About Andy (Please see the Timeline page for a fuller list of biography)
“About” is designed to give you more of a flavor of Andy, beyond the events discussed in the Timeline. He loathed the word comedian, since his aim was not to go for the laugh. Rather, he wanted to get you emotionally involved, regardless of which emotion. Though he was aware that his routines most often created uproarious laughter, to be labeled a comedian would be misleading and limiting for him. Andy’s art was not obvious, it was multi-dimensional; Andy operating on a different level than most of us. After his death, almost immediately people started referring to him as a “performance artist”. Andy liked “song n dance man”. His brand was such that the term “KAUFMANESQUE” is often used today to refer to a performer, or even situation, which falls outside the norm; where you wonder if what you just saw is real or not; serious or not…
- We had to wait a while before we ever heard Andy’s real voice. Whether he was lip-synching “here I come to save the day”, doing an Elvis impersonation, crying in rhythm to the conga drums, or playing mean while pounding on the conga drums, or speaking in his sweet “Foreign Man” voice, we didn’t know what Andy’s natural voice sounded like. Yes, his original routine was the innocent and lovable “Foreign Man”. And just when you were resigned to writing off “Foreign Man’s” “tellible” “emeetations” and jokes, he would bring down the house with his Elvis Presley. From there he could take different directions. One direction was to pretend to be upset that his jokes were not going well, and he would start to cry. However, the conga drum was conveniently placed whereby he would accidentally hit it. His crying got more emphatic, his hand kept hitting the conga, and before you knew it, he broke into song playing the conga drums. Or Foreign Man would tell you he’s like to play a song, on his conga drums, that they play in Caspiar every year at harvest time. The song got dramatic, as Andy added different voices, none in English, of a female, and a mean man who made the girl cry, all in good fun, which led to Andy dancing out of control and getting a stomach ache, and finally ending with the Andy singing “Alouette” and the audience joining in on cue.
- Foreign Man was such a great character that, after the producers of an upcoming television show Taxi saw it, Andy agreed to bring it to Taxi as Latka Gravas. Andy was on Taxi all 5 years. Andy’s agreement is that he was only in approximately one-half of the episodes. In addition, he negotiated that he only had to come to work on Tuesdays and Fridays, the latter also being the day they filmed. Andy had a photographic memory and would generally know his “lines” on the Friday night that he received the script, one week ahead of time. Andy did not want to be tied down and be committed to a 5 day a week job. He wanted to have the time to continue doing more creative things, like Carnegie Hall, Friday’s, national tours performing at colleges, and to stay grounded, by working as a busboy every Monday night. The producers and writers took advantage of Andy’s talent as they gave him multiple personalities for a period. Whether he became a playboy or imitated another actor in the show, the audience did not know who Latka was going to be from moment to moment. This was fun for Andy and good for Taxi and its ratings. One more noteworthy item Andy negotiated: He got his protégé Tony Clifton (pronounced “alter ego”), a recurring role on the show. However, Tony was uncooperative, unruly, and got fired. Thus, we never see Tony on an episode of Taxi.
- Tony Clifton – Allegedly while Andy went to meet Elvis Presley in Las Vegas in 1969 he saw a “B” lounge entertainer. We do not know how obnoxious or untalented this entertainer was, but Andy was intrigued. Andy got enough inspiration to create a character that he would adopt. His make-up became more elaborate over the years, and the audience had no idea it was Andy. Tony was obnoxious, smoked, but he was also vulnerable, clean, and quite entertaining. Andy always denied being Tony Clifton. When he was told that Tony was being fired by Taxi, Andy said he understood but to be gentle telling Tony, as if Tony was another person. When Tony appeared on Dinah! and committed a terrible act, cracking an egg over the head of the beloved Dinah Shore, Andy knew nothing about it. January 29 – 31, 1981 Tony opened for Rodney Dangerfield at the Warfield Theatre, San Francisco. The audience grew more hostile each night. By the third night Tony began his performance behind a net, expecting to be bombarded by objects from the audience. After hard objects, such as fruit, went through Tony had to put on a helmet. Still concerned, he sang his last couple of songs from the offstage wings.
- Intergender Wrestling Champion: Andy loved wrestling and felt it was the greatest form of drama. He knew he couldn’t beat a man in wrestling, so he wrestled women. If he was merely interested in winning, it would have been boring. To make it interesting, he took on the “bad guy” role, a role he so much admired in his childhood idol, Buddy Rogers. At the risk of alienating his fans and ruining his career, he placed his art above those considerations, being the heel to the anger and rejection of many. This became part of his act, including it on his national tour, where he offered any woman who could beat him a cash prize, which grew over the years. After his first match on SNL, where he defeated a volunteer from the audience, a second match was scheduled. Rather than wrestling a volunteer from the audience, a national competition was held, with the winner facing Andy on SNL. The prize: $1,000 plus Andy would have his head shaved bald. He won, to the dismay of the audience. He upped the winnings even further on the professional wrestling circuit in Memphis: Still $1,000, still get his head shaved, but he added that he would marry the winner. After beating six women in one night in Memphis, he gave a rematch to one a few weeks later, which he won. After Andy was acting rude to the woman, the “King” of Memphis professional wrestling, Jerry Lawler, pushed Andy. This led to drama with Jerry Lawler and Andy taunting each other and a match between the two took place on April 5, 1982 in Memphis. Andy ended up in the hospital after Mr. Lawler gave Andy a pile driver, an illegal hold. See “The Slap heard ‘round the world” for more on Andy and Lawler and their famous Letterman appearance. Andy retired undefeated as Intergender Wrestling Champion. The only time he ever lost, was when he made a late-night impromptu hospital visit to a pen-pal fan who was dying from cystic fibrosis in Indiana. He let a couple of nurses defeat him that evening.
