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Andy Kaufman (1949 - 1984)

Related: USA - comedy

Andy Kaufman


Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman (January 17, 1949 - May 16, 1984) was a New York born American comedian and composer.

Kaufman first caught people's attention with a character named "Foreign Man" in the early 1970s. "Foreign Man", who claimed to be from an island in the Caspian Sea, would appear on the stage of comedy clubs and perform a number of bad impersonations (Archie Bunker, Nixon, etc). The audience would be torn between being outraged that they had to sit through a really bad act, and feeling sorry for "Foreign Man". At that point, "Foreign Man" would launch into his Elvis Presley impersonation which was surprisingly good (Presley himself had said that Kaufman's impersonation was his favorite). The audience would then realize that they had been tricked, which became a trademark of Kaufman's comedy.

Kaufman later reprised his "Foreign Man" character, renamed "Latka Gravis", for the Taxi sitcom in 1978. Kaufman hated sitcoms and was not thrilled with the idea of being on one. In order to allow Kaufman to demonstrate some comedic range, his character was given multiple personality disorder which allowed Kaufman to display other characters. In one episode, Kaufman's character came down with a condition which made him act like the character played by Judd Hirsch.

On a few occasions, audiences would show up to one of Kaufman's performances requesting to see "Latka". Kaufman would announce that he was going to read The Great Gatsby By F. Scott Fitzgerald to them. The audience would laugh thinking that Kaufman was joking. They were soon horrified to find out that he was completely serious and would read the entire book to them.

Kaufman's second most well known character would be "Tony Clifton", the abusive lounge singer. Clifton began opening for Kaufman at comedy clubs and eventually even performed concerts on his own around the country. Sometimes it was Kaufman performing as Clifton, sometimes it was his brother Michael or his friend Bob Zmuda. For a brief time, it was unclear to some that Clifton was not a real person. News programs actually interviewed Clifton as Kaufman's opening act. The interviews would usually turn ugly whenever Kaufman's name came up, because Clifton would claim that Kaufman was using him to get rich.

Clifton was, at Kaufman's insistence, hired for a guest role on Taxi, but after throwing a tantrum on stage, had to be escorted off of the ABC studio's lot by security guards. Much to Kaufman's delight, this incident was reported in the local newspapers.

In 1979, Kaufman performed in front of a Carnegie Hall audience, which he later took out for milk and cookies, via 35 buses that were waiting outside. At the beginning of his Carnegie Hall performance, Kaufman invited his grandmother to watch the show from a chair he had placed at the side of the stage. At the end of the show, his grandmother stood up, took her mask off and revealed to the audience that she was actually comedian Robin Williams in disguise.

Kaufman grew up admiring professional wrestlers and the fantasy world that they perform in. For a brief time, Kaufman began wrestling women during his act and was the self proclaimed "Inter-gender Wrestling Champion of the World". He offered $1000 reward to any woman that could pin him. Later, after a challenge from Professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, Kaufman would step into the ring with a man - Lawler himself. Lawler's ongoing feud included an apparent broken neck for Kaufman, and a famous on-air fight on the Late Night with David Letterman television Show. Kaufman and Lawler's famous feud and wrestling matches were all later confirmed as a gag and not real as many believed at the time. In reality, Kaufman was not injured while wrestling Lawler, and in fact, the two were friends.

Kaufman made ten appearances on the David Letterman show, including one where he claimed to be homeless and begged the audience for money, and one where he talked about his adopted children, who turned out to be three full grown African American men. Kaufman also made a number of legendary appearances on NBC's Saturday Night Live, until he angered the audience with his female wrestling routine. In a gag gone wrong, the SNL audience voted to ban Kaufman from the show for good. Kaufman was devastated.

In 1981, Kaufman made a couple of memorable appearances on Friday's, a variety show on ABC that was similar to SNL. However, Kaufman's first time on the show didn't go very well. During one sketch, Kaufman broke character and refused to say his lines. The other comedians, embarrassed by the position that Kaufman was putting them in on a live television show, became very angry with him and a brawl broke out on stage. Kaufman appeared the following week in a video taped apology to the home viewers. Later that year, Kaufman returned to host Friday's. At one point in the show, he invited gospel singer Kathie Sullivan on stage to sing a few gospel songs with him and announced that the two were engaged to be married and talked to the audience about his newfound faith in Jesus Christ. It was of course entirely a hoax.

Throughout his entire professional career, Kaufman kept his day job, bussing tables at Jerry's Famous Deli.

Kaufman died on May 16, 1984 of lung cancer and was interred in the Beth David Cemetery, Elmont, New York (Long Island). Many people doubted Kaufman's death, thinking it was just another gag. To this day, there are people that seriously doubt that Kaufman is actually dead.

The rock band REM wrote and recorded a song about Kaufman for their 1992 album Automatic for the People called Man On The Moon. The song was also used as the title track to the 1999 film about Kaufman's life, which starred Jim Carrey and was directed by Milos Forman. Carrey is a long time fan of Kaufman's and fought hard for the role. Carrey even owns Kaufman's bongo drums. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Kaufman [Aug 2003]


  1. Andy Kaufman: The Midnight Special (1981) - Andy Kaufman [Amazon.com]
    The big mystery about Andy Kaufman's work is in trying to figure out what's serious, what's an act, why he is doing what he's doing, and whether he even knows the differences himself. His performances are among those rare examples where you feel extremely uncomfortable watching them, but at the same time you can't pull yourself away because it's hysterical in a twisted and bizarre sort of way. Andy Kaufman's Midnight Special is an episode of Burt Sugarman's Midnight Special, hosted by Wolfman Jack, which aired on January 23, 1981. Even though this was filmed a few years before Kaufman's premature death in 1984, it's a retrospective of his work. Many of his better known characters and routines are featured, including "The Foreign Guy," Tony Clifton, "Ladies Wrestling," the ventriloquist act, and of course, Elvis. The highlight of this video is interview footage of Andy "explaining" his work. Is it real or an act? Was he a comic genius or an utter madman running loose on a TV stage? We may never know. --Rob Bracco for Amazon.com
  2. Man on the Moon (1999) - Milos Forman [Amazon.com]
    "There is no real you," jokes Lynn Margulies (Courtney Love) to her boyfriend, Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey), as he grows more contemplative during a battle with cancer. "I forgot," he says, playing along, though the question of Kaufman's reality is always at issue in Milos Forman's underappreciated Man on the Moon. The story of Kaufman's quick rise to fame through early appearances on Saturday Night Live and the conceptual stunts that made his club and concert appearances an instant legend in the irony-fueled 1970s and early '80s, Man on the Moon never makes the mistake of artificially delineating Comic Andy from Private Andy. True, we get to see something of his private interest in meditation and some of the flakier extremes of alternative medicine, but even these interludes suggest the presence of an ultimate con behind apparent miracles of transformation.
    Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People vs. Larry Flynt) allege that transformation was Kaufman's purpose--more than a shtick but less than a destiny. As we see him constantly up the ante on the credibility of his performance personae (the obnoxious nightclub comic Tony Clifton; the insulting, misogynistic professional wrestler), Forman makes it harder and harder to detect Kaufman's sleight of hand. But it's there, always there, always the transcendent Andy watching the havoc he creates and the emotions he stirs.
    Carrey is magnificent as Kaufman, re-creating uncannily detailed comedy pieces etched in the memory of anyone who remembers the real Andy. But while Carrey's mimicry of Kaufman is flawless and funny, the actor probes much deeper into an enigmatic character who, in life, was often a moving target even for those closest to him. --Tom Keogh

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