Andy Kaufman Was One Truly Wild and Truly Crazy Man
Was he a comedian? A performance artist? He became known for doing 10-minute sets that weren’t comedy but made people laugh. How to top that? Well, there was 20 minutes…
Nobody enjoyed pushing the envelope more than Andy Kaufman, the brilliant pro wrestler who earned a living making people laugh. Many of them also wanted to knock him out, and that was the secret of his success. Kaufman was not content with his clever appearances on SNL, or as Latka, the cutie pie he played on the hit TV show, Taxi. He didn’t even think of himself as a comedian. He was more of a performance artist. His friend Robin Williams once said, “Kaufman’s like a squirrel going over the Grand Canyon saying, ‘Give up the nuts or die.’”
In the early ’80s, Kaufman was the most daring, avant garde, and obnoxious performer in the country. His famed antics—wrestling women, his evil alter-ego, Tony Clifton—were captured with wit and flair by David Hirshey in “Beyond Laughter.” It was originally published in the April 1981 issue of Rolling Stone and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. Please enjoy this wild ride with one of our most legendary performers.
Out of the blue, in the middle of the action, an extremely clever comic actor began counting, very slowly, and with great concentration: one, two, three, four… enunciating each of the numbers with the utmost deliberation, as if they had gotten away from him and he was gathering them up again: five, six, seven, eight… .
When he reached fifteen, the audience began to laugh, and by the time he had slowly, and with greater and greater concentration, made his way up to a hundred, people were falling off their seats… .
Yes, cross the border and you hear that fateful laughter. And if you go farther, beyond laughter?
—Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
It is 1:50 on a weekday morning as Andy Kaufman strides into the Improvisation. This is the New York comedy showcase where Kaufman used to be the “house weirdo,” ordering meals and eating them onstage, playing kiddie records, showing home movies, doing everything but telling real jokes. He insists he has never told a real joke onstage. Not on any stage. He just, well, does things…
It has already been a good night for Kaufman. Earlier, he was recognized by a gaggle of pimps in Fascination, a sleazy slice of electronic video-game heaven just off Times Square. Then, riding here in a hansom cab, the driver, a pretty brunette, claimed to be a fan of his from Saturday Night Live. “I read where you gave a show at Carnegie Hall and took the audience out for milk and cookies,” she said. Andy smiled shyly. “Uh-huh. In 1982, I hope to take an audience around the world in an ocean liner. Wanna come?”
By 1982, Kaufman figures to need a restful cruise. This year, he plans to complete his third novel (none published), which he describes as “the story of a man’s life from start to finish.” When ABC’s hit sitcom Taxi (he plays the timid but sex-crazed immigrant mechanic Latka Gravas) lets out for the summer, he’d like to make a ninety-nine-cent national tour “so everybody can afford to see me.” Heartbeeps, in which he costars with Bernadette Peters, will be released later in the year, and he hopes to wrap up a screenplay, The Tony Clifton Story, for Universal. Clifton, a frog-voiced Las Vegas lounge lizard, is the strangest of Kaufman’s strange creations.
Inside the Improv, a male-female comedy team is flailing away in front of a small group of bemused conventioneers. The help is getting out the brooms and mops. Finally, the act finishes. Kaufman wanders onstage and begins lamely sing-songing, accompanied by tiny, mock-festive hops: “A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hunnerd bottles of beer …” The audience titters. At ninety-two bottles of beer, chuckles. By seventy-seven, worried glances. Is he really going all the way? The voices change as he starts doing impressions. But the song goes on. George C. Scott sings “Sixty-six bottles of beer on the wall, sixty-six bottles of beer.” Elvis takes us down to fifty-three. Then Kaufman increases the pressure by counting back up for a few bottles, whispering a little, now singing again. Groans and face-rubbing. A few halfhearted boos. No matter. He rolls on. The bartender cracks ice, A phone rings. The crowd is silent now, mesmerized. “Forty-one bottles of beer… .”
Two men cover their ears; two others start clapping. One of the regular young comics is down on his knees in front of the stage: “Don’t stop, Andy, I’m gonna cum.” Andy massages the cadence—faster, then slower, then faster again. At fourteen bottles of beer on the wall, he leaves the stage. Suddenly, six people are screaming, “Don’t stop. Please, Andy, do it.”
Applause erupts when he returns and completes the ordeal. He struts offstage, pumping his arms like Bruce Jenner in a Wheaties commercial. He’s euphoric. “That was magical,” he says in childlike tones as he treats us to ice cream in an all-night deli. “'A Hundred Bottles of Beer’ has always been a fantasy of mine. But there’s a little voice that says, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that, that’s breaking all the rules.’ That’s the voice of show business. Then this other little voice says, ‘Try it.’ And most of the time, when the voice comes on and says, ‘No,’ that’s the time it works.” He is speechless for a moment. “There are such psychological implications to that song, such great things you can do. Once they’re hooked, they won’t let you stop. Can you imagine?”
