Dead Comedian Of The Week: Andy Kaufman, The Unlikely Bombthrower

For Comedy Week, we're running a handful of tributes in the vein of our Dead Wrestler of the Week series. Here, from the best book ever written about stand-up comedy, Phil Berger's The Last Laugh, we look at the evolution of Andy Kaufman, meshuga provocateur.

The oldest of three children, Andy Kaufman grew up in a red brick split-level home in the affluent suburb of Great Neck, Long Island. As a youngster he was a loner, a boy who would keep his distance even from familial rites. Rather than participate in current events discussions with his father, Stanley, held at dinnertime, he would bolt the table for the privacy of the family den, where he could polish his Elvis imitation.

The den became a refuge—and more: It was his fantasy TV studio. Young Andy would stare at the window in the den and, pretending it was a TV camera, would perform. Many of the routines he used in his act early in his career—Elvis, Mighty Mouse, Pop goes the Weasel—originated there. Frequently he was joined in these sessions by his sister, Carol, who was seven years younger than he. As she recalls: "He'd sing to the window and pretend thousands of people were watching."

By nine, he was entertaining at children's parties—two hours worth of party games and 16-millimeter movies for $5. He was an indifferent student, with interests that were often advanced for his age. "He wrote poetry when he was twelve, thirteen," remembers his younger brother, Michael. "None of his friends was allowed to go to the city, but Andy found a way to get into Manhattan by bus—he'd have to transfer—and he'd hang out at the Cafe Wha? and places like that and read his poetry."

Michael Kaufman says, "The whole family was very close. But Andy was not like the rest of the family. There were times where Carol and I and our parents would do something, and he would not be part of it. He'd rather be off somewhere else." One of the few passions the brothers shared was pro wrestling: "Andy loved it. He loved it. He thought it was the most exciting thing around. His idol in those days was a wrestler named Nature Boy Buddy Rogers. A bad guy. Everybody hated Buddy Rogers. I hated Buddy Rogers. But Andy saw past that. He saw how fantastic it was to have everybody hate him—what theater it was. Later, Buddy Rogers was the inspiration for the character Andy played [the Intergender World Wrestling Champion]. When Andy wrestled with a woman on Saturday Night Live, Buddy Rogers was Andy's manger. Afterward—there were eight to ten of us along—they had dinner in a Japanese restaurant, sitting on the floor."

By the early 1970s, after studying a curriculum in radio/TV at a junior college in Boston, Kaufman returned to New York, where he set out to become a comedian. One reviewer, Richard F. Shepard of The New York Times, saw him in July 1974 at a theater/restaurant in New York and afterward wrote:

...the star here is 25-year-old Mr. Kaufman, a comedian who defies categorization.... He gives you no quotable lines, very few describable shticks, yet he leaves you laughing, loud and hard.

He enters, speaking with a peculiar accent [Foreign Man's] that could be Spanish, Greek, whatever, but it's none of them. He tells a silly joke, says "Thank you" and beams. He imitates Elvis Presley, does a bravura drum performance with a vocal of a ‘folk song' from an island in the Caspian sea; it's hilarious. He involves you in silly group singing.

His manner is one of complete non-self-confidence. He falters, retraces his steps, and it is in this facade of uneasiness, marked by awkward yet eloquent gestures, that his talent for the comic shines.

Shepard's description deftly captures the early Andy who was likable in his vulnerability. Foreign Man was the definitive figure of that period, as Tony Clifton would be of his later, more experimental stage. Foreign Man was Kaufman's ticket to commercial success. And though it got him his first major TV job, as a regular on Van Dyke And Company—which aired for a few months late in 1976—even by then he was looking to bust out. John Moffitt, a director on the show, recalls: "On Van Dyke, the producers wanted a consistent character from him. They saw value in the Foreign Man character, who was perfect for a foil for Van Dyke. But Andy, before he was even well-known, wanted to try other things.

"And they [the producers] would argue with him. They didn't want him to experiment. And he had a thing he'd do, if he didn't like what he was hearing. His eyes would bug out and he'd look at you like he was some strange character. It was a nice thing with the eyes that Foreign Man did. He did it a lot. Like he was seeing the wall beyond you. His face expressionless, but the eye dilating. Every week was a constant battle, an ongoing discussion. Not heated. Andy would be emotionless. He just kept hammering away. He wanted to be highly experimental."

