I'm not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads.
- Andy Kaufman
Andy Kaufman was a very popular, very original and very eccentric American entertainer through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He appeared on the popular television shows Taxi and Saturday Night Live.
His public career started at the 'Improv' comedy club. Though he insisted he wasn't a comedian1, he performed his stand-up comedy act all over the USA. During his acts, he would use many characters. Some would delight, disgust or confuse the audience (on a good night all three). Kaufman's refusal to break character and not let the audience in on the jokes would fool many. He often wouldn't tell the joke to the audience and the humour would be just for himself. Sometimes he would let the audience in on a joke that didn't exist.
He appeared as Elvis Presley, a 'Foreign Man', a reciter, an eater, a singer, a wrestler, a lip-synch artist, and most notably... 'Tony Clifton'.
Imitations, Characters and Routines
Thenk you veddy much.
Kaufman would use a simple character of 'Foreign Man'2 who had a strange foreign accent and told bad jokes. When he first used this character, before he was famous, the audience was actually convinced he was a 'foreigner'. Kaufman would even go into the club hours before his set and fight with the club owner to put him onstage to create a little joke that this bad comedian got onstage out of pity. Of course, this fight was staged, and he was going on anyway. When he got onstage, Foreign Man would imitate people, but do an awful job on purpose.
He would say something like:
I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States. [in the same voice] 'Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States'. Thenk you veddy much.
The humour of this situation was enticing the audience to laugh at him, instead of at his jokes. Kaufman would actually cry onstage.
After a series of bad impressions, he would also do a routine where he was Foreign Man, and then transformed himself into Elvis. It is not to be assumed that Kaufman himself was doing Elvis. Kaufman was doing Foreign Man imitating Elvis. This usually got the crowd more excited.
Foreign Man was the launching point for his later character and accent of Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi, also a 'foreign man'. Kaufman didn't want to work on Taxi. He dreaded and loathed working there. He would lose the claim of originality to his character of Foreign Man. He also didn't want to make a sitcom his major claim to fame, but it seems that this is exactly what has happened in television history. Though he realised that this was the price to pay for him to do more things that he enjoyed.
'I Would Now Like to Imitate de Elvis'
When not acting as Foreign Man, Kaufman would also do Elvis Presley as a straight imitation. He would sing a song in Elvis costume and delight the crowd. This was the first inkling of his idea of himself as a 'song and dance' man.
As a child and adult, Kaufman was absolutely obsessed with Presley. He wrote a letter to Elvis, and signed:
Thanks for everything (No kiddin', I feel like I'm writing to Santa Claus or somethin') Andy G. Kaufman'.
'Here I Come to Save the Day!'
'Lip Synching' was one of Kaufman's earliest claims to fame. He used to put on a record and (Shyly) mouth the words to the theme from Mighty Mouse with an epic sense of grandeur.
[With English accent] I want it quiet. If I hear another sound, I'm going to close this book and forget about the whole thing. [Cheering]
'Reciting' is perhaps the most simple thing he did. He would simply read an entire book for the crowd3 or sing the entire lyrics to 'One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall'. Some times being established as lip-synching to records, he would taunt the crowd by asking them if he wanted to do the record instead. They would invariably say yes, and he would turn on the record. A record of him reading a book.
'I Feel Like the Bad Kid in School! Who Wants to Wrestle?!'
Wrestling was arguably the most controversial and infamous thing he did. He would wrestle women in the most masculine way he could. He claimed himself as the 'World Inter-gender Wrestling Champion.' He offered one thousand dollars to any woman that could beat him. Most of the public was largely unaware of this being a joke. He later wrestled professional wrestler Jerry Lawler to achieve a reputation of being an arrogant villain.
When late night talk show host, David Letterman had both Lawler and Kaufman on his show, Andy made an infamous scene. The obscenities flew, as did the insults and attacks. Said Kaufman, 'I am sorry, I am sorry to use those words on television. I apologize to all my fans! I'm sorry. I'm sorry! But you? You're a [bleep][bleep]!' This became one of the most famous things Kaufman ever did. As he said, 'There's no drama like wrestling.'
Eventually, Kaufman and his wrestling were too controversial for some of his audience. Saturday Night Live, a show that had often featured him, conducted a vote to see if he should remain on the show of leave in 1983. He lost the vote.
In the very early years of his career, Kaufman would eat and sleep for an audience. The entire act was him eating a bowl of potatoes and going to sleep4 in a sleeping bag for 20 minutes and then taking a bow. And people actually laughed. Somehow, a crowd that barely knew who he was appreciated the simple humour.
It has been noted that such material has been little seen, things like this routine of eating potatoes. Most of Kaufman's jokes and routines were in places like restaurants, comedy clubs or airplanes, which he only did once. He did more things than there are time to explain.
The cow goes? [Moo!]