You want to be happy for him, this overgrown child, but something holds you back. Yes, almost all of Kaufman’s bits work. Once. He has stumbled onto a secret of comedy: the unexpected is funny. And what could be more unexpected than a comedian coming out for ten minutes and not being funny at all? The problem becomes what to do the next time, when everyone expects you not to be funny for ten minutes. Kaufman’s solution to this problem is not to be funny for twenty minutes, and then for forty minutes. But it doesn’t take a profound comic mind to see where that is leading. Only Kaufman doesn’t seem to notice.
“And when I get them,” he says, his voice, breathless, rising higher, “and they ask for an encore… .” The eyes are glazed. “Okay, folks, a thousand bottles of beer on the wall.”
Beyond laughter. That space past “intellectual” comedy, an uncharted area in which network executives fear to tread, that’s where Andy Kaufman feels most comfortable. Since he began simulating heart attacks in concert and wrestling women on Saturday Night Live two years ago, the networks have become wary. The special he did for ABC spent two years in the can before being aired because, Andy will tell you, Fred Silverman, then at ABC, was convinced Kaufman was crazy. “I’m not being paranoid,” Andy says. “Every time my manager approached big network executives or even cable, they told him I was too dangerous. They couldn’t trust me.”
Could it have been the hundreds of hate letters the SNL wrestling generated? Perhaps it was the stubborn rumor that, disguised as Tony Clifton, he threw eggs at Dinah Shore. Maybe they heard about his brief flirtation with levitation. “For a while there, he was planning to close his act with that,” says Bob Zmuda, a writing and performing partner. “He took a month off ‘to learn how to fly.’” Or maybe word got out about that unscheduled appearance he made early one morning on the late, lamented David Letterman Show. Uncombed and untucked, Andy walked onstage with a trail of Vaseline smeared from nostril to lip to simulate mucus; it melted and dripped under the lights as he began to mumble disconsolately:
“Ummm… I’d like to talk about my wife.… I met her several years ago while I was struggling… performing at the Improvisation. I could perform for free. Elsewhere I would get jobs for fifty dollars and stuff… and I met her while I was driving up from southern New Jersey. She was a cocktail waitress and we went out a few times and we got married and she worked as a waitress while I was working for free in clubs and we had two children and their names were Mark and Lisa [hacking cough]… and when Saturday Night Live discovered me—I’d rather if you don’t laugh because I’m not trying to be funny right now—shortly after that I went to California and things really started happening… and then Taxi came along and I was doing all these far-out things on television and it was just my character Latka. I kind of felt inhibited… uh… so anyway I quit the show and at that time I was wrestling women on Saturday Night Live and I got a lot of hate mail and no producer would hire me… and so one day I was at my manager’s trying to get an engagement for dinner theater in Wisconsin… and I got a call from my wife’s lawyer. She wanted a divorce and she got a divorce and the kids, the house, everything. I don’t have any money myself but at any rate… I know this sounds slightly clichéd, but if you could… uh …any extra money… I would appreciate… .” (Fade out on Andy panhandling the audience.)
“We got an instant reaction to that show,” Letterman recalls. “Phone calls, letters. People were mad at me for having him on, mad at him, sorry for his plight. Other people thought I had not been sympathetic to the needs of this obviously desperate human.”
And Andy? “He was real eager to get the hate mail,” says Letterman. “He made me promise to send it.” He pauses. “Sometimes, when you look Andy in the eyes, you get a feeling somebody else is driving.”
The story has been circulating around New York clubs of a woman who wasn’t sure just which Andy Kaufman she had brought home on their first and only date.
“Who do you want me to be?” he asked.
“Yourself,” she said.
Whereupon Kaufman launched into his Foreign Man, gibbering away madly in some impossible accent that sounded like it might be meant for the fish in the Caspian Sea. Then he transformed himself into Elvis Presley. He ended the evening as that bleating boor, Tony Clifton.
“It was like there was no real Andy Kaufman,” she says now.
The “real Andy,” I’m told, is off “somewhere on vacation, possibly in Los Angeles.” But one of his after egos is performing at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, so I go to see him.
“Rodney Dangerfield,” the marquee reads, “Three Nights, Two Shows Per.” And in equal-sized letters: “Tony Clifton.”
Tony and I have never met, although I saw him perform with Andy at Carnegie Hall in 1979. At least I think I did. Andy Kaufman and I have met several times, and on each occasion he has taken great care to point out that he is not the singer Tony Clifton. Oh, sure, he used to do a Tony Clifton imitation. But Andy insists that the act was modeled on a real-life Tony Clifton, whom he discovered in Las Vegas in 1971. Clifton was an atrocious happy-hour gargoyle with pipes so bad he could make dogs yelp in pain. Audiences demanded his head for an encore. Inspired, Andy got himself some dime-store makeup, a bad wig, sunglasses and a peach-flocked tuxedo jacket with a bordello-parlor pattern, and worked the bit into his club act. Now that he can afford to pay for an opening act, he says, he stopped doing the imitation and hired the real thing, the original Tony Clifton. Andy says he is glad to help the guy’s career, but sick of taking raps for his bad behavior. “Clifton and I don’t even look alike,” he says. “He smokes and drinks and I do neither. He’s a big fat guy, and if it weren’t for me, no one would know who he is.”