Kaufman was not stymied for long. Soon he had developed Clifton, begun wrestling with women and capped a concert at Carnegie Hall by inviting the 2,800 people in the audience for a midnight snack of milk and cookies, courtesy of Kaufman, at a local school cafeteria. "And while there," says manager Shapiro, "he told the crowd that the show would continue the next day on the Staten Island Ferry. Which it did. At 1 p.m., 300 people showed up. Andy performed. He wrestled. He sang. He bought everyone ice cream." Though the concert had a net loss of $7,000 Shapiro says he did not mind: "It was fine with me. Andy was making lots of money. And that concert was a dream for him. For Andy, showmanship counted first."

On February 24, 1981, the headline in The New York Times read: "WAS 'FIGHT' ON TV REAL OR STAGED? IT ALL DEPENDS." The story dealt with an incident involving Kaufman that had occurred a few days earlier on Fridays. In the middle of the show's final sketch, which dealt with marijuana, Kaufman—seemingly breaking from script—told his fellow actors he ‘felt stupid' acting high, and refused to continue. One thing led to another, and eventually Kaufman and the show's script supervisor, Jack Burns (formerly of Burns and Schreiber), traded punches, just before the camera cut to a commercial.

John Moffit, who had known Kaufman at Van Dyke And Company and now was producer of Fridays recalls: "Andy told me he wanted to do something totally outrageous. He wanted to build up antagonism with the producer during the show, so in the end he could break out of a sketch and a fight would ensue. We went along. And to this day, most people aren't sure whether it [the fight] was for real or not. That show got us the most press of any, and increased our pick-up for the next season.

"Andy perpetuated the controversy by denying to the press that it was staged. Of course, it was staged. Standards and Practices [ABC's censor] had to know about it. I wouldn't risk losing the series, or embarrassing the network. I told the director something was gonna happen, and I'd be there with him. The script supervisor, Jack Burns, knew, I knew, and Andy knew. And in fact all of us had met with Standards and Practices, where Andy outlined what would happen.

"Leading up to the final incident, the fight, we had mini-scenes built in, where Andy was screwing up and stepping to the wings to ‘have words' with us. Finally, the big fight scene came and, when Burns and Andy began trading blows, the stage hands got shook, and tried to break it up. The crew didn't know. They hadn't been told. Which added to the illusion."

A week later, Kaufman returned to Fridays for a cameo moment. He looked unkempt and bleary-eyed, as he haltingly explained: "It was an experimental piece...something different. This has been a very hard week for me. Because of last week's show, my job at Taxi is in jeopardy...my agent is having trouble convincing anybody to hire me. I think you laughing at it is pretty tasteless. Thanks to last week, I'm in a separation with my wife.... I was just trying to have fun." The screen went blank over the image of a forlorn Kaufman.

Later in the year, Kaufman returned to Fridays as a guest host who had undergone a conversion of faith, and been "born again." Says Moffitt: "For his Born Again contrition episode, he found this gospel singer—she'd been on the Welk show—and she agreed to go along with it. But here's the strange part. To sustain the bit, he figured he'd have the two of them get married. And, in all seriousness, he asked her to marry him. She said no. The idea was he was going to be married on the show. Andy had all kinds of ideas."

By now, Kaufman was becoming an enigma to audiences. Which was the real Andy Kaufman? The ingenuous soul of Foreign Man and Latka, who projected the underdog vulnerability of Chaplin's Little Tramp? Or was he a weirdo confrontationalist, with a soul kamikaze at its depths? Or, a contrary mix of both? The Improvisation's Budd Friedman sometimes saw both Andys in a single day: "At the Improv we used to have a children's cabaret with Uncle Andy as the emcee. It was kids performing for kids. Sunday afternoons. He did the show very serious, very straight. He played the Very Nice Young Man. An isn't-that-sweet kind of attitude. Then at night, he'd sometimes be very different. One night he pulled a girl's hair. She was a set-up. A guy in the audience jumped out of his seat and was gonna ‘get' Andy. I interfered. ‘It's just a bit,' I told him. He says, ‘Well, I don't think he's funny.'"

