Sometime in the early to mid-70’s the world became completely mesmerized by Andy Kaufman. The fame was a step up from performing to his bedroom walls and stuffed animals. He was truly a rare breed, someone who couldn’t be described with only one single word or phrase. Countless interviewers and late-night hosts were confused at how much he mesmerized his audience, unsure of how he had so many people follow him.
It is a little bit difficult to put into words exactly what it is he did. Maybe suffice to say that he had to make everything funny, but not by telling tell jokes, per say. He claimed he never told a joke in his life. He did a mean Elvis impersonation, however. This comedic (not comedian) man, was Andy Kaufman. If you, like me, were too young to have seen, or were too old, or were the right age and just didn’t get it, here’s what you need to know in order to understand the performance of the artist. Oh, and if he’s actually dead or not. Because the jury is definitely still out on that, too.
Who is Andy Kaufman:
Andy Kaufman. Okay, where to start? I suppose I will start with the basic background details. Andy Kaufman was born in New York to a somewhat-affluent Jewish family in the suburb of Great Neck on Long Island. They probably did semi-affluent things like going to Madison Square Garden to witness wrestler Bruno Sammartino win “Nature Boy” Buddy Roger’s World Championship belt from him. This made young Andy want to be a wrestler. Remember this. He was raised with a younger brother, comfortably, but also by society, uncomfortably.
He seemed to have a bit of a rough go at it. You see, Andy grew up very shy. He was also a bit of a jerk at the same time, apparently. The kids were probably a little mean. He disclosed in an interview that while in college it dawned on him that all his life people had been laughing at him, not with him. So, it was that kind of rough go at it. After college, he went to Grahm Junior College in Boston while his classmates traveled away to universities. He went to a school overrun by students trying to avoid the draft. He wasn’t running from the draft. In fact, he attended the school after receiving a 4f deferment from the army. Many claim it was because he failed the psychological portion. But, I haven’t found proof of that anywhere. During this time he drove trucks and taxis, performed in his bedroom, majored in TV and Radio, ran Uncle Andy’s Fun House, recorded Uncle Andy’s Fun House and was just trying to figure it out. This is also where he started practicing transcendentalist meditation, which he did religiously.
Some refer to Kaufman as a stand-up comedian. He’s noted for being an actor, writer, and performance artist. He referred to himself as a “song and dance man”. I would call most of what he did “antics”, but brilliant antics at that. His childhood bedroom practices, which he references a lot in interviews, are what more or less jumpstarted his career. He started going to open mics and performing seriously in college doing his “foreign man” bit. Which is a bit questionable, honestly. It did, however, lead him to co-star as the character Latka Gravas for the ABC sitcom, Taxi, in which he plays a mechanic that hangs around a group of New York cab drivers. His most famous impersonation is of the King, Elvis Presley.
The bit here is that he starts with the “foreign man” horribly bombing a skit and then asks the crowd if he can do an impression because he has run out of things to do. The crowd always agrees. The “foreign man” then launches into the Elvis bit and everyone cheers thinking they get to put the whole other skit behind them. The jokes on them. Whenever Elvis Presley finishes shaking his hips, “foreign man” is the one who bids them farewell with a “thank you vedy much”. Andy loved this bit, and the crowds grew into it for sure. Another one of the famous “foreign man” bits was to play Disney’s “Mighty Mouse” theme song in its entirety while looking around nervously and only singing one line of the song. It was first seen in the early days of Saturday Night Live, when his career was starting to gain traction in the early ’70s, after performing in LA and New York City comedy clubs full-time for a few years.
A Word On the Antics
Remember when I said Andy Kaufman wanted to be a wrestler? Well, he found a way to make that happen. In 1979 he started incorporating wrestling into his concerts. He proclaimed himself to be “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World” and offered any women who could beat him $1,000 to come in the ring and tussle with him. For real, this happened. Here’s proof.
He attempted to obtain professional wrestling affiliations, but the head of WWF (World Wrestling Federation), Vince McMahon Sr., didn’t want to taint WWF with “show business. Kaufman even had a bit where he and professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler hated each other. They did not actually hate each other. Jerry Lawler and Kaufman did, however, perform a live wrestling match on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982- which resulted in Kaufman injuring his neck. Allegedly, anyway.
With Andy Kaufman, everything was an act. From going to restaurants with this writer and best friend Bob Zmuda and making public scenes out of a stranger saying one of them was in his seat, to dressing up as a lounge singer called Tony Clinton. In one set, all he did was order ice cream and eat it in front of the crowd while listening to a recording of audience laughter. And then the subsequent real audience’s laughter. He once bussed an entire shows worth of people to a cafe for milk and cookies. He went on a Letterman interview and told a story about getting divorced from his wife [he was unmarried] and asked the crowd for money and walked into the crowd to receive the change they were giving him. To heckle a horrible crowd, he read The Great Gatsby in its entirety to get back at them. In the reverse, to heckle himself once, he dressed up outside his show at Carnegie Hall holding a sign saying “Andy Kaufman=Antichrist” while his brother, Michael Kaufman played his alter ego, lounge singer Tony Clifton on stage. Speaking of Tony, Kaufman got “Tony” a few cameos in his show, Taxi. Tony was fired for rowdy behavior- Kaufman stayed on.