A random sampling of ticket holders outside the Warfield suggests that a lot of people still don’t know who Tony Clifton is.
“Clifton? Who? I dunno.”
“Is he local or what?”
Someone on the staff of promoter Bill Graham, who booked the show, seemingly had the same problem. The headline on the glass billboard says: “Extra Extra Extra. Tony Clifton, Who Is He?”
Tepid applause greets Clifton’s first appearance onstage, but as he swings into his act, it turns into a shower of abuse. He looks like Roy Orbison pumped with cortisone; a swollen gut strains at his blue ruffled shirt The hip Bay Area rock and Rotary Club crowd isn’t getting this Vegas sign language. They squirm in their seats as he punches out note after ungodly note of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Take the dogshit out of your mouth is the first piece of advice from the crowd as he wails, “Hi-yi-yi-yi on a hill, it calls to meeeee.”
Fuck you. Get the hook. We want Rodney.
Tony takes it well: “Shaddap. Why don’t you go home and drink a beer and watch football?” And to a front-row heckler: “I’m gonna push yer face through the seat.”
The ensuing outrage is reminiscent of the hair-pulling, eye-gouging, chair-throwing Monday evenings of wrestling at the Suffolk Forum on Long Island in the late ’50s—evenings that Andy Kaufman, his brother, Michael, and his father, Stanley, rarely missed. Too bad Andy Kaufman isn’t here with Tony Clifton tonight. This jeering, seething mob would have brought back delicious memories.
In a burst of inspiration, Clifton calls for audience volunteers, and ten guys clamber onstage, blurting their names into the mike as he lines them up. The last volunteer is a Vitalis-drenched pudgeball in white patent shoes and a matching belt that bisects his girth like a sagging equator. I recognize Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s cohort.
“Bob Gorski,” Zmuda murmurs into the mike.
“Gor-Ski? Ski? Ski?” Clifton launches into a swamp of obnoxious Polish jokes and insults. Poor Bob is looking pathetic, sniffling, picking his nails, staring at his shoes.
Leave Bob Alone, the chant goes up. And when Clifton boots his hapless victim offstage, We want Bob. Clifton softens, inviting Gorski back. The pudgy man is beaming now, basking in the applause, finally at ease. Then Clifton dumps a glass of water on his head.
Kill the son of a bitch. Kill him.
From the balcony comes a rain of garbage. Clifton threatens to stay on forever, goading the audience: “You paid fifteen bucks for this.” Later, twenty fans demand, and get, refunds. After the show, Clifton is still bellowing in his dressing room, vowing, “I’ll punish those people for not letting me sing my songs.”
I knock on Clifton’s door, which is opened by Kaufman’s manager, George Shapiro. I see that Clifton has taken off his shirt, and with it, about sixty pounds.
“You must really sweat out there,” I observe.
“Who is this?!” he shrieks. “Get him out of here.”
I introduce myself as a writer friend of his friend, Andy Kaufman.
“Get out of here. I’m sick of you writers and your exposes.”
Later, we meet for dinner. Clifton has never heard of this “Bowling Green” magazine but figures he can use the ink. Promises to pose for a cover if that bozo, Kough-man, stays off it. I know from past experience that Kaufman has a fondness for Japanese food, and so does Clifton. But when we arrive at the Hilton’s Kiku of Tokyo restaurant, he immediately berates the maître d’: “I wanna room with chairs. I don’t sit on floors, pal.”
Kaufman had told me back in New York that he had agreed to sign a contract for Taxi only if Tony Clifton was signed as well. Sitcoms are dumb. Andy doesn’t even own a TV But to help Tony…
“If they hadn’t thrown me off,” Tony honks, “I woulda been the star. I had a bigger trailer than Judd Hirsch’s. So what if I had girls in the trailer? So what if I was onstage with a girl on each knee? So what if I was up all night rewriting the show to include these two girls?”
These two girls, it turns out, were the working type. Another acquired taste Clifton and Kaufman seem to have in common.
“Oh, Andy has a whole theory on prostitutes,” says Alan Arkush, who recently directed Kaufman as the robot star of Heartbeeps. “He’s a real champion of theirs, and he believes in meaningful relationships with them.” The subject first came up, Arkush says, when he asked Andy how he spent his time off. “I spent my vacation at the Mustang Ranch, every night,” Kaufman told him.
Later, Kaufman would prepare a curiously diplomatic response when I ask about his preference for flesh parlors. “One of the girls from the Mustang Ranch came to see my show when I was playing Reno. We became friends, and when I had a week off, I went to see her. I don’t have any prejudice against anybody because of what business they’re in.”
