1 AM Deep Dive

“Is This Real?” The Andy Kaufman Story

The appreciation of a genius no one knew what to do with.
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Photo: Getty Images

About a month ago, as I was laying in my bed, I stumbled upon a recommended  Youtube video of a comedian named Andy Kaufman captioned “Mighty Mouse – Andy Kaufman”.

I looked at my phone and the clock read 12:58am. It was a Wednesday.

I clicked.

What started as a curious click intended to alleviate the perturbation of an Ed Kemper fueled episode of Mindhunter snowballed into a deep dive of the complex happenings of the self -proclaimed “man of song and dance.”

I had always recognized the name Andy Kaufman, but nothing more than a vague recollection of an old comedian my parents had once mentioned.

Now, I want everyone to know who Andy Kaufman was—or … is. We’ll get to that later.

“There’s no way to describe what I do, it’s just me.”

Born in 1949 and raised in Long Island, New York, Andy was the oldest of three children. His knack for performance art became unmissable at a very young age. Much to the chagrin of his father, Andy preferred hosting fake TV shows in front of his bedroom wall over playing sports outside. His itch for the stage never faltered. Through his adolescence, Andy wrote poems and stories that would influence his future success in show business. His child-like wonder and boyish charm never faded and played a large part in how he defined himself as a person. Addicted to performing, Andy found himself at coffee shops and night clubs working on his act. His style was unconventional and off-putting. Exemplified in the video above, Andy loved to blur the line between what was real and fake. He relished in confusing audiences beyond the point of enjoyment. Characters like “Foreign Man” where he would adopt an ambiguously odd accent and do purposefully poor impressions of famous people by saying, “I am meester Carter, President of de United States, tank you veddy much.” He would push these audiences to the brink of mutiny before ending his act with an immaculate impression of Elvis Presley (followed by one last “tank you veddy much”). He didn’t develop these bizarre acts because he thought they were funny, he did what he did because it was entertaining.

“When I perform, it’s very personal. I’m sharing things I like, inviting the audience into my room.”

Andy’s act gained national attention when he performed his Mighty Mouse bit on the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975. Andy would go on to perform his eyebrow-raising acts several more times on SNL, as well as Dick Van Dyke’s variety show Van Dyke and Company, The Tonight Show, The Midnight Special, The David Letterman Show, and many more.

Few people could understand the magic that was Andy Kaufman, but those who did could see his potential for stardom in Hollywood. His convention-defying acts captivated a man named George Shapiro, who became Andy’s manager and long-time friend. Shapiro encouraged Andy to grow and develop his act, eventually leading to a recurring role on ABC’s Taxi as Latka Gravas, a character very similar to “Foreign Man.” Kaufman was unenthused to accept this gig—he found sitcoms derivative and lazy. However, Shapiro convinced Andy that a role on a show with the success of Taxi could skyrocket his image, providing him the money and fame to broaden his audience. In typical Andy Kaufman fashion, he demanded his alter ego, a drunken, cigarette smoking, insult comic/lounge singer who went by Tony Clifton, be given guest roles on Taxi as a separate person from Andy. Andy and Tony each had their own contracts. 

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Photo: The Midnight Special with Andy Kaufman

Tony Clifton is peak Andy Kaufman. Adorned in full makeup, a fake mustache, a wig, gaudy sunglasses, and a fat suite, Tony would terrorize night clubs and TV sets with his loud mouth antics. Sometimes Tony would be played by Andy’s close friend and comedy confidant Bob Zmuda, further befuddling audiences when Andy would show up to a club as himself while Clifton was performing on stage. Tony Clifton’s run on Taxi was short-lived. Cast and crew members were fed up with his outlandish behavior and unprofessionalism. Tony was fired after showing up to the set of Taxi one day accompanied by two hookers. He threw a tantrum, resulting in a wrestling match between Tony and one of the shows major stars, Judd Hirsch. Much to Andy’s delight, the fight was reported in the local newspapers. A week later, Andy showed up to set as if nothing happened. Because that was Tony, not Andy.

“I just want real reactions. I want people to laugh from the gut, be sad from the gut—or get angry from the gut.”

