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Creator / Andy Kaufman

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"I am not a comic, I have never told a joke. The comedian's promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him. My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can."

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 April he sold out Carnegie Hall for a one-night-only performance — one that famously ended with him taking the entire audience out for milk and cookies (and then continued the following day on the Staten Island ferry, for anyone still interested). But since his signature routines no longer had surprise value, he was developing increasingly experimental and controversial acts to supplement them.


In particular, 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. (He loved women, rather, and dated quite a few of his opponents, often using the matches to secretly flirt with them.) 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 even 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.note 

Over 1981-83, he frequently was in Memphis, Tennessee furthering his wrestling career via a lengthy feud with Jerry Lawler that initially climaxed 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 Kaufman and Lawler knew what was going to happen but they didn't tell anyone else besides Letterman what was in store — and he didn't reveal he was in on it for decades. 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 (his idea) banished him from SNL. While it was deeply damaging to his career, and Taxi was cancelled in early 1983, he continued to make Letterman appearances, wrestle, and so forth, even turning his rejection by the masses into new material for his act! But at the end of '83, he was diagnosed with a rare, inoperable form of lung cancer despite not smoking cigarettes. Because so much of Andy's career was based on tricking 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 occasionally performed 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 May, 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 to this day some 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 particular, he encouraged Elayne Boosler, who started her showbusiness career as a singer, to become a comedian instead during their early 1970s professional/romantic relationship.) For many of them, he is seen as an iconoclast who made comedy safer for experimentation. A "comedian's comedian", said Robin Williams, another friend and ardent supporter. Performers who are particularly in acknowledged debt to Kaufman include Tom Green and Sacha Baron Cohen.

On February 24, 2010, Andy Kaufman was declared the Patron Saint of Trolls by /b/ and Encyclopedia Dramatica. However, his sainthood has yet to be confirmed by the Catholic Church. In the meantime, he's been an inspiration for, or appeared in, several creative works:

  • "Man on the Moon": This R.E.M. song and subsequent video, originally appearing on Automatic for the People, invokes Andy to illustrate the song's theme of the tendency of people to wonder what is and is not real — such as the Conspiracy Theory that the 1969 moon landing was faked. The song became the title for...
  • Man on the Moon: A 1999 Biopic of Andy's career, featuring many actual costars and associates of his either as themselves or in Casting Gag roles, directed by Miloš Forman. R.E.M. themselves wrote the score, featuring another song inspired by Kaufman, "The Great Beyond". Kaufman was played by another admirer, Jim Carrey.
    • Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is a 2017 retrospective documentary about this film's production and the intense Method Acting Carrey used to play Kaufman (and Tony Clifton) throughout the shoot. Carrey felt this was the only way to properly honor Kaufman and his work and found the experience, while exhausting, both creatively and personally freeing.
  • Legends Of Wrestling II (2002) features him as one of the playable wrestlers, his Career Mode featuring his feud with Jerry Lawler.
  • The main character in Toni Erdmann (2016) is partially inspired by Kaufman and his Tony Clifton persona in particular (down to the name).
  • Is This Guy for Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman is a 2018 Graphic Novel biography by Box Brown.

"I'd like to trope you all out for milk and cookies":