"Funny" was not necessarily what Kaufman was after. In the Improvisation one night, he ascended the stage and, using various voices—here George C. Scott, there Elvis, then just good ole Andy—he sang every chorus of "A hunnerd bottles of beer on the wall, a hunnerd bottles of beer..." exiting stage when the tune was done. On one appearance on Saturday Night Live, Kaufman's routine consisted of his reading from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Sensing the studio audience's impatience as he read, he asked would it prefer to hear a record. When the audience indicated it would, Kaufman turned on a record player he had brought on stage and the audience heard a record of...Kaufman reading from The Great Gatsby.

What did it mean? What was he after? Says Zmuda: "Andy always felt he had got miscast in the comic's role. He felt that was not what he did. It was more performance art. More from the private corridors of his mind. Sometimes he'd purposely go out and not try to be funny. Laughter was fine and good. But if the audience was bored, or they turned on him, that was just as good. He didn't want to be part of the commercial scene. He was like the bad boy in school. Always against the grain."

Kaufman the provocateur: For Andy, the best times were when he baited an audience into believing that what it was seeing had gone beyond his original intentions, irretrievably into true life, God-save-us-all. Was it real? Or not? That was the foggy corner into which he liked to take an audience.

During Kaufman's appearance in an HBO special from Catch A Rising Star, a club patron heckled the comic from the audience, by reciting word-for-word the very act Kaufman was attempting to do, and then telling him: "If you'd do some new material, I wouldn't know what you're doing next. Your new stuff is a bunch of crap."

In responding to the man, Kaufman seemed to be unnerved, enough to make the audience sympathize and turn against the heckler (who was Zmuda, a "plant"), leading to unscripted obscenities sailing back and forth as Zmuda and a Kaufman defender had it out.

It surely tickled Kaufman, whose comic mind was always trying to one-up Andy. Kaufman, who occasionally led Improv patrons out of the club and onto West 44th Street in an impromptu conga line, once confessed to comedian Thom Curley a secret dream of his: "On a New Year's eve, he wanted to lead a conga line in a diaper—see, Andy always played the infant New Year's figure at the Improv—right to Times Square. The longest conga line in history." To the Fridays producer, Moffitt, Kaufman—long before he contracted cancer—spoke of creating an illusion that he was dead.

In his private life, Kaufman steered wide of Hollywood's fast land. He was a man of moderate habits, who exercised regularly and took spiritual comfort in transcendental meditation twice daily. His Pop Eclectic interests were more those of the perpetual boy than a show-biz bigtimer: movies, roller coasters, Slim Whitman, cable evangelist Dr. Gene Scott, milk and cookie snacks, pro wrestling. As strange and unfathomable as he could be on stage, off it he was remarkably accessible for a star, giving cab drivers and other strangers he met and liked his phone number. He even considered installing a special phone in his home, the number to which he would announce on TV. To any party leaving a message that sounded interesting, Andy would respond. "With his friends," says Shapiro, "he helped out...even financially if they needed it. He was a very caring person. And family oriented, too. Whenever he traveled from LA to New York, he'd stop in Florida first to see his grandmother."

Whence the bombthrower? How does one connect Grandma Lillie's devoted Andy with the fellow who sometimes seemed bent on committed comedy hari-kiri? A meshuga? Or just a boy who, once marked "loser" back in Great Neck, had found a way to dispute it? Up there on stage as Tony Clifton, or the Intergender World Wrestling Champion, or in some other guise, he was a ringmaster of the night, activating the switches, coaxing the deep-throated rumble out of the cage—bring ‘em back alive! Shapiro, and even Kaufman's own family, felt that with Clifton and his wrestling against women he might have gone too far—career damage was in the cards.

And there was some, a chain of events with Saturday Night Live, here recounted by Dick Ebersol, the show's producer at the time:

"On October 23, 1982, Andy was supposed to appear on the show and do a bit. He did the bit in dress rehearsal. I didn't like it, and so I cut it from the live show. It was the first time Andy was cut.

"He was infuriated. We had a falling out about it. But we agreed to have fun with it. The following weekend, Andy had a concert at the University of Florida. He flew up, arriving in New York at 10 p.m. It was too late for him to do dress rehearsal. And by the time he got to 30 Rock, it was 11:00, 11:30.