Many of these things can absolutely be seen as antics, but not everything is always as it appears.
The Darkside of the “Man on the Moon”
A biopic was created about Andy Kaufman called Man on the Moon, starring Jim Carrey reliving Andy’s life. The shiny bits, mostly. Not many display the more moody side of him. Bob Zmuda claims that Andy swore him to secrecy about faking his death. He claims he is alive and will return. Bob also claims that Andy got very used to the idea reality was malleable. He says that Kaufman had some mental health issues that stemmed from an incident in his childhood where a loved one passed away and his family told him that they “went away to another country far, far across the ocean and wasn’t coming back”. Zmuda believes this left him with abandonment issues and the idea that he could make reality what he wanted it to be.
This theory of “bending reality to one’s will” does seem to hold true to Andy Kaufman’s comedic form. His later interviews and bits were often him technically participating in “reality” but fictitiously. For example, he always claimed that Tony Clifton was his own person and not Andy. Another example is the interviews where he acknowledged that he was “at” an interview yet he behaved as if he weren’t. It is all very meta. Some claimed he was a genius, others said he was insane. These concepts aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, they can both exist, but there is a thin line. For those who believe Andy Kaufman to be a genius, he did have an Intelligence Quotient of 144. So, it is definitely a possibility.
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Jim Carrey: “Playing Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon in 1999, for example, I realized that I could lose myself in a character. And when I finished with that, I took a month to remember who I was. There was a shift that had already happened, and the shift was, ‘Wait a second. If I can put Jim Carrey aside for four months, who is Jim Carrey? Who the hell is that?‘” Link in bio.
But nothing is ever perfect. It seems Andy was just doing what he thought he needed to do in order to make what he wanted to happen actually happen. He was put into situations like this many times. for example, his ABC sitcom Taxi was a huge hit. However, Kaufman was actually very skeptical about accepting the role. He had bigger dreams for himself and his career. At the time, he was trying to get his special on the air but no one would. He took the Taxi show under his manager’s promises that it would boost his career. Which it did, just not entirely in the way he wanted. After playing the “foreign man” character for so long, he didn’t even find it funny.
After having Thanksgiving with his family in 1983, Kaufman was diagnosed as large-cell carcinoma. Large-cell carcinoma is one of the rarest lung cancer forms. Kaufman didn’t let on to the diagnosis for much time. However, the next time he performed for a crowd, in January of the next year, he admitted to being ill. He claimed that he hoped to cure it naturally. He was, in reality, receiving treatments including palliative radiotherapy and later had a mystic procedure, psychic surgery in the Philippines for about six weeks. Breakfast With Blassie in March 1984 was his final performance. He died two months later in Los Angeles, at 35. He was buried at Beth David Cemetery, Elmont, New York. His mother died shortly afterward and is buried next to him.
Is it sad that some of his friends didn’t come to his funeral? Maybe. But the people who knew Andy Kaufman had probably had their fair share (fill) of jokes played on them. It wasn’t uncommon for Kaufman to joke about faking his own death. Some of them may have even been familiar with his Tony Clifton biopic script where something suspiciously similar to what happened to him occurs.
This is highly likely the cause for people assuming his death was a prank or hoax. That, including the fact that Bob Zmuda continued to play Kaufman’s alter-ego character, lounge singer, Tony Clifton at comedy clubs into the ’90s. In 2013 Kaufman’s brother, Michael claimed to have received a letter from Andy but then rescinded his statement claiming he had been hoaxed (or he learned that his brother was hoaxing the world but didn’t want to ruin it.) Many were still skeptical after Kaufman’s death certificate was posted. The knowledge of the availability and relatively cheap of death certificates at the time of Kaufman’s death has many squinting their eyes.
Other’s claim to even have seen him. In a tell-all, divulging all the secret’s he was sworn to, Andy’s writer Bob Zmuda claimed that Andy had decided to fake his death, is alive and is going to return to the public. However, the thirty years would have ended in 2014. But, still no Andy. Co-writer of “Andy Kaufman; The Truth Finally,” Kaufman’s longtime partner, Lynne Margulies has another theory. She believes Andy actually died of AIDS. Andy was bisexual and had many was well-known, at one time, in the Castro District in California.
Fans and followers of Andy Kaufman have been charting his moves. They have tied together many a potentially loose end to give clues to the actor still being alive and waiting to descend upon us, having proved to us that hoaxes are not a dying art. I guess all we can do now is wait and live.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on September 6, 2019.