Andy’s commitment to characters would have made him legendary in the meme-heavy whirlpool we live in today. He loved to do what no one thought he could. His childlike irreverence was fueled by controversy. Every time he reached a certain level of success he would ask himself, “How can I push this further? Make people uncomfortable? Make them question if what they are viewing is indeed reality?” His answer? Wrestling. He loved the flamboyance and showmanship of the sport. It was entertainment at its purest. Were the results of the fights pre-determined? If you were entertained, does it matter?

“There’s no drama like wrestling.”

In the second chapter of his young career, Andy assumed the self-proclaimed title of “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World” by traveling the world and wrestling any woman who challenged him. He became a true showman in the ring, taunting and demeaning women in the crowd before each match. This “character” Andy adopted was extremely unpopular culturally, drawing severe condemnation from the female community. Andy didn’t care. It was entertainment.

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Photo: Playboy

After months of defending his title as inter-gender wrestling champion, Andy’s next step was to wrestle a man. Not just any man, but Jerry Lawler, a professional WWE wrestler from Memphis, Tennessee. The relationship between Lawler and Kaufman quickly devolved into public character assassinations and physical altercations.

On the day of the actual match, Lawler delivered his famous pile-driver on Kaufman, who was subsequently rushed to the hospital with an apparent neck injury. Months later, the two met on Late Night with David Letterman to settle their differences, where Andy, adorned in a neck brace, questioned and mocked Lawler’s character. What happened next … well, just see for yourself.

It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that people learned Andy had befriended Lawler long before these “episodes” began and concocted this entire narrative.

“What’s real? What’s not? That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.”

In 1983, Andy’s female-wrestling persona reached a boiling point with the audience, so he decided to record a pre-taped segment on SNL asking the audience to vote whether or not he should continue to perform on the show. This act of honesty and vulnerability garnered praise from SNL cast members Eddie Murphy, Gary Kroeger, and Mary Gross, who petitioned for him to stay. Unfortunately, the audience voted to “Dump Andy” from SNL and he never returned to the show.

His antics never stopped. In 1978, he appeared on The Dating Game, an old game show, in character as Foreign Man, and broke into tears after the bachelorette chose someone else, insisting that he had answered all of the questions correctly. On the variety show Fridays, Andy refused to say his lines during a sketch where he played a man excusing himself from a couples dinner date to smoke marijuana in the bathroom. Cast member Michael Richards walked off stage and returned with Andy’s cue cards, slamming them on the table in front of him. Andy responded by splashing water into Richards face, which escalated to an on-air brawl with Kaufman, Richards, and a producer before the network could cut to commercial. A week later, Kaufman returned to the show to apologize to the audience, admitting last weeks meltdown was a hoax. However, Andy made sure most of the cast and crew were unaware of this hoax during the actual production. My personal favorite of Andy’s performances was a time when he recited the entire text of “The Great Gatsby” in front of an audience while sporting a British accent. A few pages into the reading, the audience grew irate of his defiance to perform his greatest hits like Foreign Man or Mighty Mouse. Recognizing their disapproval, he asked if they would like to hear him play a record. Receiving a resounding yes, he began to play the record. What started to play was none other than Andy’s voice in a British accent reading “The Great Gatsby” at the exact spot where he left off. Just to reiterate, he finished reading the ENTIRE book, leaving (according to the film Man on the Moon) one or two sleeping college students in the crowd when he finished.

Andy valued authenticity over everything else. He informed only those who were absolutely necessary of his ideas to ensure his performances success and genuineness. Family members and close friends were often kept out of the loop on Andy’s endeavors. He was a quiet, gentle, spiritual person who appreciated loyalty and trust. He kept to himself, and practiced transcendental meditation throughout most of his life. He traveled to Spain to train as a teacher of transcendental meditation when he was just 22 years old.

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 that?”