Clifton isn’t quite as touchy on the subject. “I want a woman,” he bawls as we leave the Japanese restaurant. “Last night I had two of them, just like a ham sandwich. I was the ham, they were the bread. You dig what I’m putting down?”
By the next night, word is out. And if anybody is still unsure, Clifton provides the strongest evidence with his loud denials. Holding aloft a copy of that morning’s San Francisco Examiner, he reads from a story that claims Andy Kaufman has used the name Tony Clifton as an alias. “I am fed up with all the rumors that I am connected with the comedian. I am suing the writer of the story, and the San Francisco Examiner, and I am suing Andy Kough-man. He’s in Hollywood. Mr. Hollywood. He thinks he’s a big star. But he’s gonna come up here and be on the stage with me tomorrow night and we’ll straighten the whole thing out. And if he doesn’t, I will sue him.”
You’re Kaufman, you son of a bitch, comes a bloodcurdling cry from the balcony. And you’re a rip-off.
Clifton roars back: “If I hear one more person call out that guy’s name, I’ll sue you, too.”
“No, your mother. Yah mothah, pal.”
Just then a tiny old German man in a gold blazer stalks onstage waving a pearl-handled penknife. He gets to within two feet of Clifton before he’s noticed.
I can’t take it. Now get ze hell off!
“Get your hands off me!” Clifton screeches, and security hustles the man away. I catch up with the guy in the lobby and find, to my astonishment, that he is not a plant. He’s just driven forty miles from Sunnyvale to see Dangerfield, and Clifton has pushed him to this desperate act.
After the incident, Clifton is more obnoxious than ever, braying at his audience, taunting them. A full can of Coors explodes behind him. Clifton ignores it. But when a half-pint of Southern Comfort misses him by a foot, he realizes he has stepped over that blurred line between theatrics and real danger.
“That was a glass bottle, and you’re a fuckin’ asshole!” Clifton shouts before taking refuge behind the curtain. Incredibly, he refuses to surrender, belting out three more songs from the wings while the lighting director continues his cues as though Clifton were still onstage. He sings “Love Makes the World Go Round.” The hall resounds with boos and catcalls.
“Wasn’t that wonderfully surreal?” asks Bob Zmuda, alias Bob Gorski, the next afternoon. “Andy’s like a little kid who wants to scare people and wants people to scare him—but it’s just fun and games. Andy Kaufman is a fraidy cat. Every night he looks in his closet for the bogyman.”
Which is why Tony Clifton will perform his last two shows wearing a SWAT helmet cadged from the municipal riot squad and standing behind a triple-folded curtain of industrial fishnet.
“It’s a shit booking, anyhow,” says Zmuda. “A buncha animals out there: Did you see Tony Clifton on The Midnight Special? Well, you saw, they got it perfectly.”
Clifton is twenty-five minutes late for his final night’s first show. It is announced that the performance will not start until all cigarettes are extinguished. Once they are, Tony Clifton swaggers onstage and lights one up. BOOOOOOOOO. Unfazed, he launches into a cat-in-heat version of “My Way.” Spotting a guy in front cocking his arm to fire a tomato. Clifton challenges him: “C'mon up here, ya slimy chicken.” A tomato splatters at his feet as he menaces the audience. He swats away a paper cup but a piece of banana cake splats across his shoulder and an egg bounces off his shoe. “Drop the net,” Clifton barks to a stagehand.
“I’d like to dedicate this song to the hostages …”
They should take you hostage.
“Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony …”
“Let’s put our hands together for the hostages,” Clifton exhorts. A coin whizzes by his ear. “Give me the helmet!
“Stuck a finger in his ear and called it macaroni …” In the balcony, a brawny teenager lets fly with a fat red apple that rips through the netting, smacks into the center of the helmet and sends Clifton reeling. The crowd roars. Even Clifton seems terrified now. He finishes his show screaming from the wings and leaves Bill Graham and crew to contend with the slop.
Graham has never seen anything like it. The Sex Pistols weren’t this bad. He is disgusted and sorry he agreed to the booking, which was sold to him as a package. (“You want Dangerfield? You have to take Clifton, too.”) “What really bothers me is the guy’s mind,” says Graham, who is standing in the drab downstairs corridor, looking as ashen as his slate-gray velvet suit. “I know what this reminds me of,” he says. “The night I had to throw some guy out of my theater for pissing in the middle of the dance floor.”
Down the hall, Clifton is ebullient, scampering in and out of his dressing room, calling the night a great success. “You know what I did tonight, you know what I did? I sang ‘A Hundred Bottles of Beer.’ I… I… I… I don’t think anyone’s ever done that in the history of show business.”
“I saw Andy Kaufman do it once,” I say.
“What are you talking about? Get out. You’re lyin’.”
“I saw him do it at three a.m. at the Improv.”
“What are you talking about? Shut up.”