- Andy Kaufman: Yes, Andy even said that this was a character. “Andy Kaufman” sang “A Cow Goes Moo” on SNL. On other occasions, when “Andy Kaufman” told intentionally not funny jokes, he went into his bombing routine, pretending to be upset and cry, only to rescue it with the Conga drums as he did with Foreign Man. “Andy Kaufman” appears in all of Andy’s specials.
- TV Specials
- Andy’s Funhouse: The network was scared to put it on tv for 2 years, because it was avant-garde. How? He starts the show by telling us that he spent all the money, that there would be no show, and just awkwardly sits there, silent. He has a “Has-Been Corner” segment, which creates a few awkward moments with the has-been. He messes with the vertical hold, so that people at home wouldn’t be sure whether it was Andy or their own television causing the malfunction. He does the classically worst, but entertainingly fabulous interview with his guest, Cindy Williams. He did his phenomenal Elvis rendition. He only had genuine respect for one person the entire show; he was most endearing to Howdy Doody. Respect for the inanimate may have gotten him roles as a robot on the “Stick Around” pilot and the movie “Heartbeeps”. As he would close all his concerts, he closed this special with the song “Friendly, Friendly World”. In the 90-minute version, Foreign Man reviews the show pointing out the highs and lows. This is refreshing. He also tells us that Foreign Man is really him, and that the character “Andy” is just a character and is not real.
- Uncle Andy’s Funhouse: This was a pilot Andy made in 1980 for Buckshot. He recreated a scenario that would routinely occur for real while growing up under his parents’ roof. That is, he would be performing in the downstairs den and his parents would have to yell down repeatedly, for Andy to come up for dinner. In this segment, he is dancing with the Playboy Playmate of the year, something he could have been fantasizing while younger, but now it was true. His parents, played by his real parents, exasperatingly yell for him to come to dinner. Andy also introduces two characters he created, in the form of puppets he paid for to have made for the show; pathetically sweet Knuckles and obnoxious Tony Clifton. To Andy’s prerecorded voice, the puppets fight with each other, synced to the tape.
- The Andy Kaufman Show for Soundstage: After all the negative feedback from wrestling and otherwise, Andy wanted to return to more endearing, yet unpredictable, performances. He begged one of his dearest and closest of friends, Elayne Boosler, to write the show with him. The show started “already in progress”. He had the “Has-Been Corner” like he did on Andy’s Funhouse. For Soundstage he added the “Going Too Far Corner” where his guest went too far in his raw egg consumption. He interviewed Elayne, his desk being at least eight feet higher than hers. Andy does a classically awful interview, but hilarious to watch. It included a personal conversation, that should have taken place off air, and resulted in Andy and Elayne getting into a verbal fight. His co-host is a marionette of his alter ego, Tony Clifton. Andy ends the show, with a revealing, but not, conversation between sweet Foreign Man Andy and mean Tony Clifton-like Andy. And his goodbye song, “it’s time to go”, is poignant considering he would be gone less than one year later at age 35. The show was unpredictable, hilarious and yes, more endearing than Andy had recently shown.
- Letterman: Andy was on David Letterman’s morning show 10/15/80 and on his late night shows 11 times. Andy and David were a great match: David gave Andy leeway to create and Andy was grateful for the latitude given. Some examples were Andy singing “Rose Marie” in a turban and diapers while playing the guitar (11/17/1982); bringing his parents and phoning his grandma to tell them each that he loved them (1/7/1983); he made fun of how guests promote their current movie, Andy showing a clip of “The Big Chill” – a movie that Andy was not in (11/17/1983); bringing his supposed three adopted children to the couch to be part of the interview (9/22/1983); bringing wrestling great Freddie Blassie on the show and embarrassing Freddie by a ridiculous rendition of “Jambalaya” (2/23/1983); and of course the night that professional wrestler Jerry Lawler slapped Andy out of his chair (7/28/1982).
The Slap heard ‘round the world 7/28/1982: Andy’s fascination with wrestling evolved from being the “Intergender Champion of the World” to wrestling men, most notably the King of Memphis Tennessee, Jerry Lawler. After Mr. Lawler encouraged Andy to put him in a headlock, April 5, 1982, the result was that Mr. Lawler used an illegal hold on Andy, a pile driver, and was disqualified. Technically Andy won the match, but he was carried out on a stretcher and spent three days in traction in the hospital. Nearly four months later Andy was still wearing the neck brace and wanted Lawler to apologize. Things get heated during the interview, resulting in Lawler slapping Andy off his chair. Andy goes into a cussing tirade. Was it real?