Sing-alongs were very popular. With an image of him being a child at heart, songs for children were used often. 'Row... row... row your boat' and 'The cow goes moo' were some popular ones.
I'll sue all your f...ing asses off! You'll never work in Vegas again!
Tony Clifton was an important character of Kaufman's. He was a second-rate lounge entertainer who performed in lounges, not comedy clubs. He was rude abusive and mean, particularly to the audience, and a Bob Zmuda, his co-conspirator, who served as a plant. In the early days, Clifton was just Kaufman in a black wig, sunglasses and a moustache. Later on, Clifton became a celebrity in his own right, denying that he and Andy were the same person. Clifton appeared on David Letterman's show and said, 'There's no truth [in the rumour that Kaufman and Clifton were the same person] there whatsoever. That's a total fabrication on your part.'
Kaufman went to great lengths to establish the character of Tony Clifton as a separate individual. He made the producers of Taxi give Clifton a guest spot, but due to bad behaviour, the episode was never filmed. There is some speculation of whether this behaviour was by Kaufman or his friend, Bob Zmuda, who sometimes played this part.
Kaufman was one of the most outrageous of the entertainers in his era. Him performing elaborate jokes and gags were commonplace. Particularly when he wasn't supposed to.
In 1979, Andy Kaufman played the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York. His show included Rockette Dancers, Santa, milk and cookies for the audience5, Robin Williams, and Mormon Tabernacle Choir singer impersonators.
Later that year, when Andy hosted the live TV show, Fridays, he said, 'All week, we've been rehearsing a certain way. But I'm not going to do it!' He then proceeded to act like a fool and improvise. He clucked like a chicken and refused to end the monologue. Through most of the sketches, he made mistakes on purpose. In the middle of the last one, he suddenly said, 'I feel stupid.' and disgruntled some cast members. Michael Richards grabbed the cue cards and threw them at Andy. After this, water was tossed, food was thrown and chaos and havoc ensued.
It was later revealed that some of the cast members and producers of the show were aware that he would do this. Some knew only to the extent that he would 'improvise'.
History and Life
Born 17 January, 1949, Andy Kaufman was an odd boy. As a child, Andy wanted to entertain the world. Kaufman explains, '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.'
In college, Andy discovered a movement called 'transcendental meditation'. He used it to build confidence and take his act to comedy clubs. For the rest of his life, he practiced this, meditating and doing yoga three hours a day. He was a very important figure in it, starting in the sixties when it first came to America.
I never told a joke in my life.
Andy Kaufman didn't like being called a comedian. He preferred to be introduced as a song and dance man. In fact, he was more of a performance artist than a comedian. He would yell at his audience and insult them. He wrestled them, he sang for them, he shared his life. His act was different to other entertainers. He cared about getting a gut reaction instead of a laugh, be that disgust, sadness, anger or laughter. As he said:
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.
Some have theorised that Andy Kaufman had multiple personality disorder. When he was feeling stressed, he would transform himself into Tony Clifton and go on a meat eating, drinking and smoking binge. He is also said to have been obsessive compulsive. When stepping on a plane, you had to use your right foot first, etc.
Andy starred in a few movies, all comedy. Some included Heartbeeps and My Breakfast with Blassie. He met his girlfriend, Lynn Margulies on the set of My Breakfast with Blassie, and she remained with him until his death.
Around 1982, the public turned on Kaufman. He began to receive a large amount of hate mail6 and jeers for his wrestling with women. It was around this time that he was kicked off Saturday Night Live, he was exiled from transcendental meditation and Taxi was cancelled.
Andy Kaufman was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer in 1983; although he didn't use meat, drugs, smoke or drink alcohol, Tony Clifton did. Kaufman travelled to the Philippines in search of a miracle. While he was ill, some of his family and friends thought it was another stunt of his, assuming he was playing a trick on them. When he died on 27 May, 1984, many of his friends and family still thought it was a cruel joke, as did much of the public. Some still think Andy didn't die and is waiting to surprise everyone.
Man on the Moon
A movie chronicling Andy Kaufman's life was made and released in 1999. Man on the Moon starred Jim Carrey as Kaufman and was nominated for a Golden Globe award. This movie included a lot of real occasions and events of his life. There were some differences however. For example, in the movie, Andy had a wife, while it real life he never married.
The band REM released a song entitled 'Man on the Moon' based on Andy Kaufman. They also performed much of the soundtrack of the movie.
1 Though he is extremely influential in modern comedy and comedians.
2 Foreign Man was from Caspier, an island in the Caspian sea.
3 Such as The Great Gatsby.
4 The audience thought he was sleeping. He was actually meditating.
5 Kaufman arranged to have 20 buses take the audience to high school for milk and cookies.
6 He used to claim that he saved his hate mail to someday publish a book called 'Andy Kaufman's Hatemail'.