Andrew Geoffrey "Andy" Kaufman (January 17, 1949 — May 16, 1984) was perhaps the most eccentric performer to emerge from the comedy scene of the 1970s. Born and raised in Great Neck, Long Island, Andy was something of a gadfly. As he began to stake out a career as a professional entertainer in the early 1970s, he unveiled a colorful variety of strange acts on the comedy club circuit. Some were simple routines he conceived as a child, others were... more complex; all were based on defying audience expectations. One signature routine worked as follows: When Andy appeared on stage he was already in character as "Foreign Man", stumbling through weak jokes and wretched impressions in broken English, to the audience's displeasure since they did not know this was a character. But then came the last impression, "de Elvis Presley". Revealing that his suit was a disguised Elvis outfit, the resultant serious, extremely accurate impression was enough to bring the audience to their feet. To their applause, the Foreign Man reverted back to his "normal" voice — "Tank you veddy much." — and the act ended. (And this was in the days before doing an Elvis impression had become a cliche. Reportedly, Elvis Presley himself thought Kaufman's was the best he had seen.)
Andy's big break into the mainstream came as a special guest on the first Saturday Night Live in 1975, where he performed a childhood routine: simply standing next to a record player playing the Mighty Mouse theme song and doing little other than standing there nervously until each appearance of the line "Here I come to save the day!", which he would grandly lip-synch. Over the years Andy made many guest appearances on SNL, usually adapting his stage material, ranging from further Foreign Man exploits to a "serious" reading of The Great Gatsby. The unifying thread of these acts was a total commitment to his chosen character, no matter what reaction he got, so long as a reaction was evoked. This commitment often extended to his offstage behavior as well.
In 1978, Andy embarked upon his biggest mainstream success, the ensemble sitcom Taxi, where his Foreign Man character had been developed into the mechanic Latka Gravas. The following year he sold out Carnegie Hall for a one-night-only performance, but his work was becoming more experimental and controversial since his signature routines had lost their surprise value. In his stage act, he challenged women to wrestle him, virtually always pinning them and proclaiming himself "The Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion Of The World". He, in fact, played the Heel so well — professional wrestling was one of his great lifelong passions because of Kayfabe — that audiences believed he actually was a sexist pig (in truth, it was one heck of a way for him to break the ice with women). His alter ego Tony Clifton, a repellent Lounge Lizard who had to be treated as a separate entity from Andy, caused almost as much trouble. He arranged with the producers of Fridays, another sketch comedy show, to completely derail it the night he hosted in February 1981. In a sketch about a double-dating couple sneaking off to the bathroom to get high on marijuana, Kaufman stopped the sketch by saying, "I can't play stoned," which angered Michael Richards and embarrassed Maryedith Burrell and Melanie Chartoff. After Michael Richards takes the cue cards and throws them on the table, Kaufman hurls a glass of water in Richards' face. One of the stagehands tells Kaufman to back off and do the sketch, but Kaufman punches the stagehand in the face and the entire sketch degrades into a fight that turned out to be an elaborate pranknote .
Kaufman's attempts to break into film boiled down to one word: Heartbeeps.
Over 1981-83, he frequently was in Memphis, Tennessee furthering his wrestling career via a lengthy feud with Jerry Lawler that culminated in a brutal match where Lawler appeared to break the taunting Kaufman's neck with repeated pile drivers. The feud gained national attention in '82 when the two appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, ostensibly to make up. To the shock of many, including Dave, Jerry smacked Andy (wearing a neck brace at the time) out of his chair; Andy responded with a barrage of obscenities. This would now be called a Worked Shoot, as only Kaufman and Lawler knew what was going to happen, but most viewers had little if any idea of the concept then. Many fans and wrestlers of that era and otherwise feel that Kaufman missed his true calling and that he always should've been involved in professional wrestling because of how innately he understood the business. By the end of '82, Andy was so unpopular that a viewer vote banished him from SNL.
He continued to make Letterman appearances, wrestle, and so forth until he was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer at the end of '83 despite not smoking cigarettes. Because so much of Andy's career was based on tricking his audiences — and he had considered faking his death, to the point where his best friend Bob Zmuda mentioned he was almost obsessed with the idea — many people did not think he was actually dying. He continued to perform while battling the disease, shocking fans with a gaunt appearance. Despite everything from radiation therapy to healing crystals and "psychic surgery", he apparently died the following year, age 35. Having always claimed that if he faked his death he would return 20 years later, many fans eagerly awaited 2004 in hopes of The Reveal of the ultimate Kaufman prank. Sadly, he has yet to resurface, but some still insist that He's Just Hiding!.
Andy Kaufman's life and work, Taxi excepted, is still argued about. Haters think he was self-indulgent and perhaps insane. Lovers think he was as close as comedy will come to Dada. Though he claimed not to be a comedian (he usually referred to himself as a "song-and-dance man"), he was often friendly with those who were; in turn, he is seen as an iconoclast who made comedy safer for experimentation. A "comedian's comedian", said Robin Williams, a friend and ardent supporter.