“I saw him do it.”
“No. I’m the first one ever to do that song. If he did it, then he stole it from me.”
I turn to leave. “Watch yerself!” he screams. “You print that I’m Andy Kough-man and I’ll sue yer ass! I’ll sue Bowling Green’s ass!”
Andy’s mom, Janice Kaufman, is fixing snacks. We’re in the kitchen of her red brick split-level in an affluent suburb of Great Neck, Long Island. Of her three children—Michael, Carol and Andy—she acknowledges that Andy would have to be considered the Problem Child. Andy was a loner from the start, a spacey kid who refused to participate in team sports. At school, teachers complained of his lack of attention. From age four on, psychologists and psychiatrists probed at his curious psyche. But looking back now, Janice thinks that little wide-eyed Andy was putting them all on.
“He had a little kiddie phonograph on the dresser, and he’d stand up in his crib and keep it on all the time, just putting the needle back,” his mother remembers.
“Whenever it was on, he was totally content.”
Andy’s interest in being a DJ-emcee grew with his sneaker size, until by junior high he was regularly working children’s parties. He wrote, too. He completed his first novel, The Hollering Mangoo, when he was sixteen. “He had an unusual style, kind of like Joyce’s in Ulysses,” offers Stanley, a graying version of his son in dark-rimmed glasses. “Once, in a story when a character had to laugh, Andy wrote an entire page of him laughing. Ha ha, hee hee, tee hee, ho ho. All the laugh sounds filled the page. I couldn’t believe anyone would sit through it, but when he read it aloud, everyone was hysterical at the end.”
Even then, says Stanley, it was unusual laughter—doubting, confused, a little strained. Not that Andy seemed to be trying to make people laugh. Andy was a very earnest child, especially when it came to wrestling.
He still is. Kaufman said recently, in apparent seriousness, “If I play my cards right, I could bring network wrestling back to TV. Unfortunately, to most people, wrestling is a laughingstock. But fortunately, I’m reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t watch it.”
Andy’s father sees his son’s current obsession with wrestling women as a direct outgrowth of his failure in team sports. But he has no ready theory that might explain Tony Clifton.
“I never understood why he would want to alienate the audience to such extremes,” says Stanley, “unless he was trying to get them to go from hate to love. Why Tony Clifton? It’s possible he created this character to draw hisses for the villain so he can come out the hero.”
If that’s Andy’s design, it’s working only for him. Witness a bizarre episode on a recent Fridays telecast, which he was guest hosting. In the middle of the show’s last skit—about dope smoking—Kaufman suddenly refused, on-camera, to play his part. He said he “felt stupid” acting stoned. Everybody freaked. Fridays regular Michael Richards dumped the cue cards. Kaufman spilled a glass of water on Richards. Actress Melanie Chartoff fired some breakfast rolls at Kaufman and followed up with a pat of butter to the head. Yelling, “Cut to a commercial, cut to a commercial,” co-producer Jack Burns rushed onstage to take a few futile swings at Kaufman. Finally, they did go to a commercial. When they cut back, Kaufman was still shoving and jawing with the cast. Fridays' Brandis Kemp signed off with:
“I want to thank the portion of Andy Kaufman who was with us tonight.”
The following Friday, Kaufman came on the show to “clarify” the situation. Looking just as he had on Letterman’s show—unshaven, sweating, bleary-eyed—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.” Kaufman looked as if he were about to cry. The screen went blank.
Was it reality or Son of Tony Clifton? Even his family didn’t know for sure. One confused witness to the first Fridays fiasco was Kaufman’s brother, Michael. He’s a thirty-year-old CPA who recently moved to Los Angeles, ten minutes away from Andy, and who once did what much of America has been longing to do: he broke Andy’s neck. “I was about four and Andy was about five,” Michael recalls. “It was Andy’s first official wrestling match. I got him in a headlock and something snapped, I guess.
“I fell for the bit,” Michael says of the Fridays episode. “I didn’t know it was staged until Andy and Jack Burns came out after the show and told the studio audience. Tremendous acting job. But even if it had turned out that Andy really screwed up and pissed them all off, I would have liked that, too. Just because it was different. I think it may be the best thing Andy’s ever done.”
Carol Kaufman has her doubts. Despite their age difference—Carol is twenty-five, Andy is thirty-one—she is probably closer to Andy than anyone in the family. As children, they would act out show-business fantasies in the den, blowing lines in front of imaginary thousands. In those days, Carol was always in on the joke. “I don’t think Fridays was entertainment to the average person,” she says. “I don’t think Tony Clifton is entertainment to the average person. I don’t think anything that makes people uncomfortable is entertainment. Sometimes I just want to stand up on my seat and shout, ‘He’s only kidding, everybody.’ I think with Andy, it all goes back to the self, the I. What am I going to get pleasure out of, not how am I going to please the audience. He knows they want to laugh, they want him to tell jokes. But no. That would be selfless. Not that I’m calling him selfish, really. To a point, yeah, sure. He’s got to enjoy what he’s doing and not sell himself short. I think there’s something beautiful in that—taking risks like he did on Fridays. I wish my parents could appreciate it I called them the next morning, and they said, ‘What is Andy trying to do, ruin his career?’”