Andy’s reluctancy to show his “true self” in the public spotlight made it inherently difficult to judge who he actually was as a person. Predominantly through interviews with people close to Andy are we granted a sliver of insight to his true character. In the recently released Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, we are invited to see a voyeuristic  glimpse into the brain of Andy Kaufman through the eyes of Jim Carrey. The film features a personal interview with Jim Carrey intercut with never-before-seen documentary footage of Carrey’s complete mental and physical transformation into Andy Kaufman in the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. (The footage had been stashed in a vault by the studio for nearly 20 years for reasons that remain murky to this day.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB15UFO5ebA

In the documentary, Carrey discusses his admiration of Andy, gushing about the influence he had on his career as a young comedian. He explains how, in order to truly understand Andy, he would have to commit some form of ultimate performance like Andy would have done. From day one of shooting Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey was no longer alive, it was only Andy … and sometimes Tony Clifton. Jim would arrive to set each day already in hair, makeup, and wardrobe. He would only respond to Andy, or if he were Tony, to Tony, and would often stall production with his Kaufman-esque provocation and chicanery. Carrey’s dedication and accuracy in becoming Andy is impressive, however his behavior on set in the footage revealed in the documentary seemed to only portray Andy’s outlandishness, and rarely his sincerity. Perhaps Carrey saw this as an opportunity to make a stunt of his own, choosing to portray a specific side of Andy, a choice Andy himself would have presumably appreciated. The behind-the-scenes footage features a slew of real altercations with Jim (as Andy) and Jerry Lawler, who portrayed himself in Man on the Moon, as well as with the director of the film Milos Forman. Jim (as Andy) provoked heated dressing room screaming matches between him and Gerry Becker (the actor playing Andy’s father) about their relationship struggles. Becker had no choice but to engage in Jim’s (Andy’s) relentless arguments as if he were Andy’s father.

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Photo (left): Francois Duhamel / Universal Studios / AP

In my opinion, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is worth watching as a prequel to Man on the Moon, almost like studying before taking a test, as it provides a second layer of depth to the character you see and try to understand in Man on the Moon. Jim’s portrayal of Andy in Man on the Moon allows us to follow Andy into the rooms without cameras and learn why Andy did what he did. By watching Carrey in Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond truly immerse himself inside of a character (so deep he nearly couldn’t find his way out) like Andy had done his entire career, we get to see how Andy did what he did.

“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.”

In November, 1983, at just 34 years old, Andy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as large-cell carcinoma. As portrayed in both Man on the Moon and Jim & Andy:The Great Beyond, people close to him were skeptical of this sudden diagnosis, and understandably so considering his extensive history of pranks . Kaufman found meaning tricking people into thinking whatever he wanted them to—and a wrestling match with death seemed like a believable next step in his career.

Andy broke the news to audiences after a collection of performances in January exposing his emaciated appearance could no longer be ignored. In the coming months, amid rumors of calculated fabrication, Andy sought aid through natural medicine. He limited his diet to fruits and vegetables, received palliative radiotherapy, and even flew to Baguio, Philippines to receive treatments of a pseudoscientific procedure called psychic surgery (a telling scene in Man on the Moon where Andy finally confronts his mortality).

Less than five months after his original diagnosis, Andy passed away in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 16, 1984, at the age of 35 years old.

Andy’s longtime friend and comedic confidant Bob Zmuda wrote a book in 2014 titled Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally where he makes the argument around Andy faking his own death, saying they used to talk about it all the time. According to the book, Zmuda maps out how and why Andy would do such a thing, leaning on reasons most people with a basic comprehension of Andy’s style could surmise on their own. Zmuda also conceded towards the end of the book his thoughts that Andy was hiding his homosexuality—stating he came out to him once—and that he died of an undisclosed case of AIDS. Although Zmuda confronts this idea as the culprit to Andy’s death, he remains staunch on his belief that he is still alive, begging him in the book to come back.

We may never know the truth about Andy’s life or death—just as I presume Andy wanted. Faking his own death would be the last piece of the puzzle, a perfect plan to escape the life he created.

I like to imagine he successfully orchestrated a fake death, meticulously blueprinted a return chock-full of Tony Clifton outbursts and polished eyebrow raising characters, but found happiness wherever he was hiding. Somewhere he could be himself—and lost the need to come back.

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Photo: ABC

I want Andy to be recognized by my generation. I truly, genuinely believe he was a genius before his time—and there is so much more that I did not write about in this article. His zest for performing on his terms, only how he imagined, would generate cult like followings today. In a time when appreciation for artistic ingenuity is at its peak, Andy would have blazed the trail like the comedic and cultural renegade he was.

So please, take some time out of your day, and appreciate Andy Kaufman.

“I never told a joke in my life.”

 

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