  • 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.
  • Consummate Professional: Despite his chaotic reputation, Andy gave his all for TV and stage appearances, even if he didn't get along with his castmates or if the audiences were rude.
    • His colleagues on Taxi have said that he often wouldn't show up for rehearsals (having prearranged that in his contract), but when the time came to film the show in front of an audience, he was the only one of them who never forgot a line.
    • He and Bob Zmuda had a loose rule that Andy would give the "classic" bits in the first half of live shows (playing the congas, Foreign Man, Elvis, etc.) and do weird experimental stuff in the second half.
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • Documentary: 1989's Andy Kaufman: I'm From Hollywood, about his wrestling career — albeit with the catch that it doesn't break Kayfabe and only covers the first half of the Kaufman-Lawler feud. (He was actually working on it prior to his death, and his colleagues completed it later.)
  • Do Not Go Gentle: In his final months, Kaufman did everything he could to cure his inoperable cancer, and was still brainstorming ideas for new work, although he was generally too weak to perform.
  • Don't Explain the Joke: He strongly adhered to this trope onstage, and even in interviews he might half-explain what he was really up to at most.
  • Elvis Impersonator: One of the first! It was typically set up by an "impression" or two that would be simply him saying "Hello, I am [fill-in-the-blank]" and perhaps mangling their Catchphrase 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 — by 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, and some of his simpler early acts (most famously the lip-syncing routines like "Mighty Mouse") were developed then.
  • 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. Some believe that he actually faked faking his death, tricking the general public into thinking that he was faking his death, then making them wait 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.
  • Glurge Addict: He had a sentimental streak in his personal life that occasionally surfaced in his act. In particular, the Fabian song "This Friendly World", which he sometimes covered (most famously as the singalong finale of his ABC special) really was his favorite because he believed so much in its message. He also might be the only person to subvert It's a Small Ride. When he performed "It's a Small World" in his act, though the African drum troupe backing him would be completely poker-faced, his singing was only a touch exaggerated in its cheerfulness.
  • Granola Guy: Kaufman was a macrobiotic vegan and devoted to Transcendental Meditation, the latter of which he credited with both helping him both give up the drug and alcohol use he'd indulged in as a teen and find the focus he needed to become a professional performer. That said, he would break his veganism and eat meat whenever he was Tony Clifton because that character was not a vegan, and according to Julie Hecht's Was This Man a Genius? Talks with Andy Kaufman, whenever he went home to visit his family he would eat whatever his mother prepared him, vegan or no. He also had a serious Sweet Tooth, particularly for chocolate. Sadly, he was in effect excommunicated from the TM organization in 1983 due to higher-ups believing his public behavior reflected poorly on the faith.
  • Hates the Job, Loves the Limelight/Depraved Kids' Show Host: His Excited Kids' Show Host persona turned out to be bossy and contemptuous of his audience "off screen" — but 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 Michael 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 (successfully fooling, among others, David Letterman). Since Andy's death, Bob and other performers have reprised the role on occasion.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Real-life example: He had been afflicted with a chronic cough since the mid-1970s — it turns up in many of his talk show interviews. When it got so bad that he finally saw a doctor about it at the end of 1983, it turned out to be a symptom of his lung cancer.
  • Insistent Terminology: He never referred to himself as a comedian and disliked being called one, usually claiming he was a "song and dance man".
  • 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, who was ostensibly a Las Vegas lounge singer Kaufman did parodies of until Clifton caught on to what he was doing and, by way of reconciliation, Kaufman hired him as an opening act.
  • Manchild: Much the way many of his early stage routines originated when he was a child and teenager, he was prone to childlike mannerisms and stubbornness offstage, and sometimes on, if it suited his persona of the moment, despite his very adult intelligence and libido. Perhaps the most famous sequence of his 1977 TV special has him conducting a sincere interview with Howdy Doody, treating the puppet as seriously as he would any human subject.
  • Method Acting: Whenever he slipped into a persona, he absolutely refused to break character. The only time he ever did break character in public was during a 1982 interview with Orson Welles, and even then that was only because Welles saw through the bit (having seen Kaufman on TV already) and commanded too strong of a presence on his own to effectively sway. 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 could drive the people he worked with absolutely crazy. In fact, the cast of Taxi were practically murderous with anger when Andy showed up as Tony Clifton for the Season One Christmas Episode "A Full House for Christmas"; Tony's behavior was so bad they petitioned for Andy to be fired from the series (as they had secretly been told Tony was Andy). The producers managed to settle the issue by publicly firing Tony (security guards had to physically escort him off the Paramount lot) and ensuring that the character wouldn't make another appearance on the show.
  • Noodle Incident: Many assumed that Andy's eidetic (photographic) memory was thanks to his Transcendental Meditation, but Andy confirmed it was thanks to a bad trip on LSD when he was a teenager. He also claimed he saw the future during the trip, which severely freaked him out. "You're never supposed to see the future!"
  • Non-Specifically Foreign: "Foreign Man". Ostensibly he was from the island of Caspiar in the Caspian Sea — which has no islands of any kind. But then again, Foreign Man came to the United States after it abruptly sank!
  • 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).