But Andy’s parents have generally indulged their son the comedian. Stanley put his foot down only once, when the owner of a Times Square freak show, Conga the Jungle Creep, offered to put Andy and his very original poetry on his bill. Next to Coney Island, it was the place Andy loved most in the world. From the time he was ten until the show closed seven years later, Andy gloried in double-talking with Phil Dirks, the man with three eyes, two noses and a pair of mouths. And the Elephant Woman, whose body was covered with folds of scaly gray skin. They liked Andy there. The serpentine Princess Wago would drape her six-foot boa around Andy’s neck to impress onlookers. Kaufman developed a carny sensibility that persists to this day. He says he based his wrestling routine on the traveling grapplers who would challenge yokels in every town. He remains very attached to his childhood memorabilia, collected in midways and two-bit candy stores.
A tiny maid’s room in the basement of his parents’ house is crammed with pop-culture landfill. Behind a pair of congas and one cracked bongo—tied together with dirty sheets and several peeling leatherette belts—is his record collection, which includes Mambo Mania, Margaret Whiting, the Lennon Sisters, and New Music of the Philippines. In the library: hundreds of wrestling magazines dating back to the ’50s, Captain America comics, The Incredible Hulk vs. the Thing, the works of Jerzy Kosinski, a dog-eared copy of The Sensuous Man and How to Win Friends and Influence People. The iconography is chiefly Elvis. (Since 1969, when he first saw him in Vegas, Kaufman has done a sneeringly accurate impersonation of his idol. It’s the closest thing to a normal routine in his act.)
To his parents, Andy has always been a “good boy.” Very devoted to his grandmother in Florida. Bought her a color TV with remote controls as soon as he started making money. Has taped hours of conversations with her that he’d like to release as a double album. Maybe add some canned laughter.
Andy likes to involve his family in his work. And usually, his parents have found participating a pleasant experience. They helped him give out the milk and cookies after his Carnegie Hall appearance. They giggle when he shows old home movies in his act. But it wasn’t like that one Thanksgiving, when he played a resort hotel in the Catskills.
“One of his conditions was that the hotel accommodate the whole family, including my mother and Janice’s mother, who had just turned eighty,” says Stanley. “It was awful. He bombed. There was just nothing he did that made anyone laugh. And he had all of us, the whole family, come up onstage.”
Nasty notes were posted on Andy’s door. The family was hurt and humiliated. An irate patron accosted Andy as he sat with the Kaufmans in the grillroom. “You stunk!” he screamed. Andy just sat there.
“I was ready to get up and poke the guy in the snoot,” says Stanley, “but that’s not Andy’s way. Andy’s very passive. When he was five or six, he had a friend, Jimmy, who used to beat up on him, and Andy wouldn’t fight back. I got so mad once, I said, ‘Goddamnit, Andy, why don’t you hit him back?’”
Stanley slips a cassette into a video player, and a wrestling segment from The Merv Griffin Show comes on. “Ohhhh, Stanley, do we have to watch this?” Janice says. “I don’t think I can stand it.” Nobody in the family likes Andy’s wrestling, or Tony Clifton, for that matter. Almost in rebuke, the phone shrills.
“Hi, pussycat,” Janice says, smiling.
It’s Andy. As the snarling bastard on the screen upends a hefty brunette, the dutiful son on the phone is asking after grandma’s health, his father’s business prospects, what’s going on with the magazine guy.
“No,” Stanley says. “Relax. We haven’t told him a thing about Tony Clifton. Yes, we’re watching the wrestling. Sure, I’ll be sure he sees the wrestling magazines.
“Yes, we’ll make sure he sees the stories about Buddy.”
Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers was the hero of Kaufman’s youth. The “saddest night” of Andy’s life was May 29th, 1963, when Nature Boy lost his world title to Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden in an orgy of sneers and cracked bones. A “totally pure” villain, Rogers was voted the most unpopular wrestler of 1962 in a fan poll, beating out Killer Kowalski and Crusher Lisowski. “I once saw Buddy Rogers beat a guy unconscious so they had to carry him off on a stretcher,” says Kaufman in awe. “Then Buddy kicked the stretcher over. Buddy Rogers knows ways of manipulating a crowd like no one in the world.” Since he retired in 1975, Rogers has been wheeling and dealing in real estate in Haddonfield, New Jersey. For the past two years, he has also been Kaufman’s wrestling trainer, appearing in his corner on SNL in 1979.
“Andy thinks like I did about wrestling,” says Rogers. “I didn’t care if you loved me or hated me. What the hell’s the difference? As long as you intrigue your fans.”
