Early Years – Birth through College:
Andy Kaufman was born Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman 1/17/49 in New York, eldest son of Stanley and Janice and older brother to Michael and Carol. When Andy was barely 9 months old, Janice discovered that the budding “Song n’ Dance Man” loved to prance around his crib bouncing to music. She conveniently set a Victrola record player outside the slats, with the tone arm/needle resting on the arm rest and the record spinning. Seemingly by accident, Andy knocked the tone arm off the arm rest, and it fell on the spinning record, thus producing music. Andy was happy and this became a regular routine for mother and son. Dancing to music continued as a favorite past-time and fodder for material for his career, as he took his portable record player on stage and television.
In 1953, in his own bedroom, while other children were outside playing, 4-year-old Andy started his daily “tv” broadcasts to the imaginary audience in the wall. It included action, drama, silent movies to name a few, which aired on his own “Channel 5”. His concerned parents eventually forbid him from performing to an imaginary audience. In 1956, shortly after his sister was born, Andy would prop her up on his bed, thus qualifying as his audience.
On March 5, 1955 Andy complained that he was not feeling well. After his mother put a thermometer in his mouth, Andy secretively put it under hot water. Success! Andy was able to stay home and watch his favorite Saturday night television shows rather than having to travel with his parents to a family wedding in New York City.
Not long after professional wrestling was first broadcast in 1956, coincidentally on WNYW “Channel 5”, seven-year-old Andy discovered it while turning the tv dial, manually surfing through all 7 channels. He was instantly fascinated by it! Using a twin size bed’s mattress as the wrestling ring mat, he and his younger brother of two years, would imitate what was on TV. One night, after Andy instructed his brother to put him in a headlock, Michael twisted, and Andy ended up in traction for three weeks.
In 1957 Andy began working as an entertainer at children’s parties. Barely older than the children he was entertaining, he was more in “tune” with how to please them…magic tricks, games, 16 millimeter films given to him by Grandpa Paul, playing musical chairs as he would strum on his ol’ guitar. Andy had written a song, “Strummin’ on me ol’ Geetar”, which he recorded with Grandpa Paul in a phono booth at an indoor amusement park, Kiddie City in Douglaston Queens NY.
In 1959, Babatunde Olatunji visited Andy’s elementary school, which inspired Andy to learn to play the congas – mostly self-taught.
By 1963 Andy began writing; poetry, short stories, plays, novels. Writing the poems was not satisfying enough. He needed an audience to hear his feelings of young love and his rejection of social niceties. He sought out and took mass transportation to the audiences at coffee houses in Greenwich Village. He completed his first, and still unpublished, novel, “The Hollering Mangoo” at 16. Andy continued as an author until after he got cancer and could no longer continue writing, 12/7/1983.
Though not interested in athletics, nor athletically gifted, he did excel in a few areas. His 35 chin-ups set the school record, finished 4th out of 461 in cross country, showed promise in wrestling (but scholastic wrestling was the wrong kind) and showed signs of excelling at swimming if he pursued it. Forced by his parents to be in little league baseball, he disinterestedly played right field, absorbing the beauty of the big, green trees…which were behind the right field fence…with his back to home plate.
Andy was also not interested in what they were teaching in high school. Apparently, he received more satisfaction creating his own world, including his creative written expressions. He spent many afternoons alone in the downstairs family den, door closed, music blaring, honing his Elvis skills, playing the steel drum, bongos, conga drums and the like. At a parent-teacher conference in his junior year, a teacher told Andy’s mother that the only reason that she was “passing” Andy was that she did not want to take a chance that he would be in her class again if he had to repeat the course again. It came as no surprise that, after graduating Great Neck North High School in 1967, Andy did not proceed to college. He took one year off, staying active by driving for a delivery service, driving a Taxi, washed dishes, and even bussed tables.
In 1968 Andy enrolled at Grahm Junior College where he would receive an A.A.S. in Television Performance. He also started Transcendental Meditation (TM) in December that year. Andy attributes TM for giving him the confidence and focus to succeed as an entertainer. While at Grahm Andy completed his second book, “God”, in 1969. It was published in 2000. In the book Andy’s admiration for Elvis Presley is obvious. At Grahm, Andy hosted the popular “Uncle Andy’s Fun House” on the school’s closed-circuit television station, WCSB-TV. Andy graduated from Grahm in May 1971.
Graduates College – Performs in NYC
Andy started performing in clubs in 1972, including My Father’s Place in Roslyn, NY and Pips Comedy Club in Sheepshead Bay, NY. He also made his first television appearance in 1972, being interviewed and performing as Elvis as a guest on “Kennedy at Night”. In 1974 he made his first national television appearance, performing “Mighty Mouse” on “Dean Martin’s Comedyworld”.
In 1973 he started “working out” at Rick Newman’s “Catch a Rising Star” (Catch) and the NYC “Improvisation” (the Improv), co-founded by Budd Friedman and Silver Saunders Friedman. Andy was a regular at each club, every night until he moved to Los Angeles in 1975/76. Both clubs were a perfect match with Andy – for everybody: Andy, the Clubs and the AUDIENCES! By the way, more often than not, Andy worked at three clubs every evening.
