Andy KaufmanBorn on January 17, 1949, Andy Kaufman lived his life in the hazy borderland between comedian and performance artist. Throughout his career, he insisted that he was not a comedian, yet he staged most of his performances in comedy clubs and on comedic television shows.
While Kaufman is known primarily for comedy, his most lasting contribution grew out of his obsession with Elvis Presley. Kaufman first became infatuated with Elvis in the 1950s, and in 1969 hitchhiked to Las Vegas to meet the fat, drug-addled King. Unconfirmed stories hold that Kaufman hid inside a kitchen cabinet and popped out when Elvis wandered by, likely giving his bloated majesty a near-coronary.
Kaufman's fetish for Elvis manifested itself in his stage act. Starting in nightclubs and eventually continuing on to network television, Andy created an entirely new genre of hell for the American people: Elvis impersonation. He was the first person to publicly, and repeatedly perform in the garb and persona of Elvis Presley. Today, thousands of fat retarded losers follow in Kaufman's misled footsteps. Thanks, Andy.
In college, Kaufman began transcendental meditation, and found it to help relieve his stage fright. He meditated religiously before appearing on stage, and often attended transcendental meditation seminars. He graduated in 1971 with an associates degree in applied science.
Also in 1971, Kaufman began performing full time in New York and LA at various comedy and improv clubs. His act often caused his audience to become disinterested, rowdy, or to simply walk out in the middle of the show. Amongst his on-stage weaponry were such diverse elements as his Elvis impersonation, reading the Great Gatsby to the audience, singing 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall in its entirety, and impersonating a fictitious Las Vegas lounge singer named Tony Clifton. Generally speaking, Kaufman's act elicited nary a giggle from his viewers. So it was only natural that he moved on to Saturday Night Live, a show he helped send on its way to a 30 year career of overly long skits and unfunny catch phrases.
In September of 1978, Kaufman began playing the part of Latka Gravas on the ABC sitcom Taxi. His character was a variation on one of his stand-up routines. Latka was a foreigner in the Taxi garage and often induced some genuine guffaws. This foreign-accented character also made an appearance as a contestant on The Dating Game. (Latka was not selected by the bachelorette.)
That same month, Andy also began his National College Sex Concert Tour. The entire goal of this tour was to personally meet attractive coeds who had sent him fan letters, and fuck them in his dressing room. The colleges visited on this tour were specifically chosen to coincide with his epistle-authoring female fans. Those women that sent Andy pictures of themselves received thank you letters containing backstage passes and appointments for private meetings in the performer's dressing room.
When not humping young fans, Kaufman was frequently caught in scuffles with coworkers. While backstage at the Golden Globe awards in 1979, he was punched out by Taxi costar Jeff Conaway. In 1981, while hosting the ABC variety show Fridays, Andy and his castmates became embroiled in a fistfight at the end of his first episode. As if to make up for this, in the first show of the second season of Fridays, Kaufman's monologue centered on his newfound devotion to Christ. On tour in the Hamptons, Kaufman invited a number of relatives on stage to perform and received a distasteful response from the audience. He admonished the viewers, saying "You people are the reason everyone hates Jews."
Another of Kaufman's incendiary devices was his constant impersonation of Tony Clifton. Kaufman claimed to have discovered Clifton in Las Vegas in the early 70s, when in fact, he was Clifton... usually. Kaufman's best friend and longtime cohort, Bob Zmuda, traded off the role of Clifton and used the talentless lounge singer character to open Andy's stage shows, begin Rodney Dangerfield concerts, and take pot shots at the pair of them on talk shows. To his death bed, Kaufman insisted that Clifton was a separate person. Clifton, too, admonished the press for implying that he was not a real person.
While working on the set of Taxi, Kaufman negotiated a contract to allow Tony Clifton to appear on an episode of the sitcom. When Bob Zmuda showed up as Clifton to film said episode, his abusive behavior was so detested by the cast and crew that the episode was scrapped and Clifton was escorted off the premises by security guards.
In an effort to bring back the good old days of carnival wrestling matches, Kaufman began, in 1979, appearing at modern professional fake wrestling matches offering a reward of $1,000 to any woman who could pin him. Despite his smaller stature and the incredible bulk achieved by some of his impromptu competitors, Andy won often and declared himself the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion. In his efforts, he was never pinned by a woman, although a couple of them did achieve a draw.
Eventually, professional fake wrestler Jerry Lawler challenged Kaufman to a match. Kaufman not only lost the match, but was seriously injured by a piledriver, and spent the night in the hospital. In a subsequent appearance on the David Letterman Show, Kaufman was slapped out of his chair by Lawler. Kaufman's response was to threaten to sue Lawler and storm out of the studio.
It's still open for debate whether or not Lawler was in on the joke. Some argue that Kaufman wasn't even in on the joke. But no matter what, the audience was definitely left in the dark. This was Andy Kaufman's trademark. He made a career out of sending his audiences home questioning whether they had enjoyed themselves after his performance. His modus operandi was to push the comedic envelope to the point where his audience cringed. He was the genesis for future mooks, such as Tom Green. Unfortunately, Tom Green never treats his audience to milk and cookies after his shows—a tradition for Kaufman.
While home for the holidays in late 1983, Kaufman was taken with a nasty cough. He visited a doctor shortly thereafter and was diagnosed with inoperable and almost certainly fatal lung cancer. He began treatment for the cancer almost immediately, clinging to the slim chance that it might help force the cancer into remission. It is perhaps appropriate that many of his friends and admirers goaded him to "stop the charade" when they saw him in a wheelchair, bald from chemotherapy.
Despite his rebellious image, and his association with the cast of Saturday Night Live, Kaufman did not smoke or use drugs beyond high school. Many assumed that his cancer was the result of his nightclub days, reasoning that he spent a lot of the 70s breathing in secondhand smoke from comedy club audiences. Whatever the cause, Andy had lung cancer and it was quickly killing him.
After a few months of radiation therapy, Kaufman became desperate for any miracle cure he could find. He'd heard about the psychic healers of the Philippines, and left for Manila on March 20, 1984. He received treatments twice a day for six weeks from Jun Labo, a renowned psychic surgeon. While there, Labo ostensibly removed many large bloody clumps of tissue from Kaufman's chest, but this was nothing more than a classic con involving sleight-of-hand, a bunch of animal guts, and the desperation of a dying man.
Nevertheless, Kaufman felt better during the course of the treatment. Upon returning to the United States, he told a reporter: "The doctors don't know everything." But less than a week later, Andy's condition rapidly worsened. He was checked into a hospital and on May 16, 1984, Kaufman was pronounced dead from cancer. It was his last unfunny joke.
After Kaufman's death, Bob Zmuda appeared as Tony Clifton at a fundraiser to raise money for cancer research. The concert became a yearly event and today lives on as Comic Relief, just another piece of Andy's mammoth legacy of unfunny things.