Rogers is confident that with Andy under his tutelage, no woman can beat him. But he gleefully concedes, “There are an awful lot of broads who would pay to see him get killed.”
I tell Buddy that some comics resent Andy for the wrestling and his other bizarre bits. “He reminds me of Gorgeous George,” Rogers says. “He came in with a gimmick, and every other wrestler hated his guts. But he cashed in 11 million bucks in seven years. Andy has a chance to be the Gorgeous George of entertainment. Andy has balls.”
“Um, do you think we might have some vegetables? I think some vegetables would be very nice.”
It is eleven p.m. and I am sitting down to dinner at a Japanese restaurant with the real Andy Kaufman, vegetable lover. “I’m an open book,” he says, bowing his head to say grace over the teriyaki. “I have to be totally honest with you. That’s the way I am.”
The reason it is eleven o'clock and we have not yet eaten is transcendental meditation. Andy’s mother had told me that TM is the most important thing in his life; Andy informs me it is a twice-daily ritual he hasn’t missed for twelve years. He was meditating before dinner.
He tells me how he passed the afternoon. He dressed in his father’s pink polyester jacket with the soiled white shirt cuffs dangling from the sleeves and went to Chock Full o’ Nuts and pretended to be crazy, rattling his cup, talking loudly to himself, hollering about the “finest cuppa cawfee in New Yawk.” And it was really neat. People turned away. A few even left.
Some have called this “conceptual comedy,” engineered happenings designed to involve the passive. And, not coincidentally, to amuse the artist himself. It was writer and comedian Carl Reiner who persuaded his own manager, George Shapiro, to handle Kaufman. Reiner likens Andy’s humor to “Christo wrapping a mountain.” He thinks some of the pieces are brilliant. But the wrestling, the Tony Clifton, the street gags…
“Unless you let the audience in on the joke, you are making fools of them,” says Reiner, “and that’s what he’s doing with this Tony Clifton. The audience would love to be able to say, ‘My God, what a wonderful character that man is playing, you can’t even see him.’ But they have to know it’s really him, really Andy Kaufman. He has to tell them, somehow, ‘I’m going to do the worst act in the world, and the game we’re playing is to see how long you can take it before you bomb me.’ At least then there’s an audience catharsis, even if it’s anger instead of laughter. But they have to know why they’re angry or laughing.
“He’s playing a game and he’s enjoying the game. But we’re not enjoying it as much as he is. He goes into New York, mumbling and doing crazy things and yelling at people. Nobody’s aware that it’s not a bum, nobody’s aware that it’s Andy Kaufman. He is enjoying himself. He’s entertaining himself. How brilliant a characterization can he do? It’s so full and so clean nobody can see past the edges, where the character begins and he ends.”
“I am not a comic,” Kaufman says soberly, working the vegetables. “I have never told a joke. I don’t even watch comedians nowadays. It’s hard for me to watch a stand-up. When I saw Richard Pryor at Philadelphia Hall in 1974, I couldn’t understand it. It was all over my head. I didn’t laugh once.
“The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him. I’ve never done that in my life. My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can.
“I can manipulate people’s reactions. There are different kinds of laughter. Gut laughter used to happen from what I did. Gut laughter is where you don’t have a choice, you’ve got to laugh. Gut laughter doesn’t come from the intellect. And it’s much harder for me to evoke now, because I’m known. They say, ‘Oh, wow, Andy Kaufman, he’s a really funny guy.’ But I’m not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads.”
There was a time when it was a snap, a time when a strange-looking creature in a Hawaiian shirt could perform on Saturday Night Live and do things with a set of conga drums and rhythmic gibberish that put people on the floor. There was nothing intellectual about that laughter. And although your gut hurt like hell afterward, still, it was a harmless laughter. Nothing like the sulfurous chortles that Tony Clifton and woman-wrestling have begun to evoke.
Andy says he’s lost respect for conventional television—even Saturday Night Live, because it takes no chances. It “ignores the theory of the accident,” in his words. If he had his own live show, well…
“I’d like to see a gang of people come on with guns and take over the show, like they did with a subway train in the movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I’d have debates with people who get into fist fights. I’d have a guy fall off the trapeze and get killed. Oh, first he’d get sent to the hospital, and then he’d die the next day. And people would say to one another, ‘Wow, did you see the Andy Kaufman show last night? Did you see the guy get killed?’” This is what Andy likes to call “going all the way.” Of course, no one would really get hurt. “But people would always wonder,” he says. “What’s real? What’s not? That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.
“Of course, with the wrestling, they know exactly what’s going on,” says Kaufman.
“They know they’re supposed to hate me. And I think they enjoy it.”
After his vegetables, after he has downed fifty vitamins one at a time, Andy feels like wrestling some women. He hauls our small party—my wife and me and his date, Jill, a street-talking blond who claims she once provoked Mick Jagger into hurling hot tea at a photographer—off to his old club, the Improv. He quietly asks the emcee, “Don’t introduce me as a comedian but as a professional wrestler, okay?”