    • He felt awful about how Heartbeeps turned out and told David Letterman he'd refund anyone who paid to see it in a theater. Letterman replied "Well, you'd better have change for a twenty."
  • 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 Also sprach 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 although the initial plan was to subvert this by having him turn up again after a little time had passed as a surprise, it was instead played straight and he never performed on SNL again (though a few weeks later a commercial he recorded asking New Yorkers to reconsider aired as part of Weekend Update). He might have been brought back for the Joan Rivers-hosted episode later in Season 8 — as she requested the producers do so — had he not been busy with the Broadway play Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap (a wrestling-themed comedy toplined by Debbie Harry) at the time; adding insult to injury, the play only had one official performance.
  • 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, as a member of manager Jimmy Hart's The First Family. Kaufman had wanted to work in the WWWF, but Vince J. McMahon didn't want anything to do with him. 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.
  • Refuge in Audacity: According to Andynote , Foreign Man AKA Latka Gravas was created when Andy he almost mugged on the street. Thinking fast, he started crying and rambling in a made-up language to make it seem like he was a foreigner who didn't have any money worth stealing. The muggers left him alone and his most famous character was born.
  • 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 DoubleVision, 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 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 but how much of this was ego and how much was just his eccentric nature is hard to fathom.
    • Zig-zagged with his day-to-day shooting on Taxi; Kaufman demanded he only work two days a week versus the five the rest of the cast did, but also that he only appear in half the episodes per season. He didn't want Latka to be overexposed, but his reduced schedule didn't make him any friends. On the other hand, Andy had an eidetic memory so he showed up not just knowing his lines, but everyone else's lines, meaning he only needed two days to shoot anyway thanks to the minimum of retakes. He also requested an hour and a half of meditation before shooting, which made him extra-focused.
  • 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 as a comedian so much as he did a "song and dance man," as he put it, and whatever the joke was, there was rarely a "punchline" per se. It should be noted that Andy really did live up to his "song-and-dance man" reputation, as many of his bits had a musical component to them, including but not limited to the Elvis impersonation, Tony Clifton, the Mighty Mouse gag, "The Cow Goes Moo", the conga drums, and the list goes on.
  • 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. This was all kayfabe, of course. In real life, Andy Kaufman proudly called himself a feminist.
  • Stealth Parody: Tony Clifton, but played to create a genuine target of hate more than a misaimed fandom.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: One of the few times Tony Clifton was on his best behavior was when he appeared in the 1982 Muppet special The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show — it was actually the last time Kaufman played the role. After they were done filming, Andy geeked out with Jim Henson over getting to work with Howdy Doody, and shared his heartbreak over initially getting sent Howdy's photo double and not the original puppet (according to Bob Zmuda, though his story has been disputed. Others say Andy happily used the photo double for rehearsals because he did not want to spoil working with the actual puppet before the cameras rolled).
  • 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.
  • Super OCD: Andy had a number of quirky habits he absolutely refused to break, like waking up at 11AM every morning, never using the same toothbrush twice, and always boarding an airplane with his right foot. When Andy was really sick with cancer, Bob Zmuda saw Andy board a plane with his left foot and knew then that he was a goner.
  • 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.
  • 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 as long as they react.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Tony Clifton; not only is he a Jerkass, but he was created on the premise that (as expressed in Man on the Moon) "everybody loves a villain".
  • The Unwitting Comedian: Kaufman occasionally would subvert this trope, most famously in an appearance on David Letterman's original morning show in which he came onstage disheveled (complete with a runny nose), claiming to have fallen on hard times due to both a drop in gigs and a divorce. When the audience, catching on to the fake sob story, laughed he chided them for doing so; he ended the segment by going into the audience to panhandle — and he actually made a few bucks before stagehands led him away.
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Invoked with the Foreign Man's voice; in a 1982 interview he did with Orson Welles, notable for being the only one he ever did in earnest (rather than continuing a preexisting bit), Kaufman revealed that the voice was an amalgamation of two former classmates, one from South America and another from Iran.
  • Worked Shoot: They're not just for wrestling! He is effectively the pioneer of the trope, thanks to the confrontation with Jerry Lawler on Late Night with David Letterman in particular.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: In a 1982 set he performed for the Catch a Rising Star comedy club's 10th anniversary show, he did his Foreign Man/Elvis act...but with one of the "audience members" (actually Bob Zmuda) reciting the act along with him until Kaufman got distracted and they got into an argument. The audience member accused Kaufman of resorting to his old material because nobody liked his newer stuff and his career was circling the drain, even pointing out that Kaufman (due to a receding hairline) now had to use a wig for the Elvis act, and finally revealing that Kaufman planted him in the audience to heckle him, and thus make everyone else feel sorry for him. In the TV edit of this segment, there is an abrupt cut as the "argument" reaches a fever pitch before skipping ahead to the Elvis number, deliberately leaving it unclear how it was resolved.