"I didn't see him right away. It's midnight, I'm in the make-up area, where Andy is being made up. Now, in the week between shows, Andy had stirred up trouble about being cut, talking to the press about it. And I'd told him to do a bit about being cut. In the make-up room, I said to him, ‘What are you going to do?'

"He handed me two, three pages—an attack on me. Anything unusual is good for Saturday Night Live. But as I read on, I saw there was no comedy. It was just a diatribe. I said to Andy: ‘Where's the comedy?' Told him, ‘It's okay to rag me, but there's got to be comedy.' I didn't want another Great Gatsby routine.

"Well, he and I got into a huge screaming match. I went back to the show. But afterward, as the studio audience was filing out, he began yelling and screaming at me. I told him: "To hell with that. You got your original break on this show." Kaufman had appeared on the first Saturday Night Live in October 1975. ‘Enough,' I said. ‘You better cool it.'

"The following week, I read he was cut for no reason. The show was off for a week. Came back. November 13, 1982. In the meantime, he had stirred up the press, saying he was unfairly treated. Strange. I mean we'd been friends in California.

"On November 13th, I went on the air. It was the only time I stood on home base at the end of the show. Told the audience: ‘There's been a lot of discussion in the press. I cut Mr. Kaufman because his material was not funny. And I'm afraid at this point in time he's not funny. And until that changes you won't be seeing Andy Kaufman.

"In the days that followed, the cast came to me, said, ‘We're not sure we agree with you.' I knew what was coming. The 900 number. Another Larry the Lobster. [In an earlier Saturday Night Live show, the viewing audience was asked to vote on a 900 phone number whether a live lobster—called Larry—should or should not be cooked after the show.] And so it came to pass—a show to decide whether to Save Andy or Dump Andy. Over the course of that week, lot of discussion in the press about it. November 20, 1982, Drew Barrymore was our host. We set up the fact that the home audience would get to vote. During the course of the show, we presented highlights of Andy's appearances on previous shows.

"It was a real vote. Andy lost by 35,000, 40,000 votes. [Viewers voted 195,544 to 169,186 to keep him off the show.] I subsequently heard from Andy and his management, begging me to put him back on and find a way to have him apologize for his past sins. [George Shapiro: "Andy okayed the idea, with the understanding that he'd be asked back on if he lost the vote. He was told that the chances are because the Saturday Night Live audience goes for the bizarre, he might lose, but the understanding was he'd be invited back. I get the feeling that Dick Ebersol was annoyed with Andy, because after the vote he said he didn't want him on the show again."]

"Half-teasing, I told him that he'd have to find a way to apologize for those past sins. Next thing I hear, he had spent money on commercials and taken them to NBC affiliates in the Midwest—places like Iowa, Montana—where the advertising rates are low. And within repeats of Saturday Night Live, he bought time for his commercials.

"I had been half kidding. But he'd taken me seriously. And in these commercials, he said, ‘I'm Andy Kaufman and I was recently kicked off Saturday Night Live.' And so on, asking their forgiveness. Well, the tapes eventually got to me and appeared on January 22, 1983, during the SNL News segment of the show. The anchorman said, ‘Here's an updated on Andy Kaufman...if you can believe this guy...' And we aired the commercial that he'd played in the midwest. And that was the end of it.

"Yes, my attitude toward him had changed. I had the feeling a lot of people were not finding him funny. After years and years of wrestling women and bits like Gatsby. Things like that."

Later that year, Kaufman got the news he had lung cancer. He was a health-food addict, he practiced yoga. He was dead months later.


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Andy Kaufman: The Unlikely Bombthrower
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The above is excerpted from The Last Laugh with permission of The Phil Berger Comedy Archive. The archive includes over 200 tapes and transcripts from interviews conducted by Phil for his seminal book on stand-up and for many articles on comedy that followed. Also included in the collection are books, record albums, photos, and other research materials. The estate of Phil Berger would like to find a permanent home for the archive at a university or in another appropriate environment. Interested parties are invited to contact Michael Rakosi, executor of Phil Berger's estate via email, PhilBergerArchive@gmail.com, or at (212) 477-6633.

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