Shortly after the Friedman’s opened the LA Improv they offered to pay Andy’s expenses for one month to help get the club off to a great start. Andy saw the potential for his career was better in LA, as it was gaining momentum.
Prior to moving to LA Andy was a guest on the inaugural “Saturday Night Live” 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. Andy’s brand and SNL’s were a beautiful match, as SNL provided Andy with a playground to give many iconic performances. (See more SNL in “About”)
Moves to LA
Andy’s lesser known television appearances, not covered elsewhere on this site, included:
1974: Joe Franklin
1976: Monty Hall’s Variety Hour
1977: Mike Douglas (and 1978), Dinah! (and 1979), Midnight Special (and 1981), Stick Around (pilot), Hollywood Squares, Redd Foxx
1978: Variety ’77, Bananaz, Dating Game, Dick Clark
1979: Cher, Lisa Hartman, Tomorrow Tom Snyder (first time wrestling a woman on national television), Good Morning America, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, Johnny Cash Christmas
1980: Merv Griffin (and 1981,1982)
1981: The Slycraft Hour, Good Morning America (and 1982), An Evening at the Improv (Host), 1981: The Year in Television
1982: John Davidson Show, Hour Magazine, Fantastic Miss Piggy, Catch’s 10th Anniversary
1983: Up Close with Tom Cottle interview, Continental Wrestling Association – 8 times, Superstars of Comedy Salute the Improv, Rodney Dangerfield: I Can’t Take It No More
1984: The Top
During the years above Andy was very active with live performances, Taxi, SNL, David Letterman, and others, covered below and in the About tab.
From 1976 – 1978 Andy appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”. Andy appeared four times, twice with the King of Late Night tv and once each when Steve Allen and Steve Martin were hosts. After Andy performed, Johnny invited Andy to sit on the couch to talk, the cherished sign of approval for new “comedians”.
“Van Dyke and Company” 1976: Originally appearing as Foreign Man in a Fonzie look-alike contest Andy would make weekly “unscheduled” appearances to “interrupt” a skit. It was a big hit and Andy got to show many parts of his routine in his 10 appearances.
He filmed the “Andy Kaufman Special” for ABC in 1977. It originally aired for 90 minutes, in 1979, and reruns were 60 minutes. Much of the inspiration for the special came from his wildly popular “Midnight Snacks” shows, which took place in early 1977 at 2:30 am at the Improv on three successive Saturdays. (See About)
On the HBO “2nd Annual Young Comedians Special” in 1977 Andy comes out as Andy, and bombs saved by the conga drums. He shows off great talent on the congas together with a great proficiency in his foreign man dialect as he sings a song sung every year in the Caspian Sea. We are also treated to a classic Tony Clifton; an early Tony Clifton, before Andy had professional make-up.
Andy continued working out at “Catch” and the NY “Improv” on his trips back to NY after he had moved to LA. When in LA, Andy was a regular at the LA Improv (seemed like it was Andy’s second home) and made frequent appearances at the “Comedy Store” for several years.
Andy played Latka Gravas, the mechanic on the hit sitcom “Taxi” for its entire 5 years, 1978 – 83. This role was inspired by Andy’s “Foreign Man” character made popular in the clubs. (See more in About)
Andy had epic shows at “Huntington Hartford Theatre” in LA, December 15 & 16, 1978 and “Carnegie Hall” April 26, 1979. In each show he wrestled a woman, only to be beaten by a man (though after he got hold of a can of spinach he was able to defeat the man to the tune of Popeye the sailor man). In both shows he gave his Elvis impersonation. In each show he took the entire audience out for Milk n Cookies. (See About to appreciate more)
In 1980 Andy made a pilot for Buckshot, titled “Uncle Andy’s Funhouse”. (See About for details)
Andy played the part of televangelist Armageddon T. Thunderbird in Marty Feldman’s “In God We Tru$t” in 1980.
Andy preached atop a “soap box” in London’s Hyde Park to help rehearse for the role. The audio he left behind from Hyde Park sounds very much like Armageddon T. Thunderbird.
Andy co-starred with Bernadette Peters as two robots who fell in love in the 1981 “Heartbeeps”.
Andy appeared 3 times on Fridays in 1981: February 20 and 27 and again on September 18. See the “About” section for more on these iconic appearances.
Andy was on “David Letterman’s” morning show 10/15/80 and on his late night shows 11 times. Another great match. David gave Andy leeway to create and Andy was grateful for the latitude given. Some examples were Andy singing in a turban and diapers, bringing his parents on the show to tell them each that he loved them, bringing his supposed three adopted children to the couch to be part of the interview; and several more including the night that professional wrestler Jerry Lawler slapped Andy out of his chair (read more about the slap in “About”)
Andy’s final “special” was done for PBS Soundstage, “The Andy Kaufman Show”, in 1983. (See About for Details)
In 1983 Andy appeared on Broadway playing the referee in “Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap”. It closed on opening night.