In 1992, the R.E.M. song and subsequent video "Man on the Moon" invoked Andy to illustrate the song's theme of the tendency of people to wonder what is and is not real (i.e. the Conspiracy Theory that the 1969 moon landing was faked). The song became the title for Man on the Moon, the 1999 Biopic of Andy's career in which he was played by Jim Carrey, another admirer (with R.E.M. themselves writing the score, featuring another song inspired by Kaufman, "The Great Beyond").
The work of Andy Kaufman provides examples of:
- Affectionate Parody: Some of his spoofs of children's entertainment.
- All Part of the Show: The eternal question he asked of his audiences was whether what he was doing at any given moment was this.
- Alter-Ego Acting: Virtually every appearance he made.
- Anti-Humor: A significant portion of his work is this.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Foreign Man's language.
- Audience Participation Song: Many, ranging from the self-penned "The Cow Goes Moo" to the Fabian song "This Friendly World".
- Author Appeal: Elvis, children's shows, wrestling, and so forth.
- Bad Impressionists: Foreign Man, most of the time.
- Becoming the Mask: According to Bob Zmuda, Kaufman (who was in real life a shy, sensitive vegetarian who never smoked, drank or anything) would become Tony Clifton for as much as a week straight without rest, going around having anonymous sex, getting drunk and basically reveling in the character's persona.
- Broken Record: "I trusted you, I trusted you, I trusted you, I trusted you..."
- Character as Himself: Tony Clifton, to the point that Man on the Moon billed him as such.
- Cloudcuckoolander: He rarely appeared as his actual self on TV, stage, etc., but by all accounts, he really was this in Real Life.
- Crying Wolf: According to Bob Zmuda, there were fans who saw Andy as he was wasting away from cancer who outright told him what a great gag he was playing...
- Dada: Probably the best overall description of his work, defying any attempt to glean sense from it.
- Dead Air: Andy Kaufman's first appearance on Saturday Night Live was supposed to invoke the TV equivalent of this: He stared at the camera for an uncomfortably long moment, then turned on a recording of the Mighty Mouse theme song, and lip-synched the line "Here I come to save the day!" and nothing else. As Lorne Michaels later said in an interview: "The humor wasn't that he was lip-synching the Mighty Mouse Theme; the humor was that he only lip-synched one part of it, and the rest of the time he was just patiently waiting for his cue."
- Dead Artists Are Better: Averted. While his early death undoubtedly added to his legend — especially among fellow comics — unlike many performers whose lives were cut short his reputation didn't go up appreciably with the general public after his death. His work was just too divisive for that. To compare a comic or comedic work to what Kaufman did is not so much to call it brilliant as polarizing: Tom Green, Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, etc.
- Don't Explain the Joke: He strongly adhered to this trope.
- Elvis Impersonator: One of the first! It was typically set up by an "impression" of Jimmy Carter which was simply him saying "Hello, I'm Jimmy Carter" in the same Foreign Man voice, then blowing the audience away by how good an impressionist he could really be.
- Excited Kids' Show Host: One of his personas was Type 1 (treating his adult audience as if they were children); he actually worked as an entertainer at birthday parties as a teen and hosted a children's TV show in college.
- Faking the Dead: It was long rumored that Kaufman faked his death in 1984 as part of the ultimate practical joke against society. For the 20th anniversary of his death in 2004, collaborator Bob Zmuda staged his "return" with a series of live appearances (himself in Tony Clifton's costume) and internet postings. One theory exists that he actually faked faking his death, tricking the general public into thinking that he was faking his death, then waiting for the punchline that had long since passed them by.
- In the dedication to his tell-all biography of Kaufman, Zmuda wrote: "Andy, if you're alive, I'll kill you."
- Funny Foreigner: Foreign Man/Latka Gravas of course, but also British Man, who was responsible for those lengthy Great Gatsby readings.
- Granola Guy: Kaufman was a macrobiotic vegan and into Transcendental Meditation.
- It's been acknowledged that while Kaufman was a vegan, he would eat meat when he was Tony Clifton because that character was not a vegan.
- Hates the Job, Loves the Limelight/Depraved Kids' Show Host: His kiddie show host persona turned out to be bossy and contemptuous of his audience "off screen", though it's suggested in the 1977 special and his Soundstage episode that he's just jaded after all these years and not a bad person at heart.
- Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Averted with Tony Clifton; the hatred he engendered wasn't because he couldn't hit notes, but because 1) his voice was nasally, to begin with, and 2) he was an aggressive Jerkass. (Andy probably knew that he had to avert this trope to maintain the fiction that Tony was a real lounge performer.)
- Identity Impersonator: He had friends and even his brother pose as Tony Clifton so they could appear together. Eventually, he handed the role off to colleague Bob Zmuda but let people believe it was him under the costume and makeup. Since Andy's death, Bob and other performers have reprised the role on occasion.
- Impersonation Paradox: His take on Elvis (though Elvis himself loved it).
- Incurable Cough of Death: He had been afflicted with a cough since the mid-1970s; when he finally decided to see a doctor about it, his cancer was diagnosed (the disease caused the cough).
- Kayfabe: Andy's fascination with this was just one reason he loved wrestling, and he applied it to the rest of his work as well.
- Lounge Lizard: Tony Clifton.