The capacity crowd is well into late rounds of Millers and vodka gimlets, warming to Andy’s insults, hurling them back.
“I’ve proven it!” Andy is yelling. “The only thing women are capable of doing mentally is cooking the carrots, washing the potatoes …”
The beast has begun to snarl. Boo, get off.
“… Scrubbing the floor, raising the babies. Even the ones who scream [his voice is now a mincing whine], ‘Women are equal, women are smart,’ even they can’t do it. In sixty-five matches no woman has beaten me. Why?”
The room has become deathly quiet.
“They don’t have the brains, bay-bee. Okay, so I’m willing to offer fifty dollars to anyone who wants to come up and… .”
“Shaddap. Why don’t you come up here, bay-bee?”
When there are no takers, he waxes earnest. “This is not a fake, this is not a put-on. I’ve dedicated myself to doing this for the last couple years, and I’m serious about it, so… so if you’d like, any woman can try to win fifty dollars by pinning me in three minutes… Is there anyone? Whaddsa madda, ya chicken? This is not a joke, bay-bee. Okay, you, big talker. Come on up. I’ll take up to six women at once.”
Blow it out your ass, someone screams.
“Bwaaaaaaaak, bwaaaaaaaak.” He is clucking like a chicken, strutting up and down the stage, arms pinned back like wings. “Bwaaak-buck-bwaaak.”
Finally, a stocky blond breaks from her boyfriend and bounds onto the stage. “I’m from Pittsburgh, home of the Pirates and the Steelers, and I’m gonna wrestle yer ass,” she growls. Once a referee is drafted from the management, they hook up in a tangle of arms and hot-roller curls, tussling mightily on the hardwood stage.
C'mon, Pittsburgh. Kick him, bite him, choke him.
As he throws her down hard, screaming insults, a plastic ashtray sails over the crowd and cracks apart on the brick wall beyond Andy’s head.
“Who did that?!” he bellows, and turns his attention back to his opponent. “When I’m finished,” he pants, “you’ll go back to Pittsburgh, back to the kitchen, and you’ll be [whiny voice again] washing the dishes and peeling the carrots… .”
From our table, Jill, a former wrestling opponent with a fondness for sake, is yelling at the ashtray chucker. “I’m gonna kill the bitch who threw that!” she screams, struggling with my wife for possession of our ashtray.
Oh, God. Andy’s pink jacket lies like a dead flamingo in my arms as drinks crash to the floor. The crowd is on its feet, hot for blood, howling. Choke him. Kill the bastard. Thunderous booing indicates Andy has just pinned Pittsburgh. He fairly shoves her off the stage and saunters through the crowd, triumphant in his yellow flare-cut pants and undershirt, thumping his chest, banging into tables.
“Awright, once again I have proved there is no woman who can beat me. I got the brains… I got the brains… I’m the winnah… .”
They are booing louder, trying to shout him down, clawing at his shirttails, but he brushes them off like toast crumbs. Someone in the crowd starts a rival chant of Ali, Ali, Ali. Still his voice thunders: “I am the best… I’ve got the brains…”
And from the bar: “You haven’t heard the last from me, bay-bee.”
“Andy Kaufman, ladies and gentlemen,” soothes the emcee. “Andy Kaufman. And next week, Andy will be appearing at Madison Square Garden to benefit the ERA.”
“Gee,” says a woman at the next table. “Do you think he really will?”
So who is really crazy here? Kaufman, who is entertaining himself? Or his audience, which is paying to watch him entertain himself? Or does Kaufman just seem crazy because he’s trying to extend his ten minutes of not being funny into a twenty-four-hour day?
Sometime in the middle of Tony Clifton’s three-night run in San Francisco, I was awakened from an afternoon nap in my hotel room by the jangling of a telephone.
“Hi, it’s Andy,” a voice said sweetly. “My manager told me you were in San Francisco, interviewing Tony Clifton. How’s it going?”
“Where are you calling from?”
“Aren’t you coming up here?”
“Tony Clifton said onstage last night that he was going to sue your ass if you didn’t show your face here to prove you aren’t him,” I explained.
“Gee, I haven’t heard anything about that. I’d like to come up, but I have a date tonight with a cute girl I pinned at a mud-wrestling club last week.”
“Well, you’re really missing something. Tony’s been an absolute disaster. Last night he almost caused a riot. Someone threw a bottle.”
“Really? I can’t believe it. Are you sure it wasn’t his manager? Are you sure they weren’t putting you on?”
“Are you sure you aren’t in San Francisco?” I said, but there was no way I could get him to give in, to break character. For Andy to acknowledge the transparent Tony Clifton would have been to admit that it is all a joke, that laughter is what he is seeking. Andy isn’t in it for the laughs. Maybe that’s why his friend Robin Williams calls him the kamikaze comic:
“Kaufman’s like a squirrel going over the Grand Canyon saying, ‘Give up the nuts or die.’”