Andy co-starred with Freddie Blassie in the unscripted “movie”, “My Breakfast with Blassie”. Filmed in 1982, it premiered in NYC at the end of 1983 and had its grand premiere on 3/20/84 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, Andy’s last public appearance.
Andy’s last TV appearance was host of “The Top”, 1/26/84. As host, he introduces Cyndi Lauper to the world.
Andy Kaufman’s death from lung cancer at the age of 35 shocked and stunned many. His apparently sudden, dramatic and final departure from public life on May 26, 1984, was met with sorrow and disbelief. In keeping with his persona and outrageous performance antics, the disbelief surrounding Andy’s death took on a life of its own, perpetuating his legacy in a unique way. Speculation surrounding the possibility that Kaufman staged his own death continues today as a popular legend.
Performance Artist Shortly after Andy died we started hearing Andy being referred to as a performance artist. Many saying the first performance artist. We still hear this today.
KAUFMANESQUE: Though not yet in Webster’s, it seems a new word was made to describe Andy’s brand: Kaufmanesque. Was that for real? Was (s)he kidding?
Esquire Magazine, 11/1/1984, ANDY: A farewell to Andy Kaufman—by one who shared the ride
Museums: Circa 1990 Andy was the exhibit at Long Beach Museum of Art, Walker Arts Center Minneapolis and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts
REM song Automatic for the People 1992 “Man on the Moon”. Closed most of their live performances with this song.
1995 “Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman” hosted by Marilu Henner and Bob Saget was nominated for an Emmy in the category “Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special”
Andy had a vision to make a documentary about his dancing in the world of wrestling, both as Intergender Champion as well as against men. “I’m From Hollywood” was produced after his death.
“Man on the Moon” – Andy’s biopic, starring Jim Carrey. Andy’s granddaughter, Brittany, played Andy’s baby sister Carol.
Appeared in a 2010 Super Bowl commercial along with a select few iconic moments in television history. His performances have also been acknowledged in many “all time bests”, like TV Guides 2003 “100 Moments that Rocked TV”. He was included in Johnny Carson’s elite scrapbook shown on his last show, was presented several times on David Letterman’s finale, and has been included in all three SNL Anniversary shows - #15,25 and 40.
Andy has been an integral part of a major university’s Philosophy course in which they have used Andy’s “God” novel as part of the course.
Maccarone Gallery devoted their entire space to a 6-week exhibit, “Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman”, 1/12-2/23/13. This was concurrent with “Andy Kaufman’s 99cent Tour” which had 10 shows ending 2/24/20 at Participant gallery in NYC.
Andy has had a dedicated spot at the Jamestown NY National Comedy Center since its inception, 2018.
In June 2019, Andy became a Walk of Fame honoree in the class of 2020.
Museum of the Moving Image had an exhibit, true to Andy’s spirit, on 12/14/19, “I Trusted You: Andy Kaufman on the Edge of Performance”, by Brian Hubble.
Three books have been published from Andy’s writings: “The Huey Williams Story”, 1999; “God…and other plays”, 2000; and “Poetry and stories…”, 2000. Since being published, Andy’s words have come to life. For example, a three-page untitled short story written on 3/19/74 has been made into clever and entertaining animated cartoon in London; and a play “Bohemia-West”, written in January 1964, became a musical play in Providence, RI.
Books about Andy include: The phenomenal Bill Zehme’s 1999 biography “Lost in the Funhouse”. Box Brown did an excellent job on his 2018 graphic novel “Is This Guy for Real?”. “Was This Man a Genius?”, Julie Hecht, 2001.
Books that include Andy: “Shirley, I Jest!”, Cindy Williams, (2015); “Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy”, David Robbins (2011); “Comedy at the Edge”, Richard Zoglin (2008); “Extreme Exposure”, an anthology edited by Jo Bonney (2000); “Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance”, Philip Auslander, (1992); “The Last Laugh”, Phil Berger 1985; “Funny People”, Steve Allen, 1981
Andy Kaufman Award (AKA) has selected 11 with that honor since 2004. There have been hundreds of alternative comedians, performance artists that have entered in Andy’s spirit. Previous winners have been Kristen Schaal, Reggie Watts, Nick Vatterott, Harrison Greenbaum, Harry Terjanian, Marcus Monroe, Brent Weinbach, Blaine Kneece, Dru Johnston, the late Suzanne Whang was the inaugural champion and Brett Davis is the most recent champion.
Originally spoken to AKA semifinalists, eventually entire audiences were given Andy’s advice in a tunnel analogy: “You’re on a railroad train, you go through a tunnel. The tunnel is dark, but you’re still going forward. Just remember that. But if you’re not gonna get up onstage for one night, because you’re discouraged or something, then the train’s gonna stop. You’re still in the tunnel, but the train’s gonna stop. So you have to just keep going…it’s gonna take a lot of times going onstage before you can come out of the tunnel and things get bright again. But you keep going onstage – go forward! Every night, you go onstage.”