- Method Acting: Whenever he slipped into a persona, he absolutely refused to break character. Of particular note was Tony Clifton, whom Andy treated as an entirely different individual and was even given contracts that were separate from Andy's. This drove the people he worked with absolutely crazy. In fact, the cast of Taxi were practically murderous with anger whenever Andy showed up as Tony Clifton and they petitioned for Andy to be fired from the series. The producers managed to settle the issue by publicly firing Tony (security guards had to physically throw him off the set) and ensuring that the character wouldn't make another appearance on the show.
- Non-Specifically Foreign: "Foreign Man."
- No Sense of Humor: Part of his schtick was to play dumb whenever someone told him a joke, claiming that he had no idea what the other person was talking about.
- Old Shame: His appearance as Tony Clifton on Dinah!. Kaufman got too drunk before shooting, and as a result, he reportedly felt really embarrassed about how he acted on set (though arguably, it added more to his character)
- Overly Long Gag: He was renowned for holding a beat until his audiences were squirming in their seats waiting for him to do something to break the tension. In fact, some of his gags could last months and there are people who sincerely believe that his death is the longest gag of them all.
- When transforming into Elvis, he would comb his hair with three different combs as "Thus Spake Zarathustra" swelled to its climax.
- One of his most famous "routines" involved him simply reading from The Great Gatsby at length, until the audience couldn't even tell if it was supposed to be a gag or not.
- Persona Non Grata: Several stars have been banned from Saturday Night Live over the years, but Andy is unique in that his ban was his idea. Because of the controversy around his women wrestling stint, he suggested that SNL viewers phone-in votes for or against banning Andy from the show. The majority picked banning, and he never appeared on SNL again.
- Playing the Victim Card: His wrestling heel persona was as a deluded Smug Snake would-be wrestler, who would bait better wrestlers into kayfabe injuring him, and then play the victim and try underhanded ways to get revenge on them.
- Professional Wrestling: Had a famous feud with Jerry Lawler in Memphis.
- Several people who were involved in the business at the time, including Bobby Heenan, said that Kaufman's true calling was that of pro wrestling heel, rather than a mainstream actor.
- Self-Deprecation: A key theme of his 1983 PBS Soundstage special was how hated he was by that point in his career; one whole segment is based around him getting arrested and banished to an island for "going too far". In the end, via Double Vision, Foreign Man confronts Andy and points out that "you've not only ruined your career, but you've ruined my career too" — and winds up reducing him to tears.
- Small Name, Big Ego: This was key to Tony Clifton's persona; he claimed Andy was using him to get places. This was also key to Andy's Heel persona, especially when he took it to Memphis and constantly bragged about his Hollywood stardom and superiority to the "hicks" of the deep South. The real Andy did have a lot of quirks and demands that could make him difficult to work with, particularly where Taxi was concerned (oh, the hijinks when Tony Clifton was supposed to be the guest star one week in lieu of Andy), but how much of this was ego and how much was just his eccentric nature is hard to fathom.
- So Unfunny, It's Funny: The patron saint of this trope. Kaufman didn't consider himself a comedian, so part of the humor of his "stand-up" involved the audience, expecting to hear or see something funny, waiting impatiently for a joke that would never come or a punchline that made no sense. A particularly memorable example involved him coming out onstage at The Comedy Store with a camping stove, a pot of water, three small potatoes, and a sleeping bag. Without saying a word, he boiled the potatoes, ate them, rolled out the sleeping bag, and "slept" for 20 minutes before leaving the stage.
- Stand-Up Comedy: Kind of? It's a commonly applied label to his act, but only because there was really no other frame of reference for what Andy was doing. As mentioned above, Andy didn't think of himself so much as a comedian as he did a "song and dance man," and whatever the joke was, there was rarely a "punchline" per se.
- Stay in the Kitchen: As a wrestler, he egged women to fight him by claiming they were a weaker and dumber gender that was fit only to do this.
- Stealth Parody: Tony Clifton, but played to create a genuine target of hate more than a Misaimed Fandom.
- Subverted Kids Show: Several of his stage routines and specials invoked this trope, most famously his 1977 hour-long ABC special...which wasn't aired for two years because the network was scared by how strange (if benignly so) it was: the host continually vacillating between Excited Kids' Show Host and Hates the Job, Loves the Limelight, the screen dissolving into static at one point, the sincere interview with Howdy Doody, etc.
- Take That!: My Breakfast With Blassie, his indie film lampooning another indie film, My Dinner with Andre, which Andy viewed as achingly pretentious.
- Take That, Audience!: Tony Clifton would berate and even outright verbally abuse his audience at the slightest provocation.
- The Trickster: Andy's modus operandi.
- Troll: As noted, several of his acts hinged simply on pissing off his audience. Basically, if you didn't understand what he was doing, the joke was on you.
- Trolling Creator: Practically his entire shtick. Easy to invoke when you don't care how people react to your work.
- Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Tony Clifton; not only is he a Jerk Ass, but he was created on the premise that (as expressed in Man on the Moon) "everybody loves a villain".
- Worked Shoot: They're not just for wrestling anymore!
Tank you veddy much.