The first time I had ever seen Andy Kaufman was on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975…it was memorable. He stood on stage with just an old fashioned record player and lip-synched the words to the “Mighty Mouse” theme song, that was his entire act. The audience and people at home had no idea what they had just witnessed and were left wondering, ” Who in the hell was that guy”. People still wondered about Andy until his death in 1984 and even then many thought his death was a hoax and he would reappear soon as he was still young, only 35. Most people know Andy as Latka on the TV sitcom Taxi from 1978-’83. He was great in that role as an immigrant mechanic working for Danny Devito. But that role was scripted which is completely opposite of his more bizarre stand-up acts. Andy took comedy and performance art to the edges of irrationality and blurred the dividing line between reality and imagination. He was an eccentric whose career included doing a one man show at Carnegie Hall and then taking the entire audience out for milk and cookies via 35 waiting busses. Elaborate ruses and pranks were major elements of his career. His first major character was “Foreign Man” and he would try to do celebrity impersonations which were just awful as he never broke out of his foreign man accent until it came to Elvis, which he did a dead-on impersonation sending the audience in to laughter. Another well-known Andy Kaufman character is Tony Clifton, an audience-abusing lounge singer who opened for Kaufman at comedy clubs and eventually performed on his own. Sometimes Andy played the role and other times his brother or friend did leaving everyone wondering who Tony Clifton really was. On the live show Fridays [similar to Saturday Night Live] he broke character and refused to say his lines and got in a heated confrontation with cast member Michael Richards (Kramer) which led to a brawl on camera which most thought was real but was actually a practical joke known by only three people and not the total cast which caused more havoc. When introducing the musical act, The Pretenders, he took so long in his intro rambling about the harmfulness of drugs that the group could not go on until after commercial break. His most bizarre role as far as I’m concerned was that of a professional wrestler. Kaufman began wrestling women during his act and offered a $1,000 prize to any woman who could pin him. He had a perfect record against the women, some of who were in on the act and then made the near fatal mistake of challenging Jerry “The King” Lawler , a veteran pro wrestler, who did not like Andy’s making fun of his sport. Kaufman went into a tirade of insults against Jerry, the world of professional wrestling, and the city of Memphis which he called ” the nations red-neck capital”. Kaufman even sent videos to Memphis showing residents how to use soap. Jerry Lawler angered about the mockery of his loved sport challenged Andy to a real wrestling match. Kaufman was pile-driven in to the canvas and suffered a broken neck. Andy continued wearing a neck brace after that and it was 10-years later that Lawler admitted the whole thing were staged, after Andy’s death. The whole wrestling campaign was very bizarre at the time and after he angered the SNL audience with his female wrestling routine Kaufman asked the audience if he should ever appear on the show again. The audience voted NO, so Kaufman did not appear live again. This was typical Kaufman with the audience never knowing whether the vote was a hoax or not. Among other stunts Andy enjoyed standing on the stage alone reading excerpts from The Great Catsby and punishing the audience with it’s boredom. If the audience became too mad he would ask them if they preferred that he play a record. After an overwhelming Yes to that question he would cue the record player to continue reading where he had left off. Audiences really never knew what to think of him. In Andy’s words “There is no way to describe what I do. It’s just me”. He was so original that his style of entertainment is now known as ‘performance art’…they had to find some term to describe what he did.
I actually met Andy Kaufman at Jerry’s Deli in Studio City. He worked there during his Taxi days as a busboy to keep himself grounded. He had his neck brace on and as I approached to say hi he became very skiddish as if I was going to do a wrestling move on him. He later warmed up when it was obvious that I was no danger to him and then talked on and on about the most bizarre of subjects. It was a strange encounter and I still don’t know what to make of it. Andy was known to never break character, even when he wasn’t filming. I didn’t know if I was talking to Andy or one of his characters. His work maintains a cult following and a film, Man On The Moon, was produced in 1999 as a biographical comedy starring Jim Carrey. Carrey did a great job but the film was overall only average at best. It’s hard to put down on paper exactly who Andy Kaufman was. In my mind two words, original & bizarre, best describe him. He was a true ground breaker who did things that have never been done before and left audiences wondering what they just witnessed. It’s that feeling you get when you see something brand new for the very first time, very refreshing and memorable. I’m glad I had the chance to briefly meet him before his young death of lung cancer though he never smoked. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away”, Henry David Thoreau.