- Fridays: Andy hosted ABC’s weekly late-night live comedy show on 2/20/1981. From the opening monologue, he appeared uncooperative, testing the boundaries and the patience of the director and producers. As host, he wouldn’t introduce the commercial and dared the producers to come on stage and make him. In a solo sketch he exaggerated squinting, making it obvious that he was reading the cue cards, and then lost control and feigned that he could not continue with the sketch. He ruined the sword swallower’s trick resulting in fake blood. By the last scene, whereby he breaks from the script saying that he “can’t play stoned”, it is believable that the director has had enough and gets into a fight with Andy. Was it real? The following week Andy was asked to read a message revealing that the “fight” was all planned. However, during the reading he broke from the script and took blame for instigating the fight. Was this real? He hosted the show again on September 18, 1981, a new man. He introduced his fiancé, Kathie Sullivan, who saved him from his downward spiral and converted him to a born again christian. Dressed in suit, clean shaven and well groomed, he sang a duet with Kathie and a solo gospel song later. Was it real?
- Other Notable Television Appearances
“Saturday Night Live” (SNL): Andy and SNL had a great history together. Andy was a guest on the inaugural “SNL” on October 11, 1975 and 3 of the first 4 shows. His 14th guest appearance was on 11/20/1982, the night the audience voted him off the show. His performances included lip synching to “Mighty Mouse”, “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Old MacDonald”. For the latter Andy invited members of the audience who each had to be a different animal. Andy also performed: “Foreign Man” (including the “bombing” routine for one of the appearances); Elvis; read the Great Gatsby to a chorus of boos and gladly played the “musical record” the audience agreed to, which was a recording of Andy reading the Great Gatsby; wrestled a woman volunteer from the audience; and a second time wrestled the winner of a national female wrestling competition; sang Oklahoma and his own “Cow Goes Moo”; was voted off the show 195,544 to 169,186…
Andy appeared on Wolfman Jack’s “Midnight Special”. On 3/4/77 he sang a song he wrote, “I Trusted You”, whose lyrics contained no more than the title, repeating and repeating with varying emotions and emphasis. Hilarious! He hosted the show on 1/23/81, showing the audience many of his routines. On 3/25/81 he introduced Tony Clifton.
Bananaz 3/14/78: While a guest was being interviewed Andy would appear and the audience erupted into applause, but interrupting the interview. Andy would take his bow and leave. Moments later, Andy came back while the same guest was being interviewed. Again, big applause. Again, Andy bowed and left. As Andy kept repeating this, it wore thin on the guest, resulting in the guest finally erupting himself, and chasing Andy all around the set. Great fun to watch.
“Dating Game”: Andy appeared as contestant #3, Baji Kimran, on the “Dating Game”, in 1978. This was Andy’s “Foreign Man” character, that he also portrayed as Latka Gravas on “Taxi”. Though Baji’s episode aired in November, it was taped in August before Taxi ever aired. Thus, the bachelorette could not have recognized “Latka”. The bachelorette did not
pick Baji. In fact, after the show the bachelorette was picked up by her mother, who asked “how do you like the date you picked”? She replied, “well at least I didn’t get #3”.
- Theater Specials
Carnegie Hall & Huntington Hartford
Andy had epic shows at Huntington Hartford Theatre in LA, December 15 & 16, 1978 and Carnegie Hall April 26, 1979. In each show he had Tony Clifton open for him. Knowing that the audiences were convinced that Andy was Tony Clifton, he had Tony do an encore, singing a duet together with Andy. How’d he do that if they’re the same person? In each show he had the “Rockettes”, who were not really, and in each show he had the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir”, who were 150 black gospel singers. Santa Claus made a grand entrance for each show. In each show he wrestled a woman, only to be beaten by an irate man (though after Andy got hold of a can of spinach he was able to defeat the man to the tune of Popeye the sailor man). In each show he gave his Elvis impersonation. And in each show, he took the entire audience out for Milk n Cookies. For the 2nd show at the Huntington Hartford, Andy proved “the show must go on” doing so with 105-degree temperature, after which he was admitted to a hospital with infectious hepatitis five days later. After the Carnegie Hall performance, which was later shown on Showtime, Andy invited all who showed up for milk and cookies to the Staten Island Ferry the next day: 300 showed up and he bought ice cream cones for them all. Robin Williams helped serve milk and cookies in LA, and he was onstage for the entire Carnegie Hall show: Robin was dressed, and behaved, as Andy’s grandmother. This was before Mrs. Doubtfire.
When not onstage: Andy’s theatre was not confined to the stage and cameras. He loved going to Coney Island amusement park and riding the big roller coaster, the Cyclone, again and again and again. However, when you saw him walking away after the ride was over, he would be crying. He loved getting the onlookers to make fun of him. He would play the ball toss games in a sort of tough guy Tony Clifton persona, only to be awful. He loved having the onlookers laughing at him, especially when his girlfriend would leave him for not winning a prize. He loved walking out of restaurants with his napkin still tucked in his pants, so that he could see the variety of reactions of the servers. These are just a few…