis in 1969, describing in what sounds like a joke but probably wasn’t how he was studying “to be a famous TV personality.”
But Andy Kaufman was not the kind of guy to just do an impression of Elvis. There were countless Elvis impersonators out there and hackneyed hacky bits were not his shtick. Instead, he would do an impression of a character doing an impression of Elvis. This was another onionskin-like layer of subterfuge and subtlety.
While working in nightclubs, Kaufman developed a character called “Foreign Man.” In a heavy but impossible to place accent he tried to entertain the audience with pathetic jokes and impressions. The crowd would feel embarrassed and sorry for this unfortunate Foreign Man. Kaufman ratcheted up the pathos and sympathy until he would announce in his Borat-esque Eastern European voice that he, Foreign Man, would imitate Elvis Presley. Then, after a quick costume change, Kaufman would perform his brilliant Elvis impression, an impersonation that left even Elvis awestruck. After Foreign Man’s abject jokes, this impressive impression left relieved audiences amazed and confused in equal measures. This would remain a feature of Kaufman’s work.
By 1975, Kaufman had gained enough of a name for himself that the producer of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels, asked him to perform on the show’s first broadcast in October hat year. His work on SNL led Kaufman to more television work in the shape of the sitcom “Taxi” in 1978. On the show Kaufman portrayed a foreign character based on Foreign Man called Latka Gravas: the role for which he became perhaps best known. As the high-pitched-voiced, weirdly accented Latka, Kaufman was one of the show’s most popular characters and the source of much of its best comedy. Kaufman appeared in all five seasons of Taxi and established himself as a star.
But although Taxi in many ways made Kaufman nationally popular, it also made him want to break free. He did not enjoy the limitations of a sitcom format and was only persuaded not to leave the show when its writers agreed to give Latka multiple-personality disorder to permit Kaufman the creative license to perform other characters through Latka. But by the time the show ended, Kaufman was sick of popular comedies. “Because he had embraced a world with so much sugar in it,” Lorne Michaels said of Kaufman, “his comedy became much more astringent. And, towards the end, sour.”
In the next stage of his life and career, Kaufman’s comedy may have become astringent and sour but it was also innovative and experimental. Even though he was an established television star, Kaufman took a busboy job at a fancy restaurant in Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. His reason for doing so? Just to see what it would be like. This was performance art a la Kaufman—he lived his work. Later, in an event in New York descriptively called ““Andy Kaufman Plays Carnegie Hall”, he gave a bizarre performance that could only be described as odd and then invited the entire audience to milk and cookies.
Kaufman also became plain strange. He gave bizarre appearances on talk shows, including one occasion on David Letterman’s show in which he appeared with an odd, mucus-like substance smeared on his upper lip. His bizarre behavior left the host flummoxed. Using crazy eyes darting everywhere, Kaufman (as Kaufman) told a bizarrely banal story about being left by his wife and kids—this was not true; he had neither—and a more accurate account of how he felt constrained by Taxi. He then asked the audience for money. Audiences often trigged odd reactions from him. He might break down into tears if he felt they did not appreciate him; then, turn his tears and wails into a rhythmic set of vocals that he would accompany with congas. It was odd behavior, but no one could be certain how much of it was real.
After Taxi, Kaufman returned to something that had obsessed him since he was a young boy: wrestling. Although he had long loved the sport/entertainment of wrestling, and long harbored ambitions to perform it, Kaufman was a poor wrestler. So, figuring they would be more suitable opponents, he began to wrestle women. This was not universally well received. When he would invite women to wrestle him onstage, Kaufman would often taunt his opponents with sexist apparent banter before the battle.
Again Kaufman was playing a character playing himself. This wrestling alter ego was nasty. He taunted female opponents and his audience. He would brag that “I’m from Hollywood, where they make movies and TV shows”, and act as if his spectators—whom he sometimes called rednecks—were lucky to even see him. Where the performance ended and the man began, or vice versa, was often hard to tell. Many people who watched him in the stage were convinced he had gone insane. Although he found it hard to find work after Taxi, this did not matter to him. He was set financially and, more importantly, apparently he really just wanted to wrestle.
“Andy never winked. He was a purist, and he didn’t care if it ruined his career — and it actually was ruining his career,” a of Kaufman’s said. “He didn’t care. There was no way he was ever going to say, ‘Hey, I was kidding.’ He was being a bad-guy wrestler, and the bad-guy wrestlers he’d seen growing up never winked and said, ‘Hey, I’m really a good guy,’ you know? So Andy was just doing that. It was a performance, and he loved it. You can say, OK, he was obsessed and crazy, or you can say he was just doing an act. He was just doing it. It made him happy.” It made him so happy that when Kaufman talked about quitting comedy for a career managing wrestlers, people took him seriously (or as seriously as they could).
Andy Kaufman in the wrestling match/
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, REM sang in “Man on the Moon”.
Hey Andy, are you goofing on Elvis?
Hey baby, are you having fun?
The band’s elegy to Andy Kaufman recognized two of the late comedian’s signature preoccupations—wrestling and Elvis impersonating—and was a fitting tribute to the anti-comic innovator whose life became his work, and whose work took over his life. In addition to wrestling and Elvis references, the key word was “goofing”. For few have goofed as effectively, imaginatively and as inscrutably as did Andy Kaufman. Even today, more than 30 years after he died